Believing in Ourselves: Yom Kippur as a Day of Joy
Rabbi Shay Nave, Director of the Yachad Program for Jewish Identity
We all seek Divine chesed and personal joy in our lives, especially during a time in which there is so much pain, uncertainty and apprehension about Divine judgment in the world. Given these feelings, this year is an opportune time to release Yom Kippur from the emotions with which we commonly associate it — anxiety and fear — and to see it as it really is: a wonderful day of Divine chesed and joy.
On numerous occasions during my career as an educator, I have asked people how they experience Yom Kippur — as a day of judgment or a day of chesed? The reply I almost always receive is, “What sort of question is that? Of course it is a day of judgment! What other option is there?”
However, the Mishnah offers a very different perspective: “Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel said: There were no days of joy in Israel greater than Tu b’Av and Yom Kippur” (Mishnah, Ta’anit, end of Chapter 4).
Would you ever think of saying that Yom Kippur is the most joyous day of the year? When the Talmud encounters this Mishnah, it reacts simply and naturally: ‘Of course Yom Kippur is one of the most joyous days of the year, for it is the day when sins are forgiven!’
The Mishnah is not the first source to conceive of Yom Kippur as a day of Divine chesed. These are the verses in the Torah that lay the groundwork for this:
“כי ביום הזה יכפר עליכם לטהר אתכם מכל צטאתיכם לפני ה’ תטהרו” – “For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before the Lord.” (Leviticus 16:30)
Yom Kippur is the day of purification. In the Talmud we even find that ‘the day itself atones’:
רבי אומר על כל עבירות שבתורה בין עשה תשובה בין לא עשה תשובה יום הכפורים מכפר חוץ (מפורק עול) ומגלה פנים בתורה ומיפר ברית בשר שאם עשה תשובה יוה”כ מכפר ואם לא עשה תשובה אין יוה׳׳כ מכפר
“Rabbi [Yehuda HaNasi] says that for all transgressions in the Torah, whether one repented or did not repent, Yom Kippur atones, with the exception of mocking his friend; and interpreting the Torah falsely; and violating the covenant of the flesh (i.e. Brit Milah). In these cases, if one repents, Yom Kippur atones for his sin, and if one does not repent, Yom Kippur does not atone for his sin!” (Tractate Yoma 85b)
Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, one of the greatest sages of his generation, makes the assertion that Yom Kippur itself has the power to atone, even without teshuvah! According to his opinion, it is not teshuvah that leads to the day’s atonement, but the atoning power of the day itself that brings about teshuvah.
The spiritual process of Yom Kippur is extremely compelling, because if God believes in me to such an extent, and accepts me the way I am, unconditionally, then my heart is filled with the sense that I must be worthy of that trust, and I cannot ignore this day and just go about my business. This is like the faith that parents have in their children: if the children are somewhat mature, they feel a great obligation to their parents because their love for them is boundless.
The atoning power of the day demands that for a moment we let go of our constant self-criticism, our guilt, our responsibility. Our language during the year is often one of responsibility and self-critique, yet at times this can also drag us down, generating stagnation and sadness.
That is why we have been blessed to receive one day a year that demands that we stop looking back, we let go of the past, and believe we have a chance to change and renew. God believes in us so we should also believe in ourselves.
I conclude with the central blessing that appears in all of the prayers of Yom Kippur:
Our God and God of our ancestors, forgive our iniquities on this Day of Atonement. Blot out and remove our transgressions and sins from before your eyes, as it is said: “I, I [alone] am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake; and your sins, I will not recall (Isaiah 43:25).”
And it is said, “I have swept away like a thick cloud your transgressions, and like a mist your sins; return to Me, for I have redeemed you (Ibid, 44:22).”
And it is said, “For on this day He will make atonement for you, to purify you; from all your sins, before G-d, you will be purified (Leviticus 16:30).”
… for You are the Pardoner and the Forgiver of the tribes of Yeshurun in every generation, and beside You, we have no king who forgives and pardons.
Blessed are You, King who forgives and pardons our iniquities, and the iniquities of His people, the House of Israel; and who removes our guilt each year; King over the whole earth, who sanctifies Israel and the Day of Atonement.
May we believe in the power of atonement and purification, and may we have the faith in ourselves that God has in us.