Yom Kippur

In the shiur regarding Rosh Hashana, we saw how the shofar connected us to a moment unlimited by, or outside of, time. This radicalization of the perception of time bears an even more immediate relationship to the concept of Yom Kippur and its central component, Teshuva, or repentance, as the word teshuva is roughly translated.

The unlinkage of our normal perception of the flow of time is made evident right in the initial textual ambiguity regarding the day of Yom Hakippurim. This ambiguity is nicely presented in BT Pesahim 68:

Mar son of Ravina would fast on all the days of the year except for Purim, Shavuout, and the eve of Yom Kippur,(the ninth of Tishrei, as opposed to the tenth, which is the date of Yom Kippur), since it says (Vayikra 23:32) “v’initem et nafshotayhem batisha’ lahodesh”- “and you shall deprive yourselves on the ninth of the month”- Is the fast actually on the ninth? No, the fast is on the tenth (Vayikra 23:26)! So this text comes to teach us, that one who eats and drinks on the ninth, it is as if one fasted for two days consecutively…

Essentially, the text provides, within the space of several verses, two different dates for the “soul deprivation”. To reconcile this contradiction, a special status was granted for the ninth, the day before the fast, in which the act of eating becomes consecrated. The noteworthy element is that the otherwise joyous act of eating is here considered an “innui”, a deprivation, an act related to suffering, the term usually reserved for fasting.

Well, if the act of eating is considered an “innui”, then what is the day in which we fast considered? The BT in Taanit 26: , in a passage which we analyzed in depth regarding the fifteenth of Av, explains:

There were no happier days for Israel than Yom Kippur and the 15th of Av, as a result the women would dance through the vineyards… “Bishlama”(This is obvious) regarding Yom Kippur, since it is the day of forgiveness, (“sliha and mehila”), …

In other words, here the Talmud considers the fast day, the day of “innui”, to be the holiday.

The passages brought above illustrate two points. First of all, they support our hypothesis about the out-of-time nature of Yom Kippur. I’d like to suggest a second message within these texts, a supplementary tangential point about the meaning of “innui”.

The term “innui” to which we’ve referred several times is usually rendered along the lines of “torment”, “suffering”, “affliction”, etc. How can this type of term be applied to activities usually considered enjoyable, such as eating? To reconcile these passages, I would suggest a reconsideration of what the goals of the day are. While commonly one views the fasting on Yom Kippur as a kind of suffering or punishment, but we will argue that the act of fasting on Yom Kippur is not meant to serve as scourge or torture, retribution or punishment, but rather it reflects a joyous act of liberation, a liberation from the suffering of the physical. The non-eating and non-drinking of Yom Kippur signifies and elevation of the totality of our being to a place where we do not require material sustenance. Rav Tzadok proposes many times in his writings that so many of the commandments are related to eating because it is both a flawed activity, at the root of flawed desires as seen at the very first sin, that of Adam and Hava, and at the same time a route of union with all things, a way to integrate all material being within our own spiritual activity. On Yom Kippur, however, we get to experience the consummation and transcendence of this world transforming endeavour. Moshe Haim Luzzatto in Daat Tevunot stresses that the “fall” of Adam and Hava as a result of sin was one of the spirit, symbolized by exile from the “garden”, meaning that what we experience as the “spiritual” in our current state was earlier the “material” for Adam and Hava, and their “spiritual” was some grander stated not normally within our consciousness. This level is potentially attained on Yom Kippur. This then explains why the act of eating, to those with greatly rarified souls, such as Mar, son of Ravina, on the day before the fast, this necessary eating to enable the subsequent fast, is recognition of the as-yet unperfected nature of human existence. When we eat, we recall our still unperfected nature, when we not-eat on Yom Kippur, we get the chance to experience a higher stage in our future development. Thus the eating is the “innui” and the non-eating is the “day of joy”.

