by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – September 16, 2010
In Vayikra 23:27, G-d informs the people of Israel, “On the tenth day of this seventh month [Tishre] shall be a day of atonement, a holy convocation shall it be unto you.” And, unlike Sabbath, no part of Yom Kippur is reserved for enjoyment. G-d commands us, “You shall afflict your souls.” Our Sages explain in the Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 73b that on Yom Kippur one is forbidden to engage in eating, drinking, bathing, oiling, wearing shoes and cohabitation. However, affliction of our bodies does not demand endangering our bodies. Consequently, to merely protect the feet, we are permitted to wear non-leather shoes (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayyim 614:2). “And you shall engage in no labor” (Vayikra 23:28). Just as it is not a day for pleasure, so it is not a day for work “for it is a day of atonement to atone for you ” (Ibid.). Yom Kippur is reserved for atonement. Yom Kippur is a holy day specially designed for us to review our deeds and attitudes over the past year.
The entire Yom Kippur services are saturated with sections in which we confess our misdeeds such as the long confessional of Al Chet and the shorter confessional of Ashamnu. Immediately before Kol Nidre, we recite Tefilla Zaka in which we say: “Master of all the world. Father of mercy and forgiveness whose right hand is stretched out to receive the repentant. You have created man so as to bestow good upon him at his end. You have created two inclinations in him – the good and the evil – to grant him the freedom of will to choose between the two, and to grant him good as is stated in the Book of Devarim, ‘See I have set before you this day life and good and death and evil…therefore choose life’ [30:15-19]. And now, my G-d, I have disobeyed You and have followed the advice of my evil inclination and the ways of my heart. I have spurned the good and chosen evil. Therefore, may it be Your will, O L-rd, our G-d, that the fast of this holy day of Yom Kippur, may it come upon us for good, be an atonement for all our iniquities.” This excerpt from Tefilla Zaka sums up our obligation on Yom Kippur. On this holy fast day of Yom Kippur, we are obligated to recall and confess our iniquities. But our Sages have declared that this is insufficient. They inform us: “If one says I shall sin and repent, sin and repent, no opportunity will be given to him to repent” (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 85b). We cannot merely state our iniquities and mechanically recite a number of prayers, and, thereby, expect forgiveness. We must resolve to alter our ways, and do all that is in our power to obey the will of G-d. We must resolve to cease the desecration of the Sabbath. We must resolve to cease the consumption of forbidden food. We must resolve to recite the requisite blessings upon all food that we consume. We must resolve not to neglect prayer. We must resolve to do so, and we must actually do so. Failure to relinquish our iniquities and failure to devote ourselves wholeheartedly to the ways of G-d will only lead to endless suffering. If, however, we sincerely repent and seek atonement for our wrong-doing, the benevolent G-d will grant forgiveness. It is in this light that we read the story of Jonah towards the end of the Yom Kippur services, during the Mincha prayer.
In the Book of Yonah, we read, “And the word of the L-rd came unto Jonah…Arise, go to Nineveh…and call unto it for their wickedness has risen before me” (Yonah 1:1-2). In response to G-d’s behest, “Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the L-rd and he went down to Jaffa and he found a ship going to Tarshish…and went down into it to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the L-rd” (Yonah 1:3). In turn, “The L-rd sent out a great wind into the sea…and the ship was ready to break” (Yonah 1:4). Finally, Jonah’s fellow passengers come to the conclusion that they have no choice but to throw overboard the cause of the danger. “And they took up Jonah and cast him forth into the sea and the sea ceased from her raging” (Yonah 1:15). Then, while Jonah is helpless within the sea, “The L-rd prepared a large fish to swallow up Jonah and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” (Yonah 2:1). The Al-mighty G-d miraculously produced a gigantic fish in which Jonah could stay until he would consent to do G-d’s will, and, in the meantime, he would be safe from drowning. Subsequently, Jonah consents and is squirted out of the fish onto the dry land. After being shown the miraculous and superior power of the omnipotent and omniscient G-d, “Jonah arose and went into Nineveh according to the word of the L-rd…and said ‘Another forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown'” (Yonah 3:3-4). In response to this grave warning, the until then wicked people of Nineveh undertake to repent. The king officially proclaims, “Man and beast, cattle and sheep…shall not taste anything, they shall not feed, and they shall not drink any water. And they shall be covered with sackcloth…and they shall cry mightily onto G-d and let them turn every one from his evil way…And G-d saw their actions that they repented from their evil way and G-d relented of the evil that He had said that He would do unto them” (Yonah 3:7-10).
Like the people of Nineveh, we practice evil ways throughout the year – evil towards others and evil towards ourselves. We practice ways that lead to our own eventual destruction and to everlasting suffering. We neglect the path paved for us by G-d – a path that leads to everlasting bliss. However, like the people of Nineveh, it is in our hands to prevent our eventual suffering. G-d gives us the means to repent from our evil ways.
In his famous ethical and philosophical text Chovot Ha-Levavot 7:4, R. Bachya ibn Pakuda clearly delineates what constitutes repentance: (1) One should regret his evil deeds. (2) He should abandon his evil deeds. (3) He should then confess and ask forgiveness for his sins. (4) Finally, he must pledge not to repeat his sins.
It is never too late to repent and one is never too far gone to repent. In fact, when Jonah protests G-d’s acquiescence towards Nineveh, a city of people who had for so long wallowed in iniquity, G-d sharply rebukes Jonah, “Should I not spare Nineveh, that great city wherein there are more than 120,000 persons?” (Yonah 4:11).
If one wishes to avoid eternal spiritual suffering, Yom Kippur, our day of atonement, is the time to resolve to cease our iniquities and to begin to act in the ways of G-d. If we do this, Yom Kippur will mark for us a good year and a blissful eternity. And we should not give up hope. We the people of Israel consist of much more than 120,000 individuals. We will surely be forgiven for all our misdeeds, as were the people of Nineveh. There is but one condition. We must repent – sincerely. Only then can we await everlasting reward. Only then can we await everlasting bliss.