An attempt to understand how to live a modern Yom Kippur must start with some very ancient ideas. In particular, I believe we must start by focusing on the meaning of two ancient words: kaper כפר and avon עון.
Kaper is first used for Noach’s Teva (Ark). It is the pitch that seals the water outside the boat. It prevents the water from rushing in and sinking the ship. With this simple physical allegory in place, let’s imagine Kapara as sealing something in a spiritual sense.
Avon is first used earlier, in the story of Cain. Cain commits a sin (a chata חטא). He then worries that the weight of avon עון will burden him. He won’t be able to carry the weight of the sin he committed. Avon, then, is a second-stage of sin. Not the act itself, but the spiritual impact.
Combine these two terms and we can have a simple sense of Yom Kippur: we are sealing our souls against the impact of our sinful acts.
But what are ‘sinful’ acts? To understand, let’s return to basics. In the beginning, G-d creates. Each of his creations is called “good”. But not all. Heaven, Shabbat and Night are not good. And Man is only ‘good’ with caveats. That is because Heaven, Shabbat and Night are not themselves involved in creation and man is not acting as a creator in the image of Hashem. Heaven, Night and Shabbat are static. That static sense, that sense of existing beyond time, is Kadosh קדוש. As Night is not intentionally static, it doesn’t rise to Kadosh. But the other two, in their times and places, do. In all of Chumash, though, Holiness and Goodness never overlap. The closest they get is the building of the Mishkan with Mamlechet Kedusha (Holy Work). That is it. Otherwise, work and change and creation is entirely separate from Holiness.
It is really a beautiful concept. In a world with one G-d, we still have a fundamental system that allows for balance and limits the idea of extremism. In some ways, we must fulfill two contradictory duties in our imitation of G-d.
That said, these two ideas do cycle. Creation leads to Holiness. Holiness enables Creation (through blessing). And holiness can only exist in an atmosphere without risk and loss (evil). This is what we call tahor טהר or ‘purity’. Exposure to destruction or even just the loss of potential (in its many forms) is tumah טמא. It makes Kadosh – the timeless state – impossible to achieve.
Tumah might be entirely outside our control. But, sometimes, we cause it. When the brothers of Yosef come to him after Yaacov dies, they make a specific request: “forgive the trespass of your brothers, and their chata, for the evil they did to you” (Gen 50:17). This is almost a definition. Chait is an act of evil. It is an act of destruction (or waste). It damages the connection to forever.
Our initial definition of the day was: “we are sealing our souls against the impact of our sinful acts.”
With this bit of extra I would add: “we are sealing our souls against the impact of our destructive acts so that we can experience timeless Kedusha.”
The Sacrificial Rituals
Going back to the sacrificial rituals defined in the Torah, there are three major activities:
- Azazel עזעזל
- The entering of the Holy of Holies
- The sin offerings of atonement and purification of the altar
Az-Azel is the simplest of the activities. There are two goats. Goats represent the Jewish people and our rambuntious nature. We sacrifice one goat to Yud-Kay-Vav-Kay – the eternal G-d of past, present and future. We burden the other goat with our acts of destruction and send it to AzAzel. The name literally means Goat (Az) of Disapppearance (Azel).
The core concepts are all in here. Holiness is forEver, acts of destruction are forNever. By symbolically sending our acts of destruction to forNever, we protect our souls from them.
But there’s another message. Both goats are sacrificed. Both goats die. That is our reality. But when we die, we can either be a part of forEver or a part of forNever.
Through the very act of internalizing this idea, we connect ourselves to forEver.
Sin Offerings & Purification
The third aspect of the service (we’ll get to the second soon) is actually far more complex symbolically. But it builds on common symbolic language of offerings. Laying of hands on the animal is in some way transferring one’s self. The offering of a bull represents a nation (which is why leaders use it). The goat represents the Jewish people.
If we step back once more into definitions… we have adam אדם who plants (representing will) and adama אדמה which yields fruit (actualization). One is the masculine form of the other – giving one of the ways in which male and female are symbolically applied in Torah. But דם (blood) comes before ADam – it is even more core. It is defined as the nefesh נפש of all basar בשר – the physical soul of all meat. It is also plural outside the body and singular within. I think that in the body it represents some unified, singular, thing. It represents identity. When it is spilled it no longer holds that power. (Interestingly, the blood is not plural in a sacrifice. The animal retains its identity – and remains a carrier of the identity of those who sent it. That identity isn’t destroyed by the death of the animal.)
When we look at various tellings and versions of the sin offering process, many versions have the dam placed on the karnot קרנות (horns) of the altar. Karnot famously come up in the story of the Akeidah when the ram is trapped by its horns. They share, in my opinion, the symbolism of the shofar. They represent the fear of G-d. So when our identity is given (נתן) to the karnot, it is dedicated to the fear of G-d. This makes sense for most sin offerings. But the offerings on Yom Kippur (and the inauguration of the Mishkan) are a bit more special. In this case, the blood is sprinkled (Hizah הזה). It is a weird word as it doesn’t really come up in other places although its letters are everywhere (hazeh, or ‘this thing’).
