Articles with the “yom kippur” tag

Yom Kippur: Reclaiming Your Essential Self

Yom Kippur: Reclaiming Your Essential Self


Amongst all other holidays, Yom Kippur is acknowledged as the most holy and sublime. On a simple level, it appears that Yom Kippur is a day dedicated to repentance, but is this really the case? Think of it, first is Rosh Hashanah, the “day of judgment” and then Yom Kippur a day of repentance. Does the following sequence make any sense:

Imagine someone is about to be judged, wanting to ease the judgment wouldn’t they first attempt to come in front of the judge or jurors, confess their wrong doing, and then be asked to be judge accordingly instead of waiting for judgment and then afterwards confess. So why would a day of repentance follow a day dedicated to judgment?

Wrestling with Dirt

How does the holiest day tangle with a day to recount all one’s wrong doing? Can it be that on this holiest of holy times there’s nothing better to talk about than all the garbage one has collected over the preceding year?

Understandably, the negative is brought up to memory for the purpose of purging oneself, as we cannot forget and let go that which we do not remember and own, yet it is equally true “that one who wrestles with a muddied person is bound to become muddied himself.”

Although there is a place for penetrating involved awareness of your negative behavior, perhaps Yom Kippur would not be the time. And indeed it is not. Yom Kippur is not about recounting, recalling, bringing to memory all your negative baggage, for that there is the entire month of Elul.

Elul is a time when we honestly do a soul searching, a self examination and aspire to right the wrongs. It is a time where we sincerely analyze our behavior, repair, if there is any damage, and firmly resolve to better our future. After the month of Elul comes to a close we are then ready Rosh Hashanah, the “day of judgment.”

What then is Yom Kippur?

Separated Time/Space/Consciousness

This universe is comprised of time, space, and consciousness. There are three properties to creation; olam -space, shana – time and nefesh -soul. Whatever and wherever we are, we are always in some location, at a certain time, and in a particular state of mind. These three are so intensely linked that one cannot and does not exist without the others; time and space only become ‘absolutes’ when a consciousness, an observer observes them as such.

Time space and consciousness expand from a focal point, meaning the flow of time, the origin of space, and the extension of consciousness evolves from a point of reference. Time/Space/Normative Consciousness function in a universe of polarity, separateness, diversity and fragmentation. In linear time, there is a past which imprints upon a present which in turn effect a future, the same is with space. Space has defined dimensions, a width, height, and depth. The observer, the consciousness who perceives time and space in this fragmented manner is precisely the creator of all this diversity as he is merely projectinghis own inner polarity, duality and inner rift onto the life that surrounds him.

Unified Time/Space/ Consciousness

Yet, for all the multiplicity and division there is central point, that is one, unified and whole, from where all separation and diversity emanate. Cleary, the center of all reality and existence is the Creator, but as a manifestation and representation of this oneness, there is an expression of oneness in time, space and consciousness, a point from which all duality flows. There is a time/space/soul reality in which the infinite oneness begins to stream outward into finite reality and where the finite separate, and infinite oneness are unified and inseparable.

Yom Kippur reflects oneness and unification on all three levels, in time, space and consciousness.

With respect to time, Yom Kippur is referred to as achas ba’shana – the Oneness of the Year. Year-in Hebrew shana, is a word related to the word shinui, meaning change, as the flow of the year cycle bespeaks of diversity and the changing of seasons. And in the midst of this multiplicity, Yom Kippur stands as achas ba’shana, the focal point of time expressing the ultimate oneness of time from where all multiple time reality emerges.

Likewise, Yom Kippur is associated with the oneness and unification of space. When the bies ha’mikdash – the Temple in Jerusalem still stood, it was only on Yom Kippur that the High Priest was permitted to enter the sacred space of kadosh kadoshim – Holy of Holies. There, the Ark of the Covenant stood over the even hashesiya - the foundation stone, the mystical mysterious rock from which the entire physical space extended, as the Talmud relates.

The Ark of the Covenant was as physical as anything else, a manifestation of this material existence with physical properties, and yet, when placed in the Holy of Holies, it did not consume any space. If one were to measure from the outside wall of the Ark in any direction, the sum total of the empty areas would be the same as the sum total of the entire space of the Holy of Holies.

Paradoxically, the Ark contained a definite measurement, and yet did not take up any space, a total melding, unification and reintegration of dimension into the dimensionless, of space into spacelessness, though all the while the Ark itself retained its dimension and ‘spaceness.’

