Don’t languish in Shawshank: A Yom Kippur lesson

The feeling of loneliness experienced when someone you love is distant from you occurs in two varieties. The person you love can be materially distant from you; on a remote island off the coast of Timbuktu without Wi-Fi, running water, or access to modern forms of communication, or better yet, on a rocket ship hurling through the Milky Way an unfathomable, steadily increasing, distance from Earth and a sad, hollow void fills your heart. A nearly identical feeling can be experienced when the person you love is ten feet away; a barrier of reinforced steel or the Berlin Wall separating you two.

The Torahs depiction of the relationship between man and God is complex and confusing. The concept of an invisible, omnipotent God, not bound to time or space nor defined by any physical relatable qualities is very distant from our conscious, yet we see indications that we are extremely close, perhaps even similar to God. For one, the Torah[1] describes man as being created in the image of God. Additionally, we are taught[2] that the etymology of the Hebrew word for man – אדם – is a play on the word –אדמה לעליון – similar to God. Furthermore, the Talmud[3] delineates three entities that are “pure”: God, His angels, and the soul of man. The Zohar[4] proclaims with finality: Nothing and no one is closer to God than the heart of man. In some dimension, man is really close to God. How is it that we feel so distant, so removed from Him?

The answer lies in the physiological development of the body and soul. The Talmud[5] describes a child in utero as having an unsullied soul that “gazes from one end of the world to the other end;” a soul innately knowledgeable of the entire Torah[6]; a soul not under the influence of, and untethered, immune and inaccessible to the three headed[7] monster of evil, the yetzer ra (evil inclination), the satan (prosecuting angel) and the malach hamaves (angel of death). Man’s unadulterated soul is extremely pure; to some degree similar to God. That is the soul of man in its original state. As a child is being born, the three sister forces of evil are draped over him and this reality is totally changed. Henceforth, the power of the soul is muffled by the physical body and the powers of the yetzer ra. A seemingly impenetrable barrier has been erected between man and God; between man and his roots. God is not far away in the cosmos; God is really close, but a massive barrier separates us from Him, and our life-responsibility is to puncture holes and eventually breach that fence.

On Yom Kippur, something magical happens. “For on [Yom Kippur] He will atone you to purify you from all your sins, close to God become pure[8].” The verse indicates that aside from atonement, Yom Kippur is a day where we are close to God. This sentiment is echoed elsewhere[9] when is said in reference to the High Holidays: “Call out to Him when he is close.” The structure of this phenomenon is somewhat unclear. What happens on Yom Kippur that changes the status quo and creates a situation where God is close to us?

To unravel this mystery we must examine another confounding statement in the Talmud[10]: “The gematria[11] of השטן (the satan) is 364, for he has power on 364 days a year; on Yom Kippur he has no power”. On Yom Kippur we are uninfluenced by the three headed monster that created the blockade between us and God. For one day a year the barrier is lifted. We are returned de facto to our original state of being close to God. Yom Kippur is a magical day, indeed.

Our closeness to God on this day is reflected by many of its practices and laws. Unlike other Jewish fast days, fasting on Yom Kippur is not a form of mourning or sadness, rather an expression of our state of angel-like closeness to God. Angels do not need to eat, and neither do we on Yom Kippur. We also pray like angels[12] and dress in white as a testament of our state of purity.

This reality presents us with the tremendous opportunity called teshuva, loosely translated as “repentance”, more correctly as returning. Repentance entails returning. Returning to your roots; returning to God. The rest of the year one can and must seek to return to God, but he must encounter the tremendous obstacle that stands before him. Repentance during the year is akin to Andy Dufresne chipping laboriously at the seemingly impregnable wall; On Yom Kippur the doors of the prison are temporarily opened. The path to God is clear. A small effort is all that is needed on Yom Kippur.

Personal growth has been compared to climbing a ladder; you may only ascend one rung at a time. Chipping away, slowly, methodically, at the imposing barrier. On Yom Kippur those rules are scrapped. On this day we are close to God. The doors are wide open. Do not be the only inmate who stays in his cell.

[1] Genesis 1, 27

[2] See Alei Shur vol. II pg. 27

[3] Niddah 30b

[4] I do not learn Zohar, but I heard this from my Grandfather זצוק”ל.

[5] Niddah 30b and Sanhedrin 91b

[6] Ibid. See Maharal in Niddah

[7] See Bava Basra 15a

[8] Leviticus 16, 30

[9] Isaiah 55, 6

[10] Yoma 20a

[11] Every letter in Hebrew is assigned a numerical value, with א equaling 1, and ב equaling 2, each successive letter increasing by an integer. After 10 we increase by measure of 10, and after 100 by measures of 100.

[12] Declaring the sentence of ברוך שם כבוד  after the shema out loud.