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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Yom Kippur 5773
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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YOM KIPPUR 5773[1]


A woman once approached Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt’l and told him that she wanted to begin wearing tzitzis in order to feel more spiritual and closer to G-d.

Rabbi Soloveitchik replied that growth is achieved incrementally. Therefore, she should first begin wearing the four cornered tzitzis cloak without the strings for a few weeks and then report back to him.

After a few weeks she returned and reported that she indeed felt holier and was now ready to achieve the full tzitzis experience by inserting the strings.

Rabbi Soloveitchik replied, “The only thing you accomplished over the last few weeks is that if you were a man you would have transgressed a Biblical prohibition by wearing a four cornered cloak without tzitzis. Apparently, you don’t really know what spirituality is. Perhaps you would be better off fulfilling those mitzvos that are incumbent upon you for that is the real path to spirituality.”

The very words “Kol Nidrei” evoke very distinct mental images in our minds. The shul cloaked in a sea of angelic white and the chazzan chanting the hauntingly penetrating ancient tune of Kol Nidrei. It is a prayer so powerful that the night derives its title from it - ‘Kol Nidrei night’. There is no dearth of stories of straying or unaffiliated Jews who have returned to their faith because they were so shaken and moved by the sanctity of Kol Nidrei.

Yet, Kol Nidrei is no more than a declaration of an annulment of our vows. It is nothing more than a public repetition of the prayer we recited individually Erev Rosh Hashanah. What then, is the awesome significance of the Kol Nidrei prayer and why is it the introduction to the awesome day of Yom Kippur?

Before Kol Nidrei it is customary to recite Tefillas Zaka, a penetrating prayer expressing our deep remorse for all of the sins we committed. At its conclusion we add the Viduy d’Rabbeinu Nissim Gaon. One segment of the viduy states, “I have been lenient in that which You were stringent and stringent where You were lenient; I have permitted that which You prohibited and I have prohibited that which You permitted.” It is understandable why we need to confess inappropriate leniencies but what is wrong with being stringent and overly cautious?

All of the karbonos offered on Yom Kippur came to atone for tumas Mikdash uk’doshov (defiling the temple). While it is true that defiling the temple is a serious offense punishable by Kares, one would think that there are more egregious sins that the korbanos of Yom Kippur should atone for, such as idolatry or immorality. What is the significance of tumas mikdash on Yom Kippur?

When the Torah records the laws and guidelines for the unique service performed by the Kohain Gadol on Yom Kippur, it begins by stating that these laws were taught, “Acharei mos shenei b’nai Aharon- After the death of the two sons of Aharon.” The Torah is drawing our attention to an obvious connection between the tragic death of Aharon’s two sons and the Yom Kippur service. What is the connection?

In order to understand the essence of Yom Kippur we must comprehend what transpired during the initial Yom Kippur. Moshe Rabbeinu ascended Har Sinai after the Torah was given on Shavuos and remained there for forty days. On the seventeenth of Tammuz he descended, luchos in hand, to find Klal Yisroel dancing around the golden calf. After pulverizing the calf and exacting retribution from the perpetrators, Moshe re-ascended Har Sinai to plead the nation’s case before G-d. On Yom Kippur, after being promised that G-d would forgive them, Moshe returned.

Although they surely had rationalizations and justifications for their actions, the Golden Calf was a form of blatant idolatry.

Chazal say that there can be two motives for idolatry. A Jew who is frustrated by the restriction and rigorous daily demands of the Torah may turn to idolatry simply as a pretext to indulge in forbidden pleasures[2]. While this form of idolatry is a serious breach of faith, it is not as egregious as the second idol-worshipper who does so out of mistaken ideology. This Jew who falsely concludes that there is another power besides G-d, has committed a far more spiritually damaging sin. The former idolater knows in his heart that his actions are wrong and therefore there is hope that he will eventually repent. The latter idolater however, is convinced that his idolatry is correct. In his search for spiritual fulfillment he has mistaken ersatz spiritualism for true G-dliness. It is far more difficult for one to repent when he is convinced of the veracity of his ways.

When Moshe Rabbeniu first descended Har Sinai and saw the Golden Calf he was unsure which classification of idolatry it stemmed from. But when he saw that they were dancing and rejoicing over it he understood that it was the more egregious form of idolatry. Only one who feels justified in his actions would espouse them and rejoice wholeheartedly. That is why the verse[3] states, “And it was when he (Moshe) approached the camp and he saw the calf and the dancing, and Moshe’s anger flared; he cast the luchos from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain”. It was only when Moshe saw the dancing that he shattered the luchos because that proved to Moshe the true severity of their sin. The golden calf was not merely a hedonistic pretense for sin, but it represented an erroneous understanding of their relationship with G-d.

