Yom Kippur: The Day of Non-Judgement

Rabbi Shay Nave is the director of OTS’s The Monique & Mordecai Katz Yachad Program for Jewish Identity

WhatsApp Image 2023 09 13 at 11.36.03On Yom Kippur in Israel, the roads are quite empty and most people fast. The Israeli public clearly regards the Day of Atonement as distinct from all others.  What is the secret of this unique day?  What power does it hold?

I think it is because Yom Kippur is not a Day of Judgement.  On the contrary – it is a day of grace and atonement.  “For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you from all your sins” [Vayikra 16:30].

People err in thinking that Yom Kippur is a day of atonement because on Yom Kippur we confess our sins and repent.  In fact, the opposite is true!  The numerous confessions and profuse expressions of repentance are the result of the day’s inherent atonement.

Put more simply:  On this unique day, while witnessing with our own eyes and hearing with our own ears that God Almighty has brought us closer to Him, as lacking as we may be, can we remain unaffected? Hence, we repent and confess our sins, sparing nothing.

On occasion, the IDF launches a special campaign for the return of military equipment taken unlawfully by civilians.  The army informs the public that it will be placing stands in locations throughout the country, and that people who wish to return military equipment in their possession – uniforms, shoes, rifles and even armored vehicles – can do so anonymously.

Such campaigns encourage people to return equipment belonging to the IDF by making it clear that this is a moment of grace, an opportunity to rectify a wrongdoing without being subject to judgement.  This is what Yom Kippur is all about.

Likewise, many traditional and secular Jews love Yom Kippur because it a moment in time when they can feel connected to Judaism without feeling that they are being judged.  This unique day gives them a sense of belonging.

The secret of Yom Kippur is revealed through the two highlights of the Holy Service as performed by the Kohen Gadol (the High Priest) on this day.  These two climactic moments take place when the Kohen Gadol enters the Holy of Holies, and when the scapegoat (the seir la’azazel) is thrown off a cliff outside the city.

Interestingly, these two pivotal events pull in opposite directions.  While the Holy Service was performed in the westernmost area of the Temple (the Holy of Holies), the scapegoat pushed over the cliff was taken outside the city of Jerusalem and deep into the Judean desert — a place of great desolation.

These two polarities – one pulling to the East, the other to the West – complement each other in the sense that we can only head eastwards into the uninhabited wilderness after we have penetrated the holiest of places, which lies in the west.

During the course of the year, we function within a very confined space, running from east to west – from the azara (the Temple’s courtyard) to the heichal (the Holy area of the Temple).  However, once a year, this coiled spring is set loose, and so it expands further eastwards and further westwards.

On one day of the year, every Jew is like the Holy of Holies and “all of Israel are righteous,” part of the holy nation, committed to the covenant.

The intimacy of this holy day, the fact that our transgressions are forgiven and we are enveloped in purity, makes it easier for us to come before God as we are, void of any pretense or falseness, faults or shortcomings.

When we come before Him on this day, it is not with feelings of guilt, but rather, with intimate frankness.  “God Almighty. I am Your creation.  In some things I have been successful; in others I have failed.  But I stand before you, as naked and transparent as can be, knowing that You will accept me as I am and that I am Yours regardless of my achievements or my deficiencies.  For the covenant between us transcends all else.”

The time to rectify the wrong will come in due course, but now is not the time.  Now is the time to stand before Him; sometimes in silence, sometimes with words.  With our loftiest of aspirations, stemming from the Holy of Holies, as with the basest of desires which burn hot in the desert; from places of dwelling to the desolation of the wilderness.  All is revealed.  And on this day when the covenant between us is reinstated, we have to let go, and simply be.


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