Returning to our central thesis, regarding the outside-of-time nature of Yom Kippur, we have other, more literal prooftexts. Stating this proposition directly, the Tana D’vei Eliyahu, an early midrash, begins with the teaching based on a verse in Tehillim: (139:16) “my unformed body was forseen by You, for in your book all are written, the days they will be made, and one of them was for it as well”. The important clause for us is the last one, ambiguous enough in terms of meaning, but rendered more confusing due to the textual variant preserved by the Masora- the Hebrew phrase reads: yamim yutzaru, v’lo echad bahem. The word “v’lo” can be read with the letter vav at the end, meaning “and for it”, a third person possessive, but can also be read, with an aleph at the end “and it is not”. The Tana D’vei Eliyahu opts for the negating version, reading the verse as: “days were fashioned but this day is not one of them”, and explains that this verse is referring to Yom Kippur, which is a day that is not a “day”, rather it is a day outside of the normal flow of time.

A second prooftext is found in BT Yoma 20. The Talmud narrates a conversation between R. Yehuda and the prophet Eliyahu. This R. Yehuda, brother of R. Sela Hassida, apparently asked Eliyahu on Yom Kippur, while in some lofty spiritual state, how it is that despite it being Yom Kippur and everyone is in a state of repentance, that the Messiah hasn’t come (for after all, if the whole world is rectified, the Messiah ought to appear). Eliyahu reportedly answered that despite it being Yom Kippur, sexual violations were occurring even in Neharda’a, the big yeshiva town. Gd is willing to be more lenient, blaming it on the evil impulse, the “satan”, but the “satan” defends himself, stating that he isn’t the cause of people sinning, he has off on Yom Kippur- the word “hasatan” has the mathematical equivalent of 364, which means, the Talmud explains, that for 364 days the “satan” tempts the soul, but on Yom Kippur, it’s the soul’s own fault. In other words, the Talmud is saying, 1. Yom Kippur is a day outside of the normal flow of time, and 2. sin is not an externally mediated phenomenon alone; there is the potential within every person which can lead them astray, perhaps the physicality of being is inextricably burdened with drives and desires, without the need for external “tempting”.

Returning to the the issue of stepping outside of temporality, why is the necessary requirement for self-correction linked to a day outside of time? To answer this, we can uncover a deep insight into the core of the experience of teshuva, of the unique Jewish approach to self-correction.

Rav Kook, in Orot Hateshuva 6:5, writes:

The resulting reality, the choices the person makes, and their underlying will, are links in a great big chain, which are never disconnected. The will of a man is linked to his actions. Even the actions of the past are not disconnected from the ongoing being and the will at the root of the person. Since nothing comes loose, the person has the ability to place a new color even upon actions of the past. This is the secret meaning of Teshuva, which Gd created prior to creating the world, in other words, He extended the human spiritual creativity to encompass the past as well. The bad action rolls on forward, snowballing into more degradation and contempt, until this creative will transforms it into a new shade of meaning, that of the good, at which point it itself spins out of itself the positive, the grace of Gd and His light. (my translation).

This conception, that actions of the past can actually be changed by teshuva in the present, is not unique to R. Kook. Earlier support for this can be found in Takanat Hashavin of R. Zadok Hacohen of Lublin, who states at the beginning of Siman 5 that teshuva is the transformation in the present of sins that have already transpired in the past. This is not simply some kind of Hassidic innovation, in fact the prooftexts for these teachings are found in the Talmud, in BT Yoma 86: -Resh Lakish is quoted in two alternate citations:

1. “Great is Teshuva in that intentional misdeeds are reckoned as though they were unintentional misdeeds”, while the alternate version is even more radical:

2. Great is Teshuva in that intentional misdeeds are reckoned as though they were meritorious actions.

So how does this all work? We can understand the concept of forgiveness, or pardon, but what does it mean to say that one can reach back into the past and transform actions that have already transpired, to remake intentional violations into unintentional or even meritorious actions?

I propose that teshuva operates as does memory, outside of time. We have seen earlier that in order to recognize a melody, or to understand any event that unfolds in time, we must have the ability for cognitive activity outside of time. Some aspect of our being, that which Husserl couldn’t really define although he stated it must exist, that which we would call the neshama, the soul, has the capacity to reach to that place which is outside of time.This “place”, transcendent to normal time and space, is the place where Teshuva takes place. The Kabbalists, following the Talmudic teaching that Teshuva is prior to the creation of the world, gave this “place” a name, sefirat Binah. According to the Luzzatto, in his commentary to “Arimat Yadi b’tzlothun”, time itself is only a transient creation, created along with the universe, and reflecting only the lower aspects of creation (in kabbalistic terms: zeman is the numerical equivalent of ma”h and be”n, which are the divine names reflecting the lower aspects of creation), thus time is not operative at the spiritual place at which teshuva operates. Yom Kippur, Teshuva, the human:divine dialogue expedited by the shofar, itself outside of time – all these things work because they operate transtemporally. Thus, in a sense, the person reorienting his or her life is given the opportunity to reach beyond time allowing the past to be read in an entirely different fashion.This is not a merely fanciful, “spiritual” use of words to describe a religious experience, I believe that this makes sense on a literary and philosophical place as well. Here is Nietzche, talking of the route in which historical research operates:

