I. Time and Teshuva

In the shiur regarding Rosh Hashana, we saw how the shofar connected us to a moment 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, repentance, as the word teshuva is roughly translated. We will argue that Teshuva means a whole lot more, a restructuring of one’s narrative, an ability to step outside the linearity of experience in order to set things right in one’s life and in the world.

The un-linkage of our normal perception of the flow of time to the Yom Kippur experience is present in the original verse describing the day, as summarized 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 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 innui nefesh, 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“, so that eating becomes deprivation and suffering, rather than fasting.

So if the act of eating is considered an “innui”, then how is the day of fasting categorized? The BT in Taanit 26: explains:

There were no happier days for Israel than Yom Kippur and the 15th of Av, on these days the women would dance through the vineyards… Bishlama (This being a happy day is obvious) with regards to 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 happy holiday.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 some see the fasting on Yom Kippur as a kind of suffering or punishment, perhaps 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, liberation from the bonds of the corporeal.

The non-eating and non-drinking of Yom Kippur signifies an elevation 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 on the one hand eating is meant as a way for the human achieve union with all things, a way to integrate all material being within our own spiritual activity, while at the same time it is a flawed activity, when that primal desire to eat becomes flawed, it is the root of all flawed desires as seen at the very first ‘sin’, hence the centrality of eating to the story of Adam and Eve.

On Yom Kippur, however, we get to experience the positive side of eating. Moshe Haim Luzzatto in Daat Tevunot stresses that the “fall” of Adam and Eve as a result of sin was a spiritual fall, symbolized by exile from the “garden”. Luzzatto states that the outcome of the “expulsion from Eden” is that what we think of as “spiritual” this world was what would have been cognitively the lower “material” for Adam and Hava, while to them, the “spiritual” was some grander stated not currently within the capacity of our limited consciousness. However, this higher level, a level beyond our normal cognitive possibilities of spirituality is potentially attained on Yom Kippur.

Thus the act of eating is recognition of the as-yet unperfected nature of human existence, to those with greatly rarified souls, such as Mar, son of Ravina. When we experience the need to eat, we experience our still unperfected nature, whereas, when we ‘not-eat’ on Yom Kippur, it is an opportunity to experience a higher stage in our evolving spiritual consciousness. Thus eating can be viewed as an “innui“, a reminder that we are in a state of limited consciousness, while transcendence beyond the needs of the corporeal is experienced as a “day of joy”.

Let us return now to the the beyond-time nature of Yom Kippur. The book Tana D’vei Eliyahu, an early midrashic text, opens with the teaching based on Psalms 139:16:

…My unformed body was forseen by You, for in Your book all are written- the days that will be made, when there weren’t yet any of them…

The important clause for Yom Kippur is the last one, rendered entirely ambiguous 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, the third person possessive form, as the last letter, meaning “and for it”; but can also be read, with the letter aleph at the end, forming the word lo, “no” so that the phrase means”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”, explaining the verse as referring to Yom Kippur, a day that is not an ordinary “day”, rather a day outside of the normal flow of time.

A second text situating the day of Yom Kippur outside the flow of ordinary time is found in BT Yoma 19: The Talmud narrates a conversation between R. Yehuda and the prophet Elijah. R. Yehuda, brother of R. Sela Hassida, apparently asks Eliyahu, on Yom Kippur, “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)”. Elijah reportedly answers that despite it being Yom Kippur, sexual violations were occurring even in Neharda’a, the city with the largest Talmudic academy of the time. The text continues, God is willing to be lenient with these sins, blaming it on the evil impulse, the “satan” but the “satan” replies that he isn’t the cause of people sinning, as he has the day off on Yom Kippur- for the word “hasatan” has the numerical value of 364, meaning, according to the amora Rami bar Hama, that for 364 days the “satan” is allowed to tempt the soul, but if sin occurs on Yom Kippur, it’s the soul’s own fault, without external temptation.

In other words, the Talmud is teaching two things:

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 it is the nature of corporeality to be inextricably burdened with drives and desires within its own being, one does not require external temptation for desire to appear.

So we see multiple texts that insist that Yom Kippur is a day beyond time. Why must the day of atonement be viewed as a day outside of time? The answer reveals a deep insight into the core of the experience of teshuva, of the uniquely 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 God 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 God and His light. (my translation).

This conception, that actions of the past can actually be changed by teshuva in the present, is also found in Takanat Hashavin of R. Zadok Hacohen of Lublin. In Takanat Hashavin, R. Zadok explains (at the beginning of Siman 5) that teshuva is the transformation in the present of sins that have already transpired in the past. He bases this idea upon the description of teshuva found in the Talmud, in BT Yoma 86: -Resh Lakish is quoted in two alternate citations, the second being more radical than the first:

1. “Great is Teshuva in that intentional misdeeds are reckoned as though they were unintentional misdeeds”

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

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?

Teshuva can operate in this retroactive way, because teshuva much like memory, operates outside of time. In the previous essay on Rosh Hashana, we reviewed how it is 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 outside of time. This place, transcendent of perceived time and space, is the place where Teshuva takes place.

The Kabbalists, following the Talmudic teaching that teshuva was created 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 is a part of the creation of the physical world, and is thus only a transient creation reflecting only the lower aspects of creation (in technical kabbalistic terms: zeman, time, is the numerical equivalent of ma”h and be”n, the two divine names which parallel the lower aspects of creation), thus time does not exist at the much higher spiritual place at which teshuva operates.

