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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Yom Kippur 5772
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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“It is Sunday. The line of people waiting to see the Rebbe is very long. After hours, I finally find myself face to face with the Rebbe. At first, I just see the Rebbe’s penetrating eyes. Everything I had prepared to say escapes me. Finally I say, “I have a problem. I have begun becoming more observant, but I am engaged to marry a non-Jewish woman.”

“I have anticipated the response. The Rebbe will likely become upset and tell me what a sin I am committing. He would speak of reward and punishment… But the response I get is completely different. The Rebbe’s face is very serious, yet I think I detect a hint of a smile on his lips.

“I envy your challenge”, the Rebbe says.

“At first I don’t grasp what the Rebbe just said. The Rebbe, the pious Jew, the revered rabbi and Torah genius, world-renowned Jewish leader, envies my challenge?

“The Rebbe continues, “in life there are many ‘ladders’. Each person has his or her own ‘ladder’ to climb. I was never faced with the challenge that you are. G-d has given you a choice, a ladder, the top of which reaches the Heavens. This test is the challenge which will raise you to the greatest of heights.”

I don’t remember what happened afterwards. Several minutes later, I find myself in the synagogue, sobbing like a baby.[1]

Yom Kippur, the day referred to simply as ‘Yom Hakadosh – the Holy Day’, is a precious gift from G-d. “This shall be to you an eternal decree to bring atonement upon the Children of Israel for all their sins once a year…[2]” Though the service of the day is unquestionably physically arduous and taxing, it is spiritually, mentally, and psychologically liberating.

The Torah’s directive regarding our conduct on Yom Kippur seems difficult to understand: “But on the tenth day of this month it is the Day of Atonement; there shall be a holy convocation for you, and you shall afflict yourselves…”

What is the purpose of fasting on Yom Kippur? Does one day of fasting negate the pernicious effect of all of our sins? What does the Torah mean when it commands us to ‘afflict ourselves’ on this day? How is that accomplished and what is the purpose?

There are two reasons why a person would fast. A person may fast because he is so depressed or emotionally battered that he simply cannot bring himself to eat; he just has no appetite. Another person may want to eat yet deprives himself of food because he doesn’t want the effect that the food will have on him. For example, if one is on a diet he may not eat many delectable foods, not because he doesn’t desire them, but because he doesn’t want the calorie and fat intake.

The Barditchiver Rebbe famously quipped, “On Tisha B’av who can eat; on Yom Kippur who wants to eat!” On Tisha B’av we are in such a deep state of mourning that we should feel as if we have no appetite to eat. On Yom Kippur however, we purposely deny ourselves the pleasure of eating and drinking because we have an ulterior focus and goal[3].

What are we are trying to escape from on Yom Kippur, and how is that process abetted through physical abstention?

The mouth is an organ of connection. There are three primary functions of the mouth, eating, speaking, and kissing. All three serve to ‘connect’ two otherwise disparate things.

  • Even the most righteous person must eat and drink in order to stay alive. When one eats the food is transformed into energy, which enables him to serve G-d, learn Torah, and perform mitzvos. Although in actuality eating is a physical process, it is vital for all spiritual growth and accomplishment.
  • Whenever one speaks he is physically expressing himself in a spiritual manner. Speech emanates from the soul and yet is produced by one’s physical lips and vocal chords.
  • Kissing is an expression of love and connection between two different people. Physically each person is completely separate of the other, but the kiss expresses a feeling of emotional inner connection between them[4].

On Yom Kippur we don’t eat or drink, not as a form of penitent self immolation, but rather as a means to spiritual transformation and transcendence. We aren’t looking to torture ourselves, but rather to train ourselves. Yom Kippur is not a day of suffering but of rigid discipline.

An athlete must undergo tough trainings, which include a certain measure of deprivation, in order to build endurance and stamina to accomplish his goals. In the same vein, on Yom Kippur we have to enervate the dominant authority of the body in order to reach, and strengthen, our soul.

Throughout the year our Evil Inclination invades our consciousness, convincing us that his voice is our inner voice. When we contemplate things that we want, our thought is ‘That looks good. I want it.” The voice of our wants and desires is audible and pervasive. Our inner spiritual voice of conscience and reason however, seems to be much weaker and quieter. It also speaks to us in second-person. “Excuse me, I don’t think you should do that’; or ‘Perhaps you should learn a little more Torah.’ In our world the voice of truth is almost inaudible, and can only be heard by one who is seeking it.

