Yom Kippur 5780
by Meir Sendor
We’ve been very impressed with the Blake Street Kehillah of Melbourne, and the Melbourne Jewish community in general. We’ve found the members to be warm and caring, with a sincere modesty, a strong Jewish commitment and a sense of fun. I also had the opportunity to join our son Rav Noam in a performance this week of the Alter Jazz Ensemble, a very talented jazz band for which he is the vocalist. The program, held at the Jewish Museum of Melbourne, included a group meditation, in which we practiced a thirteenth-century vocalization meditation of Rabbi Avraham Abulafia, done with a touch of improvisation and instrumental accompaniment. The audience was enthusiastic and the meditation really took off. It was a beautiful experience of the power of collective consciousness, of individuals deeply attuned to each other.
This personal and personable quality we find here in Melbourne also connects with a core understanding of the real spirit of Yom Kippur.
In his sefer Mekor Barukh (vol. 4, p. 863) Rav Baruch HaLevi Epstein, recalls the time the Beit Ha-Levi, R. Yosef Baer Soloveitchik, great grandfather of Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, z”l, my Rebbe, visited Minsk.
When word got around Minsk that the great Beit Ha-Levi had arrived in the city, a large number of townsfolk went to greet him at the hotel where he was staying. All kinds of people showed up to welcome him — Rabbis, scholars and political leaders, as well as plain folk. The Rav sat, and a crowd gathered around him. One member of the crowd was a young man in his early twenties who was relatively new to town, having recently married a girl from Minsk. This young man had studied under R. Yosef Baer in his renowned Yeshivah in Slutzk, he was bright and sharp and the Rav really liked him. The Beit Ha-Levi was happy to see his former student, and asked him, “Vos machst du? How are you doing?”
The young man answered, “Barukh Hashem, I’m successful in my business. About a year ago, my brother-in-law and I opened a store where we sell sugar wholesale. Our efforts have been blessed. The price of sugar has recently gone up, and it looks like it will go even higher, and we hope to make a significant profit.”
Upon hearing this, the Beit Ha-Levi turned to talk with the other visitors. A few minutes later, he turned again to his former student and repeated his question, “Vos machst du?” The young man once more related to his Rebbe that he had a successful business selling sugar wholesale, and the price of sugar was going up, thinking that perhaps the Rav had not heard him the first time. However, when a short while later the Rav turned to him again, and asked him for the third time, “Vos machst du?” he, and everyone around him, was confused and perplexed. With respect he asked the Rav, “Why is the Rebbe taking the trouble to repeat his question over and over when I have already given the same answer twice?”
R. Yosef Baer understood from the murmuring in the crowd that his talmid’s question was bothering the other people as well, so he raised his voice so that they could all hear his reply. As he spoke, he looked at his student, but also at everyone in the room. “Yes. I heard you the first time, and I understood everything you said. However, it was clear to me that you didn’t understand what I had asked. So I repeated myself, hoping that you would then get my real intent. But now that I’ve repeated myself three times, I have no other choice but to explain myself.”
“It is well-known that a person’s fortune in this world – his personal situation, financial standing, social status, his property, his wealth and his poverty, his ease and his stumbling, his crises and his joys, all events and causes, consequences and movements — all that is under the direct supervision of HaShem, Who observes people’s actions… According to a person’s connection to HaShem, or just because HaShem wants to, He puts into a person’s mind an idea or desire go to a certain place, engage in a certain business, partner with a certain partner, buy something at a certain time, sell it at another time, and so on. In his material dealings, a human being is basically Murshah, given permission as a Shaliach, an agent, a messenger, discharging HaShem’s will. This is what Chazal meant when they said: ‘Everything is in the hands of Heaven, except for the fear of Heaven’ (Berachot 33b).”
“Hashem left only one detail out of His control and entrusted it entirely to man: Yirat Shamayim — the fear of Heaven.” Not a crude fear, but deep vigilance to consider what needs to be done in every situation. “This is the only thing given over to man completely, according to his will and free control , where he can go whatever he wishes. And whatever he does in this one area, his actions are his alone, no one else, not even Ha-Shem, has a portion in them. They are called by his name, he created them and they are all his. Now, Yirat Shamayim — fear of Heaven – is a general term covering all spiritual actions, which contain numerous specifics, such as (and this is an instructive list) such as love of Torah, wholehearted service of HaShem, acts of honesty and goodness, love and compassion, righteousness and good judgment, generosity and acts of kindness, love of all creatures, helping others who are in trouble, lifting up those who stumble, thinking well of others and a good heart, empathizing with the pain of others, lending a helping hand and other acts such as these among the good actions and appropriate character qualities, for Heaven and for creatures. It thus turns out that every move a person makes on the spiritual plane is called his own action. Nobody else, not even the Ribono shel Olam, has a part in it.”
“According to this,” said R. Yosef Baer, now turning fully to his student, “If I had intended to ask about your business dealings and your store, I would have asked, ‘How are Hashem’s actions going for you?’ In that case your reply would have been appropriate: that HaShem put in your mind the idea to deal in sugar and He has helped you prosper. However, I asked , “Vos machst du?” How are you doing?’ because I was interested in knowing about those things over which you alone have control, that your name alone is on them, acquisitions of the soul, spiritual attainments. So you should have answered my question appropriately.
For instance: are you setting aside a set time to learn Torah? Are you really engaged in your learning? Are you supporting those who learn Torah? Are you faithful in Torah and Mitzvot? Do you extend your hand to help others with Tzedakah and Chesed, and acts of compassion and goodness in general? Do you join in groups that promote Torah in your area, do you help oversee Tzedakah and Chesed projects in your city? Do you walk humbly and honestly in a good path in the eyes of Heaven and people? – all the proliferating branches of Yirat HaShem. Instead of telling me about how you really are doing, you told me about your business and your store and the price of sugar – which was not what I asked.”
