In forgone times no hours were more difficult in our forefathers’ life than those just before the onset of the awesome day of Yom Kippur. These were moments of such intense religious upheaval in the human soul, that it was as if the world had become a different planet, one in which all normal human needs and worries fell away. The solemnity of these awesome hours was hard to survive (1). Testimonies of these moments have come to us through the writings of our forefathers or by way of their oral information (2).What was our forefathers’ secret through which they reached such a state of mind and heart?
The venerable Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, Chief Rabbi of Israel before the Jewish State was established, mystic and one of the most original thinkers ever encountered, draws attention to a most strange phrase in the “Al Hachet”, confessional prayers, which are said on this awesome day: “My God, before I was formed, I was of no worth, and now that I have been formed, it was as if I was not formed.” Rabbi Kook explains that the first of 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! But once formed, why should the prayer say that my existence is as if I had not been formed? The very fact that I exist is confirmation that I have been formed and that I do indeed exist! What then is the meaning of this strange confession? Rabbi Kook goes on to explain the deeper import of these words: 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, it means there must be a reason for my being. There must be a mission that I am to fulfill, something which 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. But what is it that I now confess at this solemn hour? That I have neither been living up to that mission nor have I succeeded in my attempts to accomplish it! If that is so, then my whole existence is called into question. If I have not accomplished the purpose for which I was placed in this world, then why do I exist? As such, I have returned to a situation in which my existence is of no value like in my pre-birth condition in which I was not yet formed. So, now that I have been formed, it is as if I was not formed. (Olath Re’iyah, 2, page 356.)
This awesome thought stands at the center of Yom Kippur. Am I worthy to have a claim on life? Or have I been formed without having a 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 to live in God’s presence and fulfill one’s destiny!
Our forefathers understood these hours to be decisive. These were hours of great embarrassment. What if I have not lived up to my mission? A mission which only I can accomplish among all the billions of people at this hour? And only now at this moment in history! What if I have failed? Then this mission will never come true! Neither now, nor later! For what then have I been formed? It was this sense of inadequacy which stood at the center of 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 such a prohibition. Why is the denial of food of such importance? One of the great teachers of our people, Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heshel, (1748-1825) the Rebbe of Apt, also known as the “Ohev Yisrael”, (lover of all Jews), gave a most significant answer to that question. On the fast of Tisha b’Av, the day of the destruction of both temples, he would say: “How is it possible to eat on such a day?” Just thinking about the disasters that befell the Jewish people can cause a 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, where he outdoes himself, in which he lives, at least for a few hours, on a plane where the question whether he is worthy to have been formed must be answered with a dazzling “Yes“. During these hours the Jew lives on the plane of angels and angels do not eat. (3)
I would add: “Who has time to eat on this awesome day?” Only once a year does a Jew have just over 24 hours to think and contemplate about: “And now that I am formed, it is as if I was not formed” Who can even think about food at such an auspicious 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 trembling before God. We have lost the art of grasping the greatness of the day. It becomes harder and harder each year. Even when we fast and say the prayers we are not haunted by the question of being formed and yet not being formed. In the secular society there is no longer a feeling of shame about what we do with our lives. Everything is fine, we have been deadened by daily needs, occupations and pleasures. We are “allrightniks”. We are neither contrite nor embarrassed.
But with a little more thought we realize that, as Jews, we are privileged to have one day in the year to be reminded to be jealous of our forefathers. We should wish to give millions of dollars for the ability to participate in an hour of such genuine religious experience as our forefathers on Erev Yom Kippur. The trembling in awe for their Master of the World with the knowledge that they could actually turn their lives around and say “Yes, I have been formed and I am worthy”, was their great secret. Oh, may we be able to experience such hours! No doubt we are able but only when we sincerely wish! And however difficult it may be!
Gemar chatima Tova.
(1)This may be the reason why one should already start saying the longer Viddui, confession prayers, at the afternoon prayers before Yom Kippur and before partaking of the main meal prior to the fast. The upheaval in the soul at that hour would be so great that one could indeed die from the experience before Yom Kippur had even started.
(2) See for example: The Rav, The world of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik by Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, vol.2: pp: 169 and 170, Ktav, 1999, NY.
Also: Abraham Joshua Heshel: Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, edited by Susannah Heshel, pp 146-147, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996, NY. (The author is the grandson of the “Ohev Yisrael” and bears his name.)
(3) See Heshel, ad loc.