[NOTE: This piece is based on a Hebrew text of Reb Zalman’s which you can read here.]
For through the agency of this day, I will atone for you – – before YHVH you will be purified from all your sins.
This is the sentence that invites us to the work of Yom Kippur.
For through the agency of this day: There are teachings in the Kabbalah that point to God investing Him/Herself into the time of the 26 hours of Yom Kippur to effect the atonement for us. How 26 hours? Because we add an hour before and an hour after. Why 26? It is the numerical value of the divine name, YHVH. It is love begetting a response of love, 13 + 13 = 26, (13 is the numerical value of love, Ahavah).
before YHVH: I.e., Keter. In Leviticus, the Bible tells us that we had to take two goats of equally high quality and cast lots to decide which of them was to be offered to God and which was to be sent to Azazel. It is a puzzling passage because, while most everything that was to be put as a sacrifice to God was very precisely prescribed, in this situation, it was undetermined; by bringing in the casting of lots, the decision was left to the very last moment. Why this uncertainty? It seems that we wanted to reach into a place beyond any polarity of good and evil, that our esoteric visionaries realized that in order to radically transform a difficult situation it was necessary to reach so high into the infinite that the transformation would be brought about. In the Kabbalah, such a rung is called Keter, the Crown. The accumulation of the sins of an entire year would create a heavy burden for us were it not for our pleading with God to draw down for us an at-one-ment from a source that transcends all polarities so it could act as a source of grace. Such a source is implied by the phrase before YHVH, i.e. a source before/beyond YHVH. Your transgressions will be atoned for you from this source.
In this regard, some commentators have pointed to the word used in the Bible for Yom Kippur – – Yom Ki–Purim, to suggest it is a day like Purim, the festival so named because Haman cast lots, and the word Pur means a lot. We are urged on Purim to become so inebriated that we transcend the distinction between “blessed be Mordechai” and “cursed be Haman” which is Keter,the place beyond any polarity of good and evil. Also, just as during the holiday of Purim we follow the dictates of, “anyone who extends a hand shall receive,” (that is to say, on Purim, it depends on need, not merit – God wants us to receive no questions asked), so too on Yom Kippur we can present our needs to God with our extending of a hand to be forgiven of our transgressions. And on Yom Kippur, “You extend a hand to the rebellious ones,” meaning that we receive forgiveness from God’s extended hand. Our act of extending a hand to receive brings about the forgiveness.
How do we extend the hand? It happens through acts of reconciliation with the others in our lives, through gaining their forgiveness and through our forgiving them.
On the high holy days, we are given amazing tools for improving the quality of the ethical life. When we make use of them, they prepare us to receive precisely those blessings we need for the coming year. For this, we have to be engaged in the task of quality-improvement which calls for three steps of Tshuvah: 1) Selichah, 2) Mechilah and 3) Kapparah.
Selichah, which is the first step, happens when we begin interacting with the ones we offended and when we express regret for trespasses to them. One says, “Please excuse me. I’m sorry for having offended you.” For many of us, this step began at the beginning of Ellul and became more intensive in the week before Rosh Hashanah during the Selichot services. Even the sending of New Year’s greetings somehow preserves a remnant of the earlier custom of the sending of letters to people that ask them for forgiveness for the times in which we had offended them in some way.
Mechilah: Mechilah is the work of restitution and repair. While the first step of Tshuvah began with the start of the month of Ellul, the second step, Mechilah, is the process of Rosh Hashanah. At this time, we take upon ourselves the responsibilities of being citizens of the divine realm. God is King and we are subjects of the divine ruler. There is another meaning for Mechilah related to the word Machol – dance. In a dance people sometimes reverse positions and this is an image for us to hold in our work, i.e., to see the world from God’s perspective. On Rosh Hashanah, through our acceptance of the kingdom of God we become capable of achieving Tshuvah out of awe/Yir’ah, turning intentional sins into unintentional sins. How so? It is by accepting the yoke of the kingdom of God again. By accepting the yoke of the commandments we demonstrate an intention to not have committed the sinful acts.
Kapparah: But Yom Kippur deals with the work of Kapparah – atonement. The word atonement has been spelled as At-One-Ment, the making of a yichud between us and our God. There are other words of the same root as Kapparah that deal with wiping something clean. It has also something to do with redemption – as in Kofer Yushas – paying a ransom, and also denial — kofer b’ikkar. It is as if, at the end of the process, God denies that we had ever sinned. This is so because Yom Kippur brings us back to the essential love that God has for us and our Tshuvah becomes a Tshuvah out of love which turns the now unintentional sins into Mitzvot.
This is also one of the reasons why the confession is recited with a joyful tune.
While the Tshuvah of the month of Ellul deals largely with regret and the Tshuvah of Rosh Hashanah deals with assenting to be a subject of God’s kingdom, the Tshuvah of Yom Kippur is Tshuvah done out of love which has the power to turn sins into merits.
May we be inscribed, signed and sealed for good life for the coming year: Amen.