Revealing Our Essential Self

And finally, and most importantly, Yom Kippur reveals the oneness of our deepest self.

Sadly, hopefully infrequently, it may occur that the way we act and behave-our outer reflection is not consistent with our inner truth. We may stray from our inner path and in the process eclipse our inner light, yet, no matter how far or alienated we may have become, our inner light can never be extinguished.

At our core we are pure and transcendent, and any negativity we engage in is not who we are, rather what we may have done. The essence of who we are remains unscathed. The consequences of our negative actions can penetrate but the surface, and can attach themselves to us merely as appendages. True they may weigh us down, burden us, cloud our vision, but they cannot affect nor influence the deepest infinite part of ourselves-the soul which is always one, pure and unified.

Yom Kippur give us the power to top into our deepest, infinite, non-dualistic selves. It is a day when we rise above our ego and fully tap into the deepest recesses of our free soul.

Comic Empowerment for teshuvah

Meta-historically, Yom Kippur was chosen as a day of teshuvah because it was the original day of forgiveness at the time of the birth of the Jewish nation.

A mere six weeks following the monumental Divine encounter at Sinai, when the absolute Oneness was clear and transparent, the Ancient Hebrews danced around the Golden Calf and proclaimed, “this is the god that took us out of Egypt.” The desire to idolize and worship an image was so powerful, the human binary need to conceptualize and contextualize was so overwhelming that they were not able to assimilate Sinai properly.

Some eighty days later, after much prayer and beseeching Moshe- Moses secured forgiveness, a means to re-access the highest levels even after one has fallen. That day was the tenth day of the seventh month of Tishrei, the day to be designated by the Torah as Yom Kippur.

On Yom Kippur, the Talmud says “the essence of the day brings atonement.” The day of Yom Kippur calls forth sublime measures of transcendence which overshadows and eliminates all externalities and thus all negativities. Whether we fully consciously participate or not makes little difference, so long as we minimally accept the healing power of the day, and certainly don’t interfere.

Inspiration & Perspiration

Yet, if we wish to live Yom Kippurdik — in the consciousness of Yom Kippur each day of the year, to integrate the ‘high’ of Yom Kippur in the ‘lows’ of daily mundane life we need to aspire to fuse the inspiration from above with the perspiration from below.

Indeed Yom Kippur includes both these aspects, on the one hand it is a time when “the essence of the day brings atonement”, yet, Yom Kippur follows the intense personal development of Elul. Yom Kippur comes about on the calendar only after we have attained the full potential of our own activities during Elul. Elul culminates with Yom Kippur.

As a reflection of this joining of heaven and earth, inspiration and participation, “arousal from above” and “arousal from below” these two complimentary ideas are alluded to in the two verses in the Torah which mention Yom Kippur as a day that is a Shabbas Shabbason-a Shabbas of total rest;

  1. Shabbas Shabbason he lachem” (Leviticus 16:31), which means “A total day of rest it (literally she) will be to you”
  2. Shabbas Shabbason hu lachem” (Leviticus 23:32), which means “A total day of rest it (literally he) will be to you”

So there is the feminine and the masculine form of Yom Kippur. On a cosmic level the feminine represents the receiver, whereas the masculine the giver. The feminine reflects a passive mood of receiving, whereas the masculine is the proactive. On Yom Kippur there is a total melding of the two into one, beyond duality, beyond separation of inspiration and perspiration.

A Day of Transcendence, A Time of Immanence

On Yom Kippur we have the ability to attain transcendence, and become angel-like. Yom Kippur is a day of rest from normative bodily necessities. The restrictions of the day are not primarily intended to cause a suffering to the body-if inflicting pain was the intention there would be many much more effective ways of doing so-rather, the focus here is to cease operating in the normative physical sphere and ascend to function angelically. It is a day dedicated to the achievement of transcendence of the physical, as well as a transcendence of all negativity and indiscretion.

While every other day of the year we may struggle internally, sense a deep dichotomy between the vying forces within us, battle our own inner satan, on Yom Kippur, we experience a transcendence of all separations, and thus all negativity and deprecation.

The Hebrew word for the Satan — ha’satan, which describes dividing, confining ego-consciousness, has the numerical value of 364. he-5, shin-300, tes-9, nun-50= 364. From this the sages of the Talmud understood that on 364 of 365 days of the year, we may struggle with our ego-oriented self, but on one day-on Yom Kippur-we are given the power to completely transcend all limitations, restrictions and division and be angelic.