A finger is used to apply the blood in both cases. Normally, fingers are used to represent craftsmanship. Think of the ‘finger of G-d’ with the plague of the lice, or writing the luchot. In Isaiah, we read or even the idols made with people’s own fingers (“Their land is full of idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their fingers have made.”).
However, sprinkling implies a lack of control. It is like the bells on the robe of the Cohen. It can’t be controlled by us. This sense of a loss of control is also part of the lots used to choose the goat for AzAzel. We have to trust G-d to select the right goat. When we sprinkle with our fingers we express a desire to craft a relationship with Hashem, but also an awareness that we actually need divine help to do so correctly. The execution isn’t really up to us.
We submit our will to G-d while understanding that our will is limited.
Now think about an act of destruction threatening to burden your soul? You correct by looking forward. By saying “I sinned, but I am dedicating my identity to the Fear of G-d.” But you also correct by recognizing that you need G-d’s help to make this an effective reality.
Almost like the Serenity Prayer we are saying “God, grant me the serenity to seal off the damage I cannot control.”
Purification of the Altar
The second half of the offering process is somewhat more unusual. The altar is purified by sprinking this same blood. We all know the song on Yom Kippur – Achad v’ Achad, Achad v’Shtayim…. By dedicating our identity to the altar (the tool by which we connect the physical and the spiritual) we can cleanse the altar from our sins. It doesn’t get a Kapara, it gets purified from our destructive acts.
Why would our sins make the altar impure? Perhaps simply because offerings have to be brought – and sacrifices made – because we sin. So how can this sin offering repair that? Perhaps it is just that this sin is general and not specific. No specific sin leads to it. Instead, it represents just our desire to fear G-d and our awareness that we need Hashem’s help to build that bridge. Those ideas are by their nature pure and purifying and so the effect of the sins of the people are erased by them.
Put another way, a sin offering is purifying but the need for it is caused by particular sins. In this case, that specific cause is removed and so the effect if entirely purifying.
Entering the Holy of Holies
Let’s roll back now to the second thing Aaron does. That is, he enters the Holy of Holies – the place entirely beyond time that never changes. He is entering forEver. He brings incense because we can’t comprehend such a reality without being destroyed by it. My cousin used to warn me that when I did acid I had to never lose track of the reality of time. Otherwise, I’d never emerge from the trip (this was advice I’ve never had to put into practice). While incense normally represents the emotional power of scent – here it is about sight. A cloud is created; the timeless reality is obscured. Then Aaron sprinkles the blood. As with the blood on the altar, our identity is dedicated. This time it is dedicated to the Kaporot of the Holy of Holies. Note the reappearance of that word: Kaporot. Yom Kippur can be a day of atonement, but it can also be a day dedicated to these ‘covers.’
So, what is Aaron doing? I think he is dedicating our identity to the protection of the presence of the timeless divine. We are dedicating our identity to protecting it from the damage that can be brought on to it by sin and destruction.
The Ritual Summarized
After we recount this process, we sing Ma’areh Kohen. The Kohen returns and his face is alight. He has achieved Kapara. Really, he has done three things:
- He has protected the people from their sins (through AzAzel and the sprinkling of the sin offering blood on the horns)
- He has purified our bridge to the spiritual world represented by the altar (sprinkling that same blood on the altar)
- He has protected the presence of the timeless divine in our world (sprinkling that blood on the Kaporet of the Holy of Holies)
Put another way, he has spiritually reinforced:
- The Fear of G-d (through AzAzel and the sprinkling of the sin offering blood on the horns)
- The Relationship with G-d (sprinkling that same blood on the altar)
- The Presence of G-d (sprinkling that blood on the Kaporet of the Holy of Holies)
In all cases this reinforcement is not carried out by us, but by us with the help of Hashem. We cannot do it alone.
Do you notice what’s missing here? There is no concept of blessing and curse. All of this is about our spiritual existence, not our physical well-being. We do have the themes (particularly in the much later Unetane Tokef) of our fates being written on Yom Kippur. But none of that is precluded by the above. The road to our well being is not paved with prayers focused on that well-being, but on our attachment to the timeless divine and distance from acts of destruction and loss.
The Modern Yom Kippur
So how do we do this today? How do we make this real? We start with the other two major commandments of the day from the Chumash. We fast, afflicting our nephashot (physical souls). And we abstain from work. In short, we step away from the physical world in order to demonstrate our dedication to the spiritual.
Normally we use the physical world to build that bridge (even just by eating the produce of the week on Shabbat). On Yom Kippur, though, we go direct.
