Yom Kippur 5781
ישעיהו פרק כד (י)
נשברה קרית תהו סגר כל בית מבוא:
The confused city is broken, every house is locked down so none shall enter (Is. 24:10).
The prophet Yeshayahu knew about lockdowns, and the sense of brokenness they entail. The prospect of spending Yom Kippur in isolation against the pandemic can seem demoralizing. It’s a day so deeply associated with community, from the time of the Temples, when families would gather together to attend the service of atonement performed by the Kohen Gadol, to our own time in which even relatively estranged Jews show up at Shul. But no matter what our circumstances, wherever we are, even isolated from each other in our homes, Yom Kippur is still a day of solidarity.
The tractate Yoma, literally “The Day,” dedicated to the laws and customs of the ultimate day of the Torah year, Yom Kippur, ends with a remarkable mishnah. The tractate takes us chronologically through the elaborate service of Yom Kippur in the time of the Second Temple, from the week before and then step-by-step through the day itself. By the end we have a vivid vision of how the whole day unfolded in detail. Then the tractate concludes with this:
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”ז) מקוה ישראל ה’ מה מקוה מטהר את הטמאים אף הקדוש ברוך הוא מטהר את ישראל:
Mishnah Yoma 8:9
Rabbi Akiva said: Fortunate are you, Israel! Before whom are you purified, and who purifies you? Your Father in Heaven, as it says “I shall sprinkle upon you pure water and you shall be purified (Ez. 36).” And it says “HaShem is the Mikveh of Israel (Jer. 17:13),” just as a mikveh purifies the impure, so the Holy One, blessed be He, purifies Israel.
Rabbi Akiva is primarily interpreting the verse in Yirmiyahu:
ירמיהו פרק יז פסוק יג
מקוה ישראל יקוק כל עזביך יבשו וסורי בארץ יכתבו כי עזבו מקור מים חיים את יקוק:
The hope [mikveh] of Israel is HaShem. All who forsake You shall be ashamed [dried up], and those who depart from Me shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the source of living waters, HaShem.
Rabbi Akiva is not just projecting a playful midrash on the prophet’s words. Yirmiyahu himself is already hinting at this reading through double-entendres (מקוה as hope and as immersion pool; יבשו as shamed and dried-up) and the metaphor of living waters. To describe HaShem as a Mikveh of living waters is a daring image. The implication is that we attain atonement and purification through, in some sense, immersing ourselves in HaShem Himself!
Rabbi Yisrael Lifschitz, in his commentary Tiferet Yisrael, spells out the experiential implication:
תפארת ישראל – יכין מסכת יומא פרק ח משנה ט
נו) מטהר את ישראל. זה הקרא מייתי נגד הכפרה שע”י תשובה, דכמו דטהרה שע”י טבילה, הוא ע”י הטמא עצמו, שהולך וטובל וטהר, כמו כן כפרה שע”י תשובה, רק בכח רצון החוטא תליא ישליך השרץ מידו ויטבול במימי חסדו יתברך, וטהר, שא”צ לממוצע כלל בין הבנים לאביהם הרחמן, שרחמיו יתברך הן בעצמן מקוותן וטהרתן של ישראל, ואינן צריכין קרבן או יו”כ כממוצעים בינם לאביהם, רק תמיד ידיו יתברך פתוחות לקבלם בתשובתם ולחבקם באהבה רבה ואהבת עולם, והקב”ה יטהר טומאותינו, ויחזק לבבנו ליראתו וללימוד תורתו לעבדו שכם אחד לנצח:
Rabbi Yisrael Lipschitz, Tiferet Yisrael, Yakhin, Yoma 8:9
“…The Holy One, blessed be He, purifies Israel.” [Rabbi Akiva] brings this verse as corresponding to the cleansing that occurs through Tshuvah. Just as in purification by immersion, it is [accomplished] by the impure person himself, who goes and immerses and is purified, so, too, for cleansing by Tshuvah, it depends just on the power of the will of the sinner – to cast the cause of impurity from his hand and immerse in the water of His Love, blessed be He, and be pure. For an intermediary is not necessary at all between the children and their merciful Father, for His mercy, bless Him, itself is the Mikveh and purification of Israel, and they do not need a sacrificial offering or Yom Kippur as an intermediary between them and their father. Only that His Hands, blessed be He, are always open to receive them in their Tshuvah and to hug them in great love and love eternal. And the Holy One, blessed be He, shall purify our impurities, and strengthen our hearts to revere Him and learn His Torah and serve Him with one accord forever.
This reading is true, it is real, it is moving. Rabbi Akiva really invites us to realize we are immersed in God, in the sense of immersed in His Love. He invites us to recognize His love that supports us and purifies us, and helps us release the painful traumas and self-defeating habits of thought, emotion and action that keep diminishing us, so we can become who God has gifted us to be. And Rabbi Lipschitz adds that this feeling of immersion in God’s love is not dependent on any rituals or limited to Yom Kippur. It’s an existential awareness available at all times.
This view of the process of Tshuvah is also positive and constructive. A number of studies have been done involving middle school students, an emotionally volatile age group, and what factors can enhance personal and moral growth. Several such studies involved asking the students to imagine their future selves, including listing obstacles they might run into in trying to realize that self, and strategies they would try to use to overcome the obstacles. Students who engaged in this exercise, projecting their ideal, future selves, were found to act with greater honesty, needed fewer remedial classes and were more academically successful (See Scott Barry Kaufman, Transcend: the New Science of Self-Actualization.) While Yom Kippur is sometimes presented as an intimidating day of judgment, the true spirit of the day is a recognition of God’s love and mercy to facilitate self-improvement, to work towards being our best selves.
In the powerful Psalm 139, King David says:
תהלים פרק קלט
ז) אנה אלך מרוחך ואנה מפניך אברח: ח) אם אסק שמים שם אתה ואציעה שאול הנך: ט) אשא כנפי שחר אשכנה באחרית ים:
י) גם שם ידך תנחני ותאחזני ימינך:
Where could I go from Your Spirit, where could I flee from Your Face? If I ascend to Heaven, there You are, if I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there. If I soar on wings of the morning or dwell at the end of the sea, even there Your Hand guides me, Your right hand holds me.
The point is that we really are held in existence at every moment, in every situation, and we are not doing the holding. We are really and effortlessly here, held by God wherever we are. Maimonides, in Guide of the Perplexed 3:53 says “This reality, in its entirety…is God’s love.” It’s not that God created the world and created us, and then loves us. Reality is God’s love, we are God’s love. We can’t lose it, we are it, we are immersed in God’s love always.
Rabbi Lifschitz suggests that Rabbi Akiva’s saying, coming as the conclusion of the Mishnah Yoma, actually points beyond the day of Yom Kippur, to an experience of purification and self-improvement and a sense of being enveloped in God’s support and love that is available to us at all times. This is so. But perhaps on Yom Kippur of this unusual year, in which many of our usual support systems and patterns that we tend to rely on have been pulled out from under us, perhaps this Yom Kippur we can let ourselves really experience the enduring reality of which Rabbi Akiva speaks, and accept his invitation, God’s invitation, to be immersed in the Mikveh of Israel, the Holy One, blessed be He, Himself, to feel His unwavering support to help us towards our highest potential, to be sealed for goodness and blessing, all Israel together with the whole world.