Historia abscondita- Every great human being exerts a retroactive force: for his sake all of history is placed in the balance again, and a thousand secrets of the past crawl out of their hiding places- into his sunshine. There is no way of telling what may yet become part of history. Perhaps the past is still essentially undiscovered! So many retroactive forces are still needed! (The Gay Science 34, tr. Walter Kauffman)

Nietzsche recognizes that our constructs of history are subjectively determined; the outcome in essence determines what is worth studying retrospectively. PhD’s study the social and economic development of little towns in Europe because important people were born there, and not the reverse. The past is still “undiscovered”, because it is our actions in the present that will determine what will enter “History”. History in this sense shares many operations with the literary- when at the end of a novel the identity of the criminal is finally revealed, suddenly in one moment all the odd facts and seemingly irrelevant episodes narrated earlier take on new meaning. Only at the end of the book can we attribute sense to all that transpired earlier.

These then, as R. Kook explains, are the retroactive forces by which we are enabled to transform sins into merits. They are all links in a chain, as R. Kook put it, the full implications to which they connect are only understood later, at the end. Resh Lakish was originally a criminal, and so he would have been judged as such by anyone who knew him at that point in his life. Later, when he became a major Talmudic figure, the meaning of his earlier life becomes entirely reread into an entirely different narrative. This rerouting of our own narratives is what is made possible by the transtemporal nature of teshuva.

Thus, perhaps the sages were not merely being figurative when they talked about teshuva and this period of the year in terms of books:

R. Cruspedai taught in the name of R. Yohanan: Three books are opened on Rosh Hashana…the righteous are immediately inscribed in the book of life… (BT Rosh Hashana 16: ).

Perhaps they are alluding to this narrative function of teshuva. Note that the reflexive form of the verb is used (nechtavim, nechtamim) for the act of inscribing. These books, the books of our lives, are written by us, the actions inscribed in them are the result of our own choice; we are the authors who get to determine the outcome of the episodes narrated in the early sections of this “book”. Will there be happy ending? A tragic ending? The author who gets to decide how the ending turns out is revealed as none other than the major character about whom the book revolves.

Gmar Hatima Tova to all of you.

(Two postscripts: One, is that this recognition of the transtemporal nature of the shofar experience is also noted in R. Hutner’s Pahad Yitzchak, Rosh Hashana section 24. The other thing I’ve been thinking about, is how we’ve noted before that the “innui” is related by these texts specifically to eating. Could it be that eating is linked to memoire involuntaire, to the triggering of unanalyzed and unrectified past events, much as in the case of Proust’s madeleines?)

A thought for those not facing the holidays eagerly,  based on the above texts… Part 2- Yom Kippur

In the previous Rosh Hashana essay, we contemplated the position of one who feels lost and in despair , not in a space for the moment of joy or soul searching simply because such activities are mandated by the calendar (let us say that it was not a remarkable leap of novelistic imagination for me to sympathize with that situation). In that essay, using classic texts to highlight the alternative nature of time as it pertains to these holidays, we were able to construct using reading from the Sefat Emet a path towards an initial awakening possible for the individual made possible by the idea of judgment, where judgment is defined as an encounter, a desire to take seriously the meaning of the events of one’s own life and present them, as it were, for analysis, to perhaps have them reread in a different context, one of tovah, of the good.

It became clear to me, as I dealt with this set of feelings in my own life, that there was implicit in the texts of the Hassidic masters an arc that carries this approach through the set of holidays of this month, from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur and, contrary to the usual preconceptions, reaching an apogee at Sukkot.  Building upon the texts presented in the above Yom Kippur essay, which emphasized the day being one that stands outside of time and how that relates to the creation of personal narrative.  Tying these essays together I suggest that we can conceptualize a second step in the rebuilding of the individual. If the first step translates the term mishpat, judgment, into a therapeutic category of analysis, on Yom Kippur we might advocate a redefinition of the concept of tahara, purity, into one of individuation. For this we will follow a reading of the Tiferet Shlomo (TS).