These commandments aren’t enough, though. If they were, the Torah wouldn’t have the service in the Mishkan. So we take another step: we ‘relive’ the ceremony through the words recited in the Musaf prayer. As it says in Hoshea 14:3 “Instead of bulls we will pay the offerings of our lips.”
But that is just a shadow of what we need. So, we take yet another step: we carry out concerted efforts to connect ourselves – our souls – to the timeless. We cry out, we do vidui, we express and feel regret. We beg for a connection to G-d.
We also do Slichot. And Slichot have an almost magical power.
In the runup to the recitation of Hashem Hashem Kel Rachum in the Chumash, Moshe asks to see the face of Hashem because the people need something more concrete to worship. Hashem shows him His back, which is goodness. If goodness is creation, then Hashem shows Moshe what follows the acts of Hashem in this world. Moshe then overcomes his own anger and constructs the new Luchot. Seemingly as a result, Hashem then grants Moshe the phrase Hashem Hashem Kel Rachum v’Chanun. This pasuk speaks about kindness for thousands of generations – but thousands of generations as defined in the Torah have not yet passed. Even today. This pasuk is not talking about what follows Hashem, but what lays before Him. This pasuk is the face of Hashem. Combined with the shofar it is as close as we can get to the experience of the divine.
By centering ourselves on this pasuk, and using it almost as a mantra, we can dedicate ourselves to a forward-looking timeless reality. We can erase the destruction of our sins through our embrace of the timeless future.
Prayer and Atonement
So how should we pray? I believe that as we step through the process of prayer, internalize and express these ideas.
- With slichot we should internalize the words and try to feel forEver. Cry out for a connection to that reality and a removal of all the ways in which your acts of destruction or waste have denied you that kesher.
- With vidui we should confess our destructive sins so they cannot dig into the inner sanctum of our souls and become Avon. Thrust them before Hashem and disavow them.
- With the recitation of AzAzel we should become aware of our two possible paths. Understand the complete nihilism of the one and the complete unity of the other.
- With the sin offerings we should dedicate ourselves to the fear of G-d and protecting our connections to Her (the Shechina resides in the Mishkan)
- With the entering and sprinkling of the Holy of Holiness we should dedicate ourselves to preserving the presence of the timeless divine in our world – and our bridge to that presence.
Throughout, recognize that we do not define the Holy. It is not about us. The Holy is about reaching beyond human limitation and using all of the tools we have to become a part of forEver.
A Singular Focus
There are a lot of ideas here, so I’ll just boil is down to one concept to embrace throughout the day:
We are here to recognize that our sins distance us from the timeless. By sincerely mourning that reality, we can limit and ultimately overturn it.
As you pray, cry out. Not for blessing, but for connection to The Holy One Blessed Be He.
Personally, I expect I will concentrate on two concepts.
- One is the idea of complete emptiness. That is forNever. Imagine dying and there just being nothing – as there was (as far as you know) before you were born. Just zero. Nothing, and alone.
- The other is timelessness… of connection to those who have long since passed and those who are yet to be born. I expect to imagine all those people coming together in the presence of the voice of Hashem and the light of Hashem – and me and my family being just one part of that great assembly. The Kedoshim who praise the Lord in the Nusach Ashkenaz text of the daily Kedusha “From generation to generation we will declare Your greatness, and to all eternity, we will sanctify Your holiness.”
I expect to imagine both images. Both realities. And then I expect to desperately focus on being a part of that second image, of our entire generation being called up in the minds of those praying to Hashem a thousand years from now. Of a reality in which we were at Har Sinai, long before we were born – just as those at Har Sinai endure today. That yearning can limit the effect of those actions that would join me with the darkness. Ultimately, that yearning can enable all of us to truly be a part of that eternal reality.
Thank you for your patience in reading this and may we all emerge with Yom Kippur illuminated by the light of Hashem.
p.s. I wanted to include a bit about the progression of the holidays, but it didn’t really fit. Here goes in brief form. Pesach teaches through food (matzah, marror, pesach), as those who are very young can appreciate. The counting of the Omer moves on to numbers. The crossing of the sea has the only picture in the Chumash (ask me about it). Shavuot teaches about gratitude. We’re growing up.
Then we have this long period of growth until we come to Rosh Hashana. With Rosh Hashana we are suddenly engaging with abstract symbols – the Shofar as some sort of divinely inspired voice. It is almost like we’ve learned to read. We’ve begun to really appreciate the spiritual reality behind our physical experience. With Yom Kippur we put ourselves entirely within that spiritual world connecting with G-d as at no other time in the year. Finally, with Sukkot we deal entirely in an abstract language (watch this space). We can clearly see and embrace the spiritual and can now use physical concepts to speak about entirely spiritual concepts in abstract ways – like ink on a page. The final stage is Shemini Atzeret, which has no symbols. Then, we can connect to G-d without needing any language at all.