Parshat Acharei Mot (Leviticus 16:1 – 18:30)
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Efrat, Israel – “For on this day He will forgive you to purify you from all your sins; before the Lord shall you be purified” (Leviticus 16:30).
The major source for the awesome white fast known as Yom Kippur or the Day of Forgiveness is to be found in this week’s Torah portion of Acharei Mot.
It is fascinating to note that while Yom Kippur is the most ascetic day of the Hebrew calendar, a twenty-five – hour period wherein eating, drinking, bathing, sexual relations, bodily anointment and leather shoes are all forbidden, it is never the less considered a joyous festival, even more joyous than the Sabbath because it precludes mourning. The great Hassidic sage Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev would often say, “Even had the Torah not commanded me to fast, I would be too mournfully sad to eat on Tisha B’Av and I would be too excitedly joyous to eat on Yom Kippur.
From whence the excitement and from whence the joy? It seems to me that Yom Kippur is our annual opportunity for a second chance, our possibility of becoming sinless and purified before G-d. On the Festival of Matzot we celebrate our birth as a nation; seven months later on the Festival of Yom Kippur we celebrate our rebirth as human beings. On Pesach we renew our homes and our dishes, routing out the leavening which symbolizes the excess materialism and physical appurtenances with which we generally surround ourselves; on the Day of Forgiveness we renew our deeds and our innermost personalities by means of repentance.
Despite the hard work entailed in pre Pesach cleaning and in due deference to the hardy Jewish men and women who spend so much quality time tracking down every trace of leavening and thoroughly destroying them, such a physical cleaning job is still much easier than a spiritual purification. Such a repentance is at least a two step process, the first of which is Kapparah (usually translated as forgiveness and literally meaning a covering over) and the second Taharah (usually translated as purification and literally meaning a cleansing). These two divine gifts of the day correspond to the two stages or results of transgression. The first is a stain or an imperfection in the world as a result of an act of theft or the expression of hateful words. The second is a stain on the individual soul as a result of his/her commitment of transgression. My revered teacher and mentor Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik zt”l believed that Kapparah – paying back the theft, asking for forgiveness by saying I am sorry, or bringing a sacrifice to the holy Temple – removes the first stage. Taharah – the repentance of the soul, the decision of the individual to change his personality and to be different to what it was before – removes the second. Kapparah is an act of restitution utilizing objects or words; Taharah is an act of reconstitution of self which requires a complete psychological and spiritual recast.
Clearly Kapparah – restitution – paying the debt, bringing the offering, beating one’s breast in confession – is much easier to achieve than a reconstitution of personality. How does one pass the second phase, acquire requisite spiritual energy and immense spiritual inspiration transform his/her inner being to be able to say – in the words of the Rambam “I am a different person; I am not the same one who committed those improper actions” (Laws of Repentance 2,4).
I believe the answer is to be found in the manner in which we celebrate Yom Kippur. It is a day when we separate ourselves from our animalistic physical drives in order to free our spiritual selves to commune with G-d; the purpose of this separation is not to make us suffer but rather to enable us to enjoy the eternal life of the spirit in the presence of G-d.
Undoubtedly such a day spent almost exclusively in the company of G-d can be a transforming experience. Let me give you an example by recounting a personal story which bears testimony as to how even a brief personal encounter with a great spiritual individual can be life transforming. In 1973 I was lecturing at the Caribbean Hotel in Miami Beach Florida on the life of Rav Yisrael Meir Kahan, known as the ‘Hafetz ‘Haim. I was telling my audience how, although very few individuals are capable of chastising others, this great Sage was the rare exception. I heard it said that a teenage student in the Yeshiva of Radin had been caught smoking on the Sabbath and was about to leave the Yeshiva. The ‘Hafetz ‘Haim met with him for a few minutes and the student not only became observant once again but went on to become ordained by the Hafetz Haim himself.
When I concluded an elderly gentleman in the audience came up to me visibly moved and literally shaking. “Where did you hear the story? He asked. I didn’t know anyone knew about it, it happened to me!” We both went outside and after walking in silence for about ten minutes, I couldn’t help but ask what it was that the ‘Hafetz ‘Haim said to him. “I was about to leave the Yeshiva. All of my bags were packed. And I even wanted to leave the Yeshiva and then this great Sage, shorter than I was, greatly respected by the entire world and always greeting even the youngest child, appeared out of nowhere and invited me to his home. Gently guided me holding my hand; both entered a two roomed hovel, the living room having not one piece of furniture that was whole. My hand was still in his, looked into my eyes and said but one word: ‘Shabbos!’ He then began to weep and if I live until 120 I will never stop feeling this scolding heat of these tears as they rested on my hand. He embraced me once again, repeated the word ‘Shabbos’ and took me to the door. At that moment I felt deeply in my soul that there was nothing more important than the Sabbath and this great Jew loved me and that I wished to be ordained by him….”
It is this kind of inspiration that Yom Kippur hopes to effectuate as we stand in G-d’s presence for a full day, “Before the Lord shall you be purified” And this is the message of Rabbi Akiva at the end of the Tractate Yoma.. “Fortunate are you Israel! Before Whom are you purified and who purifies you – our Father in Heaven …” . The Lord is the Mikveh of Israel just as a mikveh purifies those who are impure so does the Holy One Blessed purify Israel.
Would you like to receive Rabbi Riskin’s weekly Parsha column and updates from OTS direct to your inbox?
Click here to subscribe to our mailing list