The Joy Hidden Within Yom Kippur
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander is President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone
Yom HaKippurim, the culmination of the Aseret Yemei Teshuva, is a multifaceted day. On the surface, the day is solely one of trepidation. We are told that Yom Kippur is a day of “v’initem et nafshoteichem”: and you shall afflict your souls (Vayikra 16:31). We withhold ourselves from five cardinal physical pleasures as we cry out in prayer on the final day of judgment, confessing our misdeeds and errors.
Yet the Day of Atonement has another side to it, one that stands at odds with the portrayal of the day as one of only dread and fear. The Shulchan Aruch in the Laws of Mourning (399:6) includes both Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in the list of festivals that, due to their celebratory character, curtail the observance of shiva and shloshim. In a similar vein, the final Mishna in Tractate Taanit refers to Yom Kippur as being among the most joyous days on the Jewish calendar, when the young men and women of Jerusalem would attend major singles events, each seeking out his or her life companion. And even as we are obligated to engage in self-affliction on Yom Kippur, the Rambam, in Hilkhot Shvitat Asor 1:3, rules in accordance with the view in the Gemara (not subsequently accepted as normative practice) to permit preparing for the post-fast meal already on Yom Kippur, lest the people experience agmat nefesh, undue suffering.
Even on the day when we afflict ourselves, the Rambam rules that there is a limit. Furthermore, the Rambam in the Mishneh Torah refuses to classify Yom HaKippurim with other fast days but gives it a separate chapter heading, which speaks to the fact that it is different from Tisha b’Av or any other fast day. Evidently, Yom Kippur is not only a day of solemnity and fear, but carries other qualities that must be brought to bear.
These additional qualities are found in a more complete understanding of the word v’initem. We can take our cue from the holiday of Pesach. In the book of Devarim (16:3), the Torah describes the matza that we eat on Seder night as lechem oni, literally “bread of affliction.” Yet the Gemara in Psachim (36a) insists on an additional way to read this phrase, finding within the Hebrew word oni not only the notion of inui, affliction, but also of ana, recitation of song (as we see in Devarim 26:5, where the Bikkurim recitation is described as v’anita), thereby suggesting that the matza is in fact lechem sh’onin alav dvarim harbei – bread (matza) upon which the exuberant prayer of Hallel must be recited. Even as the matza symbolizes the affliction undergone by our ancestors in Egypt, it has a second paradigmatic message: it is the bread that celebrates redemption, and therefore its consumption requires, as the Gemara suggests, she-onin alav devarim harbeh – the recitation of Maggid and the joyous prayer of Hallel, retelling our story and singing aloud our praise and our thanks.
Perhaps the same can be suggested regarding the Torah’s commandment (Vayikra 16:29) of t’anu et nafshoteichem on Yom Kippur. That term, in addition to the meaning of affliction, could also reflect the notion of a joyful recitation or response, reminiscent of the song of Seder night. As we sing the piyutim of the Yom Kippur prayer service, extolling G-d’s greatness and grace, we are engaging in ana, allowing the humbling of ourselves to enable our souls to sing. Perhaps that explains the upbeat melodies of most of the piyutim, including the Ashamnu confessional.
Yom Kippur is, in fact, a day of awe. But it is also a time of joy. We detach from the physicality in order to seek out the shleimut, the wholeness, of our souls. This is why it is a day on which mourning is prohibited, a day when, in the time of the Beit HaMikdash, within one kilometer from the Avodah (Temple service), there was a massive singles event. Our goal is not simply to depress ourselves with our failures but to give us a chance to step out of the flow of life to find our true selves, which are often masked beneath layers of working, studying, eating and drinking. For this reason, the prohibitions of Yom Kippur are derived from the term Shabbat Shabbaton. For Yom Kippur is the quintessential Shabbat experience, one of detaching, even if just temporarily, from all that distracts us in life, enabling us to find and restore the true selves that lie within, and allow our souls to v’initem – to sing and to soar.
This may be the inner meaning of the claim of the Vilna Gaon that the term “Yom Kippurim” means “a day that is like Purim.” As Yom Kippur’s holiday soulmate, Purim is also a time for masking and revealing, sorting out who we really are and where G-d is hiding between the lines of the story. So, too, on Yom Kippur, even as we stand in judgment, we celebrate the opportunity to find ourselves, to find G-d, and to tear down all the masks and barriers between us and Him. What greater joy could there ever be?