Weekly Torah Commentary — Yom Kippur September 13, 2013

This year, Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Hebrew Calendar, falls on Shabbat. Therefore the reading is the one designated for the Day of Atonement which the following verses describe:

“In the tenth day of the seventh month, you will afflict your souls and do no work… for on this day he [the priest] will atone for you to cleanse you from all your sins before the Lord, and you will be clean. It is a Sabbath of rest to you, and you will afflict your souls and any work you will not do … and he [the priest] will atone for the holy sanctuary and the tent of meeting and the altar and for all the people … to make atonement for the Israelites from all their sins once in a year.” (Leviticus 16:29-34)

Let’s look at certain words in this passage.

The first is “afflict”. The traditional interpretation of this word is “to fast” and therefore, Jews around the world undertake a complete fast from sundown to sundown – no food or water. However, it is important to note that The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Tanach translates the same word as: “to submit to, bowed down, weak, humiliated, castigate oneself.” We conclude, therefore, that just the physical act of fasting must be accompanied by a submission of heart to the Holy One of Israel; an attitude of humility and deep repentance for the thoughts, words or deeds of the past year that have been ungodly, unrighteous and offensive both to God and to our fellow man. Support for this approach to Yom Kippur fasting is found in the prophet, Isaiah, who wrote:

“Behold, on the day of your fast you find your desire,and drive hard all your workers.
Behold, you fast for contention and strife and to strike with a wicked fist.
You do not fast like you do today to make your voice heard on high.
Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed and for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed?
Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the Lord?
Is this not the fast which I choose, To loosen the bonds of wickedness: To undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke?
Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into the house;
When you see the naked, to cover him; and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”
Isaiah 58:3-7

Fasting is not prescribed simply to make us miserable or hungry. It is not an exercise in discipline for its own sake.
The purpose of our fasting is to draw us aside from daily life to face ourselves – truly face ourselves – with no excuses, no rationalizations; to stand humbled before the Holy One of Israel and acknowledge our desperate need for His forgiveness and His cleansing of our souls. Those transgressions that we ‘swept under the rug’ during the year, the resentments or jealousies we have refused to deal with in our hearts, these we can no longer avoid in the holiness of Yom Kippur. We must stop pretending, fooling ourselves or rationalizing. THIS is the moment of truth.

Secondly, it is called a day of rest. At first glance, doesn’t it seem a bit contradictory that on this day of earnest soul repentance and fasting, one should at the same time be told that it is a day of rest?

Unresolved conflicts within the mind, unconfessed sin, feelings of guilt, suppressed anger and the like all work together to give us anything BUT rest. There is a weariness of soul that no amount of sleep relieves. On Yom Kippur, we are commanded to ‘rest’ from the internal battles, the anguish of guilt, the burden of un-confessed sin, the worries and anxieties of daily life that seek to weaken our faith, by approaching our God with contrite hearts, true humility and repentance.

Yom Kippur is a GIFT, not a burden. “And this shall be a permanent commandment for you; in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall humble yourselves and not do any work; whether the native or the alien who dwells among you; for it is the Day that Atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you; you shall be clean from all your sins before the Lord. It is to be a sabbath of solemn rest for you; that you may humble your souls; it is a permanent commandment.” Lev. 16: 29-31

At sundown Saturday night, according to the words of Torah, God promises us that we will be completely cleansed in His presence IF we have humbled ourselves. Of all days of the year, this is THE day to ‘get real’, as the saying goes. No more hiding behind excuses or rationalization, no more justifying our ungodly thoughts, words and deeds. This is the day to come clean before God, receive His gift of atonement and rejoice in His unfailing love.

In Tune with Torah this week: May we all be sealed in the book of Life and may our appreciation of the goodness of our God reach new depths as we embrace His unfailing and abundant love towards us. May you experience a deeper ‘rest’ for your souls than you have on any other Shabbat.

Gmar Hatima tova!

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