Rabbi David Walk
Last week I discussed a duality in Rosh Hashanah. That dichotomy was based on the physical and spiritual elements within the human being. This week I want to talk about a different kind of bifurcation, which takes place on Yom Kippur. That physical, spiritual divide pertains to how we understand ourselves. This week's duality connects to how we relate to God. Perhaps this means that on Rosh Hashanah we try to understand our place in the physical world, and on Yom Kippur we endeavor to discover where we stand relative to God. And this discovery can be very disturbing.
I believe that the most important verses of Yom Kippur are: And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed: Lord, Lord, benevolent God, Who is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness and truth, preserving loving kindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity and rebellion and sin (Exodus 34:6-7). These verses are referred to as the Thirteen Attributes of God. They are the heart of our petitional prayers or Slichot recited during this time period. The Rav (Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, 1903-1993) often referred to Yom Kippur as Yom Haslichot, and the custom is to recite these verses thirteen times during the climactic Ne'ila service. What is the message of these difficult passages? The great mystic, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (called the Remak, Safed, 1522-1570) wrote an amazing little book called Tomer Devora, the Date Palm of Deborah. The first half of this book describes the Thirteen Attributes, the second half the ten mystical sefirot or levels. The Remak describes the attributes in the following way: The attributes describe God as a tolerant King, who bears insult in a manner that defies human logic. Nothing is hidden from God, and God constantly nourishes and sustains this world. Nevertheless, even though a person uses this vitality provided by God to continue to sin. God does not withhold this strength from him. God suffers the insult, and patiently continues to give the individual power.
The Remak then makes the most Remakable (sorry, but I couldn't resist) observation. He concludes: This then is the virtue every human should emulate, namely tolerance. Even when one is most grievously insulted, he should never withdraw his benevolence. Reb Yehuda Amital OB"M (1924-July 9, 2010) said that this explains the Talmudic statement (Rosh Hashanah 17b), that God was enwrapped in a talit like the leader of prayers when these attributes were proclaimed. Only when the individual is totally wrapped and has covered his own ego, can one emulate God. He then opines that perhaps only then one is truly assured of forgiveness. Only when we tolerate and forgive, can we expect toleration and forgiveness.
Wow! I think that these ideas are majestic and inspiring. Yom Kippur is about developing our tzelem elokim (Divine Image) to the point that we can actually emulate God. If it's true that forgiveness is Divine, then we can achieve it on Yom Kippur. However, there is a major problem with this scenario. One of the most moving prayers on Yom Kippur is the Unetane Tokef (according to tradition composed by the martyr, Reb Amnon as he died) . This splendid poem recited before the Kedusha service on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur defies this approach. The first part of this liturgical poem describes in detail the judgment process of the Days of Awe: On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. Who will live and who will die. Then there are quite ghastly descriptions of how one can expire. It's a clear example of TMI (too much information). Finally, we are assured that prayer, repentance and charity can avert the negative decree.
It's in the second part that our conceptual difficulties arise. We then recite that God is hard to anger and easy to appease, for You do not wish the death of one deserving death, but that he repent from his way and live. However, we continue to declaim that we can't do any of this, because we are: from dust and our destiny is to go back to dust, at risk of his life he earns his bread; he is likened to a broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream. What a beautiful description of the frailty of humankind. This is followed by an imposing description of the nature of God: But You are the King, the living and eternal God. There is no limit to Your years or length of days.
Now we see the problem. According to the interpretation of the Thirteen Attributes by the Remak, we are supposed to find the spiritual power within ourselves to emulate God. According to this most moving poem from the actual services, we are nothing compared to God. It's a chutzpa to even consider such an idea. Well, I guess it's time to ask the inevitable question and give the inevitable answer. So, which is it? Are we expected to find the capacity within ourselves to be Godlike, or are we to spend this day of forgiveness in abject awe before this incomparable Deity? If you haven't guessed, you probably have never read any of my articles before. Of course, it's both. The Rav often said that the essence of Judaism is to be able to live with paradox.
The resolution in this case is quite elementary. As we stand before God asking for atonement for our transgressions, we must do so in an attitude of absolute humility. Who are we to expect such largesse from the Omnipotent One? However, in our prayers when we think of slights to ourselves and when we are approached by others for forgiveness, we must do everything in our power to emulate God. We are required to find that spark of the Divine within us all to grant pardon with empathy and love.
May our Yom Kippur be a day of modesty towards the Creator, and compassion towards our fellow creatures, and then we can truly appreciate and benefit from this awesome day.
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