TS begins with the Mishna in Talmud Yoma 85:, which begins with a statement  that the day of Yom Kippur itself produces atonement for certain types of sins, and provides two attempts to suggest prooftexts for this idea. The first is that of Rabbi Elazer ben Azariah, who cites the verse in Vayikra 16:30 that

…on this day, from all your sins you shall be atoned, lifnei Hashem titharu, you will be purified before Gd.

The mishna then cites a second supporting reading, that of  Rabbi Akiva who taught:

Fortunate are you O Israel, lifnei mi, before whom are you purified, and who purifies you? Your father in heaven as it says (Ezekiel 36:25) “I will sprinkle pure water upon you and you shall be purified of all you sins” and as it says (Jeremiah 17),” mikvah yisrael hashem- G-d is the mikvah (ritual purification waters) of Israel- for as the mikvah purifies the impure, so too does Gd purify the people of Israel”.

TS wonders what supplemental information is transmitted in the second proof text quoted by Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Elazar in the first prooftext established a connection to purification and the day of Yom Kippur, and the text from Ezekiel supports a connection to ritual ablution, so why the third text relating to mikvah?

TS derives two central ideas from the flow of the Mishna’s reading. The first point R. Akiva makes  is a riff on the verse in Vayikra, where the word lifnei is used, and according to TS Rabbi Akiva is making a statement, rather than asking a question-  not lifnei mi, before whom are you purified?, but rather lifnei mi, beyond “mi” is where purification is accomplished.  The term mi in classical Kabbala represents the divine aspect of Binah, Wisdom (mi numerically equals 50, the 50 gates of wisdom). Thus “beyond binah” would be the space of the emanation of Keter, which is the highest spiritual level in the sephirotic tree, but important for our purposes, it is an area in which there is not yet any intermixture of evil, it is a space of pure Good (evil only emerges from binah). This, to TS, explains why we so frequently use the “higher” Kedusha prayer that begins with Keter (in the Nusach Sefard prayerbook favored by Chassidim) during Yom Kippur, also, conveniently, the word titharu, purified, has the same numerical value as keter, 420. In short, Rabbi Akiva first teaches that the moment of Yom Kippur transpires at a level which is shielded from the intrusion of evil, conflict, and despair.

The second text Rabbi Akiva brings, while again relating purification to water, changes the situational relationship to this water. In the earlier prooftext, the metaphor is one of water being sprinkled above, but this was inadequate a representation of Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur, in this reading, is not trickled from above like rain, but is rather an immersion. The mikvah requires total immersion of the body, it is a space that one enters with one’s totality. With this the metaphor is complete. On Yom Kippur we enter a safe zone, one that is devoid of conflict, a place where the despair that is the result of conflicted feelings within the individual can be resolved, and our true nature “purified” as it were, a protected temporal space for healing. He provides an interesting explanation for a curious line in the Sabbath prayer with this approach, that makes much sense. It states that “Gd’s mercy is eternal for splitting the Red Sea”, and then that   “Gd’s mercy is eternal  for leading the people of Israel through those split waters”, which appears redundant. The point according to TS is that the second phrase points to an important concept in the relation of Gd and humanity- that in the entering of that protected space within the split waters, the experience of an existential safe zone, entirely encompassing and immersing the individual and shielding one from all torment and strife, is possible and real.

In summary, we have two stages of psychological progress. The first moment, that of “judgment” on Rosh Hashana, is one of encounter with one’s own issues and conflicts, which alone can accomplish a level of personal transformation. The next step, of “purification”, of healing and resolution of internal conflict, doubt and the resulting harm to personal integrity, is accomplished by the withdrawal outside of the normal flow of time and the interpersonal processes that impact upon the individual; immersion in the protected space of Yom Kippur. The third stage we will discuss more at length in an essay on Sukkot, which will symbolize “joy”,  a protected space for the newly healed to achieve reinsertion into the social sphere.

Mark H. Kirschbaum, MD, is a hematology and cancer specialist based in Duarte, CA.
 
tags: Torah Commentary   
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