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The Flip Side

By: Mrs Michal Porat-Zibman

Yom Kippur.  The day itself inspires within us a great deal of fear. The concept of being inscribed in the Book of Life, of being held accountable for all of our actions of the past year, abstaining from all earthly pleasures,  the words of the gripping tefilla "U'Netane Tokef"- who shall live and who shall die, and the list goes on.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel comments on the Yir'a, the fear that we experience on Yom Kippur and recalls that it is the hours before Yom Kippur that causes the issue of fear to enter his heart (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity pg 146-7). "What really changed my life, what shaped my character, were the few hours before Yom Kippur....they were moments in my life where I felt somehow more than human…it was great fear and trembling...great awareness that you are now to be confronted...there was no fear of punishment, not even a fear of death, but the expectation of standing in the presence of G-d. This was the decisive moment". Heschel describes here that it’s the idea of being confronted by G-d which is a powerful aspect of Yom Kippur for him and it’s the power of that confrontation that instilled a fear in his heart and therefore he assumes in our hearts as well.

Heschel goes on to bemoan the fact that in our lives, in the modern world, fear is lacking from our everyday routine. We have so much; we are exposed to so much, that as years go by we feel less and are less dependent on G-d and therefore we have less fear. He says that for so many of us, the concept of customs and ceremonies are a part of our active Judaism but the concept of 'sin' is not. I think that what Heschel is essentially saying, is that we shouldn’t fear the fear of Yom Kippur - but rather accept it as a gift, because it’s this fear of confrontation that causes us to be put in the proper frame of mind and frame of heart for Yom Kippur.

Rav Yehuda Amital z"l, former Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, describes how one of the elements used in relation to teshuva in our Chazal literature is ‘lifnei Hashem'- standing before G-d. It’s within that standing before G-d that instills the fear of G-d and therefore the fear of Yom Kippur, into our hearts (Eit Ratzon 273-278). Yet Rav Amital sees this concept of standing and being present 'lifnei Hashem' as not only something that should instill fear in our hearts; there is a 'flip side' as well. Quoting the Mishna in Mesechet Yoma, 8th Chapter, 9th mishna “Rabbi Akiva said: Ashreichem Yisrael! How fortunate are the people of Israel that G-d is the One who purifies them”. This Mishna causes Rav Amital to comment that Rabbi Akiva is introducing a necessary element of the day of Yom Kippur that exists as a result of standing 'lifnei Hashem' and that is that the confrontation is not just one that inspires fear, but one that inspires, or should inspire, great joy as well; Joy at the ability to stand in the presence of G-d, joy in the ability to be purified by G-d Himself. This is the duality of what Yom Kippur should be for us. So much so, that the Mishna in Mesechet Taanit (4:8) states that the two greatest days of the year in the Jewish calendar were the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur. Only a day with a component of simcha can be considered a great day in the Jewish calendar.

This strikes a similar chord with Rav Soloveitchiks famous distinction on the two aspects of Yom Kippur; One being of kapparah, being forgiven for ones sins, and one of tahara, being purified and coming closer to G-d. There is a tremendous joy that exists in knowing that we are being cleansed, and we are being renewed and purified before G-d. That simcha must co-exist with the yir'ah in order for us to fully internalize the essence of the great potential of the day.

To only observe the day in a state of fear is to be missing out on a necessary ingredient in our spiritual cleansing and renewal, and that is the one of hope, yearning, desire, and excitement, and not only anxiety, nerves, reluctance and fear.

Perhaps that is one of the things we should have in mind when saying the 'Avinu Malkeinu' prayer throughout the day of Yom Kippur. Before we even get to the requests themselves of Avinu Malkeinu, we should have the kavanah, the mindset that first and foremost we should feel towards Hashem on this day the sense of Avinu Malkienu. Avinu, in the sense of a parent; the desire for closeness, for simcha when being reunited with a beloved parent and of true comfort and joy at being together. And yet, have that together with the concept of Malkeinu, of subservience, judgment, accountability and fear.

Yehi Ratzon, that if we can fully internalize both of these aspects of Yom Kippur, we should merit both kapparah and tahara, both forgiveness and cleansing. We should feel the fear of G-d’s Kingship and judgment, and the joy of G-d being our Father, so that we can emerge from the Yamim Nora'im feeling more connected, more close, more hopeful and more careful in the coming year.

Gmar Chatima Tova.




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