If someone were to ask us who we are, we would point to our body. We define ourselves based on our physical features and our bodies which everyone else sees. In reality, our driving force is supposed to be our soul, with our body serving as a loyal servant to its needs.

On Yom Kippur we weaken our body so that we can look at ourselves from a different – and more genuine – perspective. On this one day we quiet our usually dominant physical voice, and allow the voice of our soul to be heard.

This is part of the reason why on Yom Kippur we loudly proclaim the usually whispered second verse of Shema: “Blessed is the Name of His glorious Kingdom, for all eternity”. Throughout the year our lives don’t adequately reflect our mission of promoting and sanctifying G-d’s Holy Name, and therefore, we are compelled to whisper these words. But on Yom Kippur when we live in a world of angels the verse becomes our clarion call. On Yom Kippur we have only one focus and purpose: to bless His Name and His Glorious Kingdom. On this one day the truth emphatically rings forth and resonates from our lips.

The Kabbalistic works teach us that there are five ‘levels’ of our soul[5]. Only the lowest of the five can ‘fit’ into our body. The other four levels of our soul remain in heaven. Shoes are a metaphoric representation of the relationship between our soul and our body. Although only the lowest part of our body rests in our shoes, our shoes support our entire body. So too, although only the lowest level of our soul is actually contained in the body, the entire soul is dependent on that connection for its vitality in this world.

On Yom Kippur when we want to shift our focus to our souls, we remove our shoes. This symbolic act demonstrates that today we are not focusing on the connection of our soul with our body, but only on our soul. Removing our shoes from our feet represents removing our soul from our body so that we can connect internally[6].

Yom Kippur is a day of teshuva. The word teshuva means to return and on Yom Kippur we seek to return to G-d and dismantle the barriers we create between ourselves and Him through our sins. But in order to do that we need to return to… ourselves! We need to realize who we really are, and which voice within us is our true voice.

It can be unnerving for certain individuals to think about themselves beyond their physical features and possessions. It is downright frightening for one to peer beyond his body and find that there is nothing there. But on the other hand, it can be extremely liberating for one to realize and recognize how much truly lies within himself, when he sees beyond his extremities, and allows his inner spark to shine.

When Yom Kippur coincides with Shabbos, we miss our lavish meals and the illuminant atmosphere of our Shabbos tables. But Shabbos-Yom Kippur grants us the opportunity to rejoice in the real essence of Shabbos. “They will rejoice in Your Kingship, those who safeguard Shabbos and proclaim it a delight.” On this unique Shabbos the only component of Shabbos we have left is the true essence of Shabbos – to rejoice in His Kingship!

“You shall afflict yourselves”

“Blessed is the Name of His glorious Kingdom, for all eternity”

[1] From a personal account of an anonymous individual with the Lubavitcher Rebbe zt’l.

[2] Vayikra 16:34

[3] There is an old Jewish saying that on Yom Kippur ‘mir essen b’ta’anis – we eat in our fasting’. In other words, the fast somehow nourishes us in a manner that precludes food.

[4] The Bais Hamikdash was the place of connection between this world and the upper world. The three functions of the mouth were omnipresent on a deeper level in the Bais Hamikdash: The korbanos-offerings were a form of divine food which connected heaven and earth, the ‘voice‘of G-d emanated from between the Keruvim atop the Holy Ark, and the gemara (Bava Basra 74a) refers to the Bais Hamikdash as ‘the place where heaven and earth kiss’.

[5] nefesh, ruach, neshama, chaya, yechida

[6] In the Bais Hamikdash the priests did not wear shoes to demonstrate that in the Temple their focus was only on spiritual pursuits, and not on the connection between the two worlds.

When a man dies without having begot any children, the act of yibum (his living brother marrying his widow) is a manner of granting the deceased a connection with this world because the child borne of that union is attributed to the deceased. If the living brother refuses to do so, the process of chalitzah is performed which includes her spitting in his shoe, because by not marrying the widow he had denied giving his brother a connection with this world, symbolized by shoes.

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