In former times, no hours were more extraordinary in our forefathers’ lives than those just before the onset of the awesome day, Yom Kippur. These comprised moments of such intense religious upheaval in the human soul that it was as if the world became a different planet, one in which all normal human needs and worries fell away. The solemnity of these awe-inspiring hours was hard to carry. (1) Testimonies of these moments have reached us through the writings of our forefathers and by oral transmission. (2)
What was our forefathers’ secret to reaching this state of mind and heart?
The venerable Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook z”l, Chief Rabbi of Palestine before the Jewish State was established, mystic, and one of the most original thinkers ever, draws attention to a strange phrase at the end of the Al Cheit confessional prayer, which is said on this awesome day: “My God, before I was formed I was of no worth; and now that I have been formed, it is as if I was not formed.” Rabbi Kook explains that the first part of this confession is indeed easy to understand. Before I was formed I was obviously of no worth, since I did not yet exist! The world was not yet in need of me. But why should man say that once created, his existence is as if he had not been formed? Is the fact that he now exists not proof that his life is of great significance? What, then, is the meaning of this strange confession that his existence is as if he does not exist? Rabbi Kook goes on to explain the import of these words in a simple but penetrating way: When I was not yet formed, I was obviously of no worth, since the fact that I did not yet exist meant that there was no need for me to exist. But now that I have been formed, there must be a reason for my being: a mission that I am to fulfill, something that only I am able to accomplish. Consequently, my existence is of crucial importance not just for myself but for all of mankind and the entire universe. So, what is it that I now confess at this solemn hour? That I have neither been living up to that mission nor succeeded in my attempts to accomplish it! And if that is so, then my whole existence is called into question. As such, I have returned to a situation in which my existence is of no value, just as in my prenatal condition. So, “now that I have been formed, it is as if I was not formed.” (3)
This awesome thought is the focal point of Yom Kippur. Am I worthy to have a claim on life? Or, have I been born but lost my right to live? This is by far the most important question for man to ask. The trembling of the earlier generations on Erev Yom Kippur was indeed that of great pachad (fear) – not fear of punishment or death, but of not rising to the challenge of living in God’s presence and fulfilling one’s destiny!
Our forefathers understood those hours to be decisive. It was a time of great spiritual embarrassment. What if I have not lived up to my mission – a mission that only I, among the billions of people, can accomplish? And only now, at this very moment in history! What if I fail? Then this mission will never be fulfilled – neither now nor later. For what purpose, then, have I been created? It was this sense of inadequacy that was acutely felt during those hours in the lives of our forefathers.
Yom Kippur is also a day on which we are prohibited to eat. But we need to understand the significance of this prohibition. Why is the denial of food so important? One of our great teachers, Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel (1748-1825), the Rebbe of Apt, also known as the Ohev Yisrael (lover of all Jews), provided a significant answer to that question. On the fast of Tish’ah B’Av, the day commemorating the destruction of both temples, he would ask, “How is it possible to eat on such a day?” Just thinking about the disasters that befell the Jewish people can cause a total loss of appetite. There is no way that one is able to eat on such a day!
On Yom Kippur he would ask, “Who needs to eat?” This is a day when man surpasses himself; when he outdoes himself; when man lives, at least for a few hours, on a level where the question whether he is worthy to have been created must be answered with a dazzling YES. During these hours Jews are likened to angels, and angels do not eat. (4)
But perhaps there is still another meaning to the question How is it possible to eat on such a day. Only once a year is a Jew granted just over 25 hours to contemplate these words: “And now that I have been formed, it is as if I was not formed.” Who, then, has time to eat or even think about food at such an awe-inspiring time?
The great tragedy of our generation is that for many of us, even as we enter Yom Kippur and observe its laws, there is no longer a feeling of pachad (fear) or of trembling before God. We have lost the art of grasping the greatness of the day. It becomes more and more difficult each year. Even when we fast and say the prayers, we are not haunted by the question of having been created versus not having been created. In secular society, there is no longer a feeling of shame regarding what we do with our lives. Anything goes. We have been deadened by daily needs, occupations and pleasures. We are “allrightniks” – neither contrite nor even embarrassed.
But with a little more thought, we Jews can realize how privileged we are to have one day in the year to be jealous of our forefathers’ religious authenticity. We should want to pay millions of dollars for the ability to participate in even an hour of such genuine religious experience as they had on Erev Yom Kippur. Their great secret was trembling in awe of the Master of the World, while fully cognizant that they could actually turn their lives around and say, “Yes, I was created, and I am worthy.” Who would not dream of experiencing such hours?
Just reminding ourselves of this dream makes Yom Kippur a day filled with meaning. We should at least dream bold dreams, and we should dream harder.
Gemar chatima tova.
(1) This may be the reason why we start saying the longer viduy (confession prayers) during the afternoon prayers even before Yom Kippur and before partaking of the seudah hamafseket, the last meal eaten prior to the fast. The upheaval in the soul at that time would be so great that one could indeed die from the experience before Yom Kippur has even started.
(2) See, for example: Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (New York: Ktav, 1999) vol. 2, pp. 169 and 170. See also: Abraham Joshua Heschel, ed. by Susannah Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996) pp. 146-147. (The author is the grandson of the Ohev Yisrael and bears his name.)