Therefore, when G-d forgave them on Yom Kippur it was for that mistaken outlook. In other words, the root of Yom Kippur is forgiveness for mistaken ideology and misunderstanding of true spirituality.

Nadav and Avihu, the great elite sons of Aharon, who were worthy to become the successors of Moshe and Aharon, did not sin with materialistic motives. Their error lay in their misconstruing Divine service by adding unwarranted incense.

Their death is therefore the perfect introduction for the Yom Kippur service. The korbanos of Yom Kippur do not atone for hedonistic and materialistic sins because that is not at the core and essence of the day. One who is immersed in carnal pleasures has hope of repenting on his own accord. Rather, Yom Kippur atones for false impressions of spirituality and mistaken modalities in serving G-d.

This is also why we must confess for being overly stringent. If one does not follow the dictates of the Torah and lives a lifestyle beyond the parameters of the Torah - even by being more stringent - he has lost touch with what Judaism really is. An extreme example of this concept would be one who decides to keep a second Shabbos each week on Tuesday. Not only does his Tuesday observance not add to his Shabbos observance but he has diminished his regular Shabbos observance too. By adding to Shabbos he has demonstrated that he observes Shabbos according to his dictates, and therefore even the Shabbos he does keep is not a testament of his belief in G-d.

The Gemara[4] compares one who makes a vow to one who constructs a bamah[5]. The Ran explains that just as a person who erects a bamah is deluding himself into thinking that he is accomplishing something of value by adding more altars and sacrifices than the Torah requires, so too someone who vows to adhere to self imposed restrictions and believes he is doing something meritorious by adding to the Torah.

There is no prayer more appropriate to commence the solemn day of repentance than a prayer which declares the annulment of all vows. On Yom Kippur we reaffirm ourselves to G-d’s will as the Torah commands. Repentance implies complete self abnegation to the Torah. Our own opinions are nullified before that sole truth. Kol Nidrei serves as the introduction of Yom Kippur because it sets that tone.

We live in a world that seeks fulfillment and spirituality. Our society is a testament that fame, glamour, wealth and paparazzi cannot sooth the inner call of the soul yearning for fulfillment and growth. Yom Kippur’s message is that the only way a Jew can achieve fulfillment is by living according to the Torah.

It is vital that we understand that holiness is not translated by our definitions and how we envision it. As an example, it is late Yom Kippur and the day is waning. A man is in the back of shul feeling feeble and dizzy. He approaches the Rabbi and says that he can either fast or pray but he cannot do both. We may not think that lying in bed at the crescendo of the holy day is worth much, but that is what the Rabbi would tell him to do. The main mitzvah of Yom Kippur is to fast even if it means at the sacrifice of davening.

So many Jews, even Torah Jews, delude themselves into thinking that they can become “spiritual” and “holy” based on their own agenda. Yom Kippur reminds us that holiness results from adhering to the Torah, and nothing else. It is a day of atonement for our ‘sticking our nose into G-d’s business’, i.e. by thinking we can improve and add to His work. It is only when we have accepted G-d’s word as unyielding and true that we can appreciate and bask in the genuine embrace of G-d and His holiness in the Succah during our festival of joy[6].

“After the death of the two sons of Aharon”

“I have prohibited that which You permitted”

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Please have in mind our dear friend Chaim Yisroel Pinchos ben Shaindel for a refuah shaleimah in all of your tefilos before and throughout Yom Kippur. He is in need of tremendous rachmei shomayim. May we hear good news soon Iy'H.

[1] Stam Torah on Yom Kippur is lovingly dedicated to the memory of R’ Alexander ben Nutah Yitzchak z’l, Mr. Sender Mermelstein a’h, who was niftar, “B’ays ni’elas sha’ar” 1980/5740. Yehi zichro baruch!

[2] The Gemarah Sanehdrin 63a states that, “Klal Yisroel only worshipped idols to permit themselves to indulge in immorality.”

[3] Shemos 32:19

[4] Nedarim 22a

[5] A private altar outside the Bais Hamikdash

[6] This idea was gleaned from an essay in Time Pieces by Rabbi Aharon Lopiansky (Targum Press, 1995), a collection of penetrating essays on the Jewish year.

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