This true story from Mekor Barukh shows us there was no such thing as small talk and innocent greetings with the Brisker Rabbanan – this was also true of the Rav, Rav Soloveitchik ztz”l. But this incident can also help shed light on the essential meaning of Yom Kippur. Much of the tefillah and midrash and aggadah on Yom Kippur portrays this day as Yom haDin, a Day of Judgment, the Yom HaChatimah, the Day of the Sealing of the Verdict for a trial that began on Rosh HaShanah. And it certainly is that, on one level. The impression we might get is that we are being processed by a strict Heavenly bureaucracy, cold, formal, aloof, impersonal and powerful. And the Mahzor that guides us in Tefillah is a text full of complex tefillot, beautiful, uplifting, but intricate and demanding. But Rabbi Akiva at the end of the Mishnah Yuma comes to tune us in to the essential spirit of Yom Kippur:
משנה מסכת יומא פרק ח משנה ט
אמר רבי עקיבא אשריכם ישראל לפני מי אתם מיטהרין מי מטהר אתכם אביכם שבשמים שנאמר (יחזקאל ל”ו) וזרקתי עליכם מים טהורים וטהרתם , ואומר (ירמיה י”ד) מקוה ישראל ה’ מה מקוה מטהר את הטמאים אף הקדוש ברוך הוא מטהר את ישראל:
Rabbi Akiva says: Fortunate are you, Israel. Before Whom are you purified and Who purifies you? Your Father in Heaven, as it says “I have sprinkled upon you pure waters and purified you,” and it says “A Mikveh for Israel is God.” Just as a Mikveh purifies the impure, so too HKBH purifies Israel.
God, our Father in Heaven, is personally involved in our Kapparah, our cleansing and purification on this day. Just as the Beit HaLevi cared about his student, really cared, and pressed him to get serious about what is important in his life, so too, and infinitely more so, does Avinu Shebashamayim, Our Father in Heaven, care about us, and press us, on Yom Kippur, to get serious about what is important in our lives. And He does it by asking each and every one of us today, throughout the day, in effect, “Vos machst du – How are you doing?” This is really what Yom Kippur is about. It’s not a cold, formal trial. We shouldn’t project our experience of sadly imperfect human justice systems on the way Heaven works. Yom Kippur is a day of Kapparah, Taharah, Tikkun, cleansing, purifying, repairing, a day for fixing ourselves, guided and supported by the loving care of Avinu Shebashamayim, who keeps asking us, over and over, in all of the Tefillot, in one way or another, no matter what the theme or how elaborate the poetry, “How Are You Doing?” He’s asking us, and we are trying to answer as honestly as we can.
Especially in the Viduyim, the Confessions, which are the heart of the Yom Kippur service. These confessions help us zero in on our weak places, the areas of our character and behavior that need work. R Pinchas of Koretz suggests that you choose a few to concentrate on, those that really address your issues that you are wrestling with. And these confessions are repeated over and over again throughout the day.
As it happens, there is some concern in the Gemara Yuma 86b, whether a Viduy should be repeated if you have done Teshuvah already.
תלמוד בבלי מסכת יומא דף פו עמוד ב
תנו רבנן: עבירות שהתודה עליהן יום הכפורים זה – לא יתודה עליהן יום הכפורים אחר, ואם שנה בהן – צריך להתודות יום הכפורים אחר, …רבי אליעזר בן יעקב אומר: כל שכן שהוא משובח, שנאמר +תהלים נא+ כי פשעי אני אדע וחטאתי נגדי תמיד.
The Rabbis teach: transgressions that you confessed this Yom Kippur, do not confess them on the following Yom Kippur. If you repeated the sin, then you need to confess on the next Yom Kippur. Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov says: It is all the more so praiseworthy to confess again for transgressions for which you already confessed, as it says “I know my transgressions, and my sins are always before me (Ps. 51).”
In Hilkhot Teshuvah 2:8 the Rambam decides that we should repeat confessions, even if we think we have done complete Teshuvah. Rabbenu Yona in Sha’arei Tshuvah explains: we repeat, out of concern that we have not yet really completed an essential aspect of our Teshuvah, or that we have not given enough thought to the real significance of the mistake, what went wrong, and have not really understood our mistake deeply enough. In other words, we repeat the Viduyim in order to try to come, each time, to a deeper level of awareness, of “How we are doing?” Just like the Beit HaLevi repeated his question to get his student to understand.
Rabbi Akiva’s point is that the Kapparah process, the Cleansing process of Yom Kippur, is an intimate connection with HaShem. It’s based on HaShem’s care for us like the care of a parent or beloved teacher, like the Beit HaLevi’s care and concern for his student. The Kapparah of this day includes our care for each other as well. The Slonimer Rebbe z”l in Netivot Shalom says that the second verse R. Akiva quotes, from Yermiyahu: “God is a Mikveh of Israel,” shows that the Teshuvah process of Yom Kippur is a communal process: “that our connectedness with Israel, our brothers and sisters, brings us to connectedness with HaShem. This is why, before Yom Kippur, it is proper for each of us to forgive each other and reconnect with each other.
So the question of Yom Kippur, “How are you doing?” is a personal question and also a communal question: how are we doing as a Kehillah? How are we doing as a Jewish community? How are we doing as a nation? It’s an opening to evaluate ourselves honestly and fix what needs fixing. And we are being asked this question lovingly, with infinite personal care. May we all, and this whole world, be sealed together for good by God, our Father in Heaven.