By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
I often feel depressed when we get close to Yom Kippur, just knowing I’m going to be spending such a somber, sad day. Also, I feel like a rat because I have done so many things wrong that I feel like it’s chutzpah to even ask God for forgiveness. I would appreciate it if you could provide me with some insight that would make the day a little more palatable for me. L’Shanah Tovah.
Wow. If I thought Yom Kippur was a solemn, sad day that I just needed to live with for 25 hours, I would be depressed as well! It’s just that I don’t see it as a sad day at all; there’s actually a lot of room for joy on Yom Kippur, as we will see. Perhaps it is a different kind of joy than we’re accustomed to, but joy it is, nevertheless.
Let us look at the laws that are unique to Yom Kippur (aside from the laws which apply to every Shabbat and to Yom Kippur as well). There are five areas we are to refrain from: eating, drinking, marital relations, wearing leather shoes and bathing or applying oils on our skin for pleasure. How are we to understand these laws? Is God out to get us or to cause us pain?
The early commentaries explain that it is quite the opposite. On Yom Kippur the gates of Heaven are opened and the Al-mighty uplifts all those who are connected to Yom Kippur to their ultimate spiritual heights. Our tradition teaches that we become on that day like angels in Heaven. In the deeper sources it is said that we, for a day, actually enter a higher realm similar to that of Olam Habah, the next world. Maimonides writes, “Olam Habah has no eating or drinking; the righteous are sitting with their crowns upon their heads and basking in the bliss of the Divine Presence.” This means that in the next world the righteous will become like angels who have no need for physical food or drink. The “crowns” are their spiritual heights and connection to something higher; their sustenance to remain alive is the direct connection to the Al-mighty’s presence.
My mentor, Rav Shlomo Wolbe, ob’m, often said this statement of Maimonides about the world to come is also an apt description of Yom Kippur. It is a day in which we refrain from food and drink because we, as “angels for a day,” simply have no need for physical sustenance and other mundane pleasures. We, rather, spend the day in the very deep and profound joy and bliss of basking in the presence of the Al-mighty, whose presence is very palpable on that holy day.
That elevated state of consciousness and closeness to G-d is precisely what stirs us to teshuvah, the thoughts of repentance. When He brings Himself so close to us, we are ashamed of our wrongdoings and perform the confession (vidui), and resolve to improve ourselves. Rav Wolbe emphasized that the only time one should feel any sadness or remorse during Yom Kippur is when you are reciting the confession. The rest of the day is, as we said above, a time to feel deep and profound joy in the spiritual heights of this special day and in our close connection to the Al-mighty.
No matter how much you may have done wrong, God doesn’t want you to live in the past but to focus on a better future. That’s why it is misplaced chutzpah to think you can’t ask for forgiveness; that’s precisely what God is waiting for! His hands are stretched out, just waiting to embrace you. All you need to do is jump into the embrace and receive the immense love that He’s waiting to bestow upon you. Just tell Him that you want that connection and that love from here on, and you have it!
May you and all of us merit to connect to Yom Kippur on the deepest level — one that will grant us an eternal connection and a sweet New Year, with peace in Israel and for all of klal Yisrael throughout the world.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at email@example.com.