By Rabbi Karmi David Ingber | The Kehilla
Would you consider Yom Kippur a happy day? Not eating, not drinking, not washing and spending the entire day in synagogue usually are not the definition of a good ol’ time. Yet the Talmud reveals that Yom Kippur is actually the happiest day of the year. So if our experience is not that way, we may be missing the point.
Yom Kippur is called the “ultimate Shabbat” (Shabbat Shabbaton) in the Torah. The word Shabbat is rooted in the word shab, which means to desist and to return. On Shabbat when we desist from work, we are able to return to our higher selves, our true essence.
On Yom Kippur there is a double desisting. We desist from work and from physicality. However, there is a misunderstanding about the lack of physicality on this special day. It’s not because we are sad, but because we are so joyous.
The mystics explain that the five physical abstentions we maintain on Yom Kippur parallel the five parts of the soul; each physical abstention is imbued with the power to jar another aspect of our soul and connect us to our spiritual essence. What we are doing on Yom Kippur is not torturing ourselves, but bringing out our true, deeper nature.
We are judged positively on Yom Kippur because we are seen as the holy and righteous spiritual beings that we truly are.
The joy of the day is to recognize that everything negative you may have done throughout the year was not the real you. The externalities and craziness of the mundane world derailed you; on Yom Kippur you are bringing out your true values.
This idea can be understood in the literal translation of Yom Kippur. We have grown accustomed to translate it as the Day of Atonement, but kippur means to wipe something away. Unfortunately, if you called Yom Kippur the Day of Great Wiping, you certainly wouldn’t sell tickets to synagogue (BTW, services at the Kehilla are free).
So what is the difference between atoning and wiping away? When you have a garment that is soiled with filth and the dirt has permeated every fiber of the cloth, you need to purge the grime by soaking and bleaching it. However, when you wash dirt off your skin, you wipe it away because it has not pervaded your being; it is just on the outside.
Yom Kippur is the statement that the negativity you created throughout the year was not the real you; it was on the outside, in the external dimension. One day a year you get to touch the inner dimension, the authentic self. And when you do that, the dirt is wiped away, and you are clean and pure. What could be a happier experience?
However, we need to work to get there. We must prepare ourselves to reach that inner state by removing the negative external habits and modes of thinking we have fallen into. Now is the time to contemplate the way we have been and the way we want to be. The preparatory month of Elul before Rosh Hashanah is the astrological sign Virgo (the virgin), representing the idea that we can make our relationships brand new. We can start again like newlyweds in our connection with G-d and with people.
Let’s not sleep through the process, but rather yearn to express who we are and start by practically accepting one improved behavior to help get us there. The wake-up call of the shofar will soon be upon us and break down the external walls to arouse our inner selves. Then for 10 more days we can peel away the outer layers and uncover our deepest essence. And on that day we will shine radiantly — the happiest day of the year.