Few matters are more difficult to understand than the nature and purpose of Yom Kippur. What is it that this awesome day wants to tell us? What does it want to accomplish?
There is basically only one answer: The realization that life is undeserved, and therefore could easily become a great embarrassment.
When thinking about our lives, we have to realize that we cannot make any claim on life, for we have not done anything to deserve it before we were born. It is not a reward for earlier good deeds or for any other previous accomplishment. It is a gift, completely undeserved.
However, we handle our lives as if we do deserve it! We treat our lives as if it is deserved, as an obvious possession to which we are all entitled. But this is a huge falsification of reality.
This is not just true of life itself, but also for our many faculties and talents. We consider it obvious that we can enjoy food, drink, music, become artists, are able to read, get married, have children and receive love. But this is a huge lie.
We even have the chutzpah, the impertinence, to believe that when things are not going well, we have the right to complain that it is not fair, since we are sure that we have a right to live our lives in an optimal way.
But on what basis?
We must realize that none of these great human faculties are deserved. They are just unearned gifts. All we can do is to develop them. Or, God forbid, to destroy them!
The same is true of Yom Kippur. What did we do to deserve a day where we can find forgiveness for our many misdeeds? The notion that we should be able to be forgiven for all our misdeeds is totally unwarranted. It makes little sense to be forgiven for things, many of which we can no longer repair or nullify. Many have done unrepairable damage. The fact that there is one day in the year that we will be forgiven for them is completely absurd. And that day is called Yom Kippur.
It is exactly here that we are confronted with a deep feeling of shame. And if we are not, then what kind of life are we living? How can we live with the knowledge that nothing—but absolutely nothing—is deserved? How can we enjoy anything in the full knowledge that we are not at all entitled to it? Would it not be more sensible to hide in a corner when we fully grasp the fact that a life lived without any claim to it lacks both dignity and value? An ultimate embarrassment.
Nothing is more painful for us than this sense of embarrassment, and yet most of us do not really feel this pain. Instead we are disturbed, upset, even annoyed, when the slightest disturbance in our lives takes place.
There is only one remedy to this: To realize that we are just the managers and overseers of our life and not its owners. And management is a difficult and complex art!
There needs to be a response to a life that is totally undeserved. How can I govern my life in such a way that it does not put me to shame, so that the shame is at least softened and a little less painful.
Should I not think: now that I realize that life itself is a gift, I should at least put that gift to more than just good use? After all: Gifts obligate. They are given for a purpose. They deprive us of our mistaken belief that we can do whatever we want. The more we receive, the more we become obligated to respond adequately.
In Judaism this means there is a need to listen to the ultimate Giver and live by His directions.
It is most important to realize that gifts are only a delight to us as long as we can recompense them and show our appreciation, by living a life that lives up to this gift.
But if we do not, then the gift ultimately become the source of much pain, leaving us with an inner emptiness, which can even become traumatic and turn into our greatest enemy. Much unhappiness in the life of human beings is rooted in this problem. The feeling that life has become empty and meaningless is common. Millions of people try to compensate this by amassing more wealth, food, drink, and sex, only to realize that none of these things can bring them to inner fulfillment. Such fulfillment is dependent upon the realization that there is deep meaning and purpose to all these treasures.
Many of us wait too long to recognize the dangers involved. Sometimes our indifference to the gifts we are given leads us to be cut off from the value of life. A great Chinese philosopher is reputed to have said, “A man whose leg has been cut off does not value the gift of shoes”.
This is the call of the hour on Yom Kippur. A full day is given for us to realize a simple matter which is so difficult to admit. Life is only great as long as it is lived in the realization that it is undeserved, and that it can be earned through a dignified response.
How great would life be when every person—the businesswoman, the artist, the laborer, the professor, the priest, the rabbi—would rise from their bed each morning with this keen awareness. Life would look radically different. And much more joyful.
Or in the words of Micha (3:4): Who does not tremble at the roaring of the Lion in the forest?
May we all merit hearing that roar.
Gemar Chatima Tova!