In summary, Yom Kippur, Teshuva, the human:divine dialogue expedited by the shofar, the cry of the shofar described as reaching outside of time – all these things function because they operate beyond time. A person reorienting his or her life is given the opportunity to reach beyond time, which allows the past to be transformed.

This is not a merely fanciful, “spiritual” use of metaphor to describe a religious experience. 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; a significant historical event ‘creates’ retrospective importance. For example, academicians study the social and economic development of particular otherwise insignificant towns or cities 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 and future that determine what will become a part of “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 finally attribute sense to all the random seeming events that were presented earlier in the book.

Teshuva, then, as R. Kook explains, is the retroactive force by which we are enabled to transform sins into merits. All the events of our lives are like links in a chain, to use R. Kook’s phrase, the full implications of which can only be understood later, at the end of that individual’s life, like in obituaries, where a clear narrative arc can be more easily constructed. 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, after he became a major Talmudic figure, the meanings of his earlier life experiences are reread into an entirely different narrative. This reconstruction of our own personal narratives is made possible by the trans-temporal nature of teshuva.

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, of writing in the book. These books, the books of our lives, are written by us, the actions inscribed in them are the result of our own choices; we are the authors who get to determine the outcome of the episodes narrated in the earlier sections of the “book” we call our lives. Will there be a happy ending to the crises we encounter in our lives? 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.

(Two postscripts: 1. this recognition of the transtemporal nature of the shofar experience is also noted in R. Hutner’s Pahad Yitzchak, Rosh Hashana section 24.

2. We note that the “innui” is linked specifically to eating. Could it be that eating is linked to the teshuva process as a memoire involuntaire, a physical act that triggers the memory of suppressed unanalyzed and unrectified events of our past, as did Proust’s madeleines?)

II. A thought for those not facing the holidays eagerly, Part 2- Yom Kippur

 

In the Rosh Hashana essay, we presented an approach to the holidays for 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, we presented a teaching by the Sefat Emet where the ‘judgment’ described as central to the Rosh Hashana experience is defined as an encounter, a desire to address the meaning of one’s own life and analyze them in a way leading to a contextual reorientation of one’s life l’tovah, toward the good, and that the crucial first step to this encounter is merely being present and willing to be part of the process.

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.

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 states that the day of Yom Kippur itself produces atonement for certain types of sins, and provides two biblical prooftexts for the day itself bringing about purification. Rabbi Elazer ben Azariah, 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 teaches:

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- God is the mikvah the ritual purification water, for Israel- for as the mikvah purifies the impure, so too does God 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 what the third text relating to mikvah add?

Tiferet Shlomo explains that R. Akiva is teaching two important points. According to TS, in the first verse Rabbi Akiva is making a statement, rather than asking a question (the old “who’s on first” reading)- R. Akiva is not asking lifnei mi, before whom are you purified?, but rather is informing us that lifnei mi, beyond the concept known as “mi” , that is where purification happens. The term mi in classical Kabbala represents Sefirat Binah, the highest cognitively understandable level of the mystical universe (mi numerically equals 50, the 50 gates of wisdom, that is, attainable this worldly cognition). “Beyond Binah” (technically Sefirat Keter in the mystical terminology) signifies a place higher than our limited understanding as created beings, for our purposes, it is place beyond creation, one in which there is no evil, it is a space of pure Good (in the mystical texts, evil is described as emanating from binah, evil is only a perceived by-product of creation, not a real force). This, to TS, explains why we so frequently use the alternative “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, with the first verse Rabbi Akiva teaches that the moment of Yom Kippur transpires at a level which is shielded from the intrusion of evil, conflict, and despair. From this shielded place, the waters of purity are sprinkled upon us, as it were.

In the second text, purity is not trickled from above like rain, but is rather experienced as a total immersion. The mikvah requires total immersion of the body, purity is a space that one enters with one’s totality. With this the description of Yom Kippur is complete. On Yom Kippur we all enter a safe zone, one that is devoid of conflict and duality, a place where despair, the tension that arises as a result of conflicted feelings within the individual can be resolved. Our true selves can appear, “purified”, from this protected temporal shelter intended as a place of healing.

Tiferet Shlomo provides an interesting explanation for a curious line in the Sabbath prayer with this approach. The prayer states that “God’s mercy is eternal for splitting the Red Sea”, and then in the next line it states”God’s mercy is eternalfor leading the people of Israel through those split waters”, which appears redundant. According to TS the second phrase suggests the possibility of entering a ‘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, which is the experience we are to have with Yom Kippur.

In summary, we have several stages of psychological healing within the flow of the holidays. The first moment, that of “judgment” on Rosh Hashana, is one of encounter with one’s own issues and conflicts; the willingness to encounter one’s self is adequate for accomplishing a level of personal transformation.

The next stage, experienced on Yom Kippur, is that of “purification”, of healing and resolution of internal conflict, self-doubt and its negative effects upon personal integrity. This moment of healing is accomplished by the withdrawal outside of the normal flow of time and the interpersonal tensions that impact upon the individual, by immersion in the protected space of Yom Kippur.

The third stage, which occurs during the next holiday, Sukkot, is described as “joy”, defined as a protected space for the newly healed to achieve reinsertion into the social sphere, as we shall see in the next essay.

Shana Tova, may it be a year of progressive healing for ourselves and the world around us!

 


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