On Yom Kippur total transcendence takes place. This is a day when we refrain-we are shoves “rest”, as the root word of Shabbas, from eating, drinking and satisfying other bodily needs. There is a complete materialistic transcendence-a rest from all things physical as we become angelic.

We rest from all physical activities, such as eating, drinking, marital relationships, even from walking/movement, represented by the prohibition against wearing leather shoes. Many have the custom to stand as much as possible during the prayers, also to mimic angelic activity. As angles are peaceful towards each other, we too, ask forgiveness from one another. During the course of the prayers, a white robe (kittel) and white prayer shawl (talis) are worn in imitation of angels who are “dressed” in pure immaculate white.

Ratzu & Shuve

And yet, the point of elevation of Yom Kippur is in the downward return-when we are able to draw down the inspiration into our day-to-day lives, within the here and now of the year that follows.

On Yom Kippur, we are asked to remind ourselves of the sons of Aharon who died on Yom Kippur “when they approached God.” The sons of Aharon died in ecstatic rapture. They transcended material form in divine ecstasy, in a state of “withdrawal without return.” By recalling their deaths, we are reminded that the most important part of the transcendent experience of Yom Kippur is drawing the inspiration down into our everyday reality. To experience a ratzu, an urge and deep desire to transcend and be angelic, together with shuve,-the root word of teshuvah, the great awareness that the purpose is in the return.

Liability into Assets

The ultimate return, teshuvah is when we can inspire a radical shift of our past, even the negative past, and transform all of our past into a positive context within the present. In the language of the Talmud, teshuvah of love transforms “willful transgression into positive virtue.”

How can this happen?

For one, it is precisely our previous negative actions that motivate our current deep yearning to return, and attain a more profound level of teshuvah. Our negative behavior of the past may act as a spring-propelling us forward to positive behavior in the present. This, from the new vantage point, is the kernel of goodness and light within the seemingly negative and darkness.

Retroactively speaking, the divine goodness within negative actions is that it can, and often does, awaken within the person a deeper want to return and alter one’s ways.

For this reason in Hebrew the word for “misdeed” is chet, spelled ches,-tes,-aleph. Technically, the word chet can be written without the final letter aleph, which is silent and thus apparently superfluous. And yet chet has an aleph-the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet and the phonetic opening of all sound, a letter which represents the First, the One and the Only.

May we consciously be aware of this day of achas ba’shana – oneness of time, and attain a sweetening of our entire selves within in the newly discovered self.

May we merit to top into the awesomeness of Yom Kippur, and reveal our deepest self. May the effects of our personal inner transformation be felt throughout the entire world. May we allow for the “essence of the day” to bring us to a real teshuvah, and through our own teshuvah inspire a teshuvah for the entire world, as the world becomes healed and repaired of its fragmentations, splinteredness, and apparent senselessness.

The Way of Teshuvah/Return

The Way of Teshuvah/Return

To err is human, we all make mistakes. “There is no righteous person on this earth who does [only] good and does not err,” the wise King Shlomo wrote.

And yet despite the fallibility of human beings, as a tremendous kindness, God has given us teshuvah—a way of returning to God by acknowledging our errors and resolving not to repeat them. This is not only a way to repair our mistakes but perhaps even to alter the past. Without teshuvah, life would be quite hopeless. Without a means to unshackle ourselves from our negative past, we would be forever crushed by the burdens of our past errors.

Teshuvah is essential for creation; in fact teshuvah was fashioned before the actual creation, according to the Talmud (Pesachim 54a.) The Zohar writes that prior to creating this physical world, the Creator conceived the notion of teshuvah and said, “Soon, I am going to create mortal human beings, but I do so on one condition: when they, because of their iniquities, turn to you, you must be prepared to erase their faults.”

A world imbued with teshuvah is a world of optimism, life and genuine opportunity, for regardless of our current state, we have the power to reorient our life and leap over any obstacles generated by our past deeds. teshuvah affords us the freedom to liberate ourselves from the past and begin anew, rejuvenated and revitalized.

Regret and acceptance

Classic Torah commentaries contend that the principal ingredients of teshuvah are regret-charata and acceptance-kabbalah.

True regret requires a recognition of the negative act and a firm resolution – made consciously and with a whole heart — not to repeat it.

But we know well that we tend to forget our resolutions. Indeed, forgetfulness is the root cause of transgression. Often, were it not for assistance from above to overcome our negative temptations, which are so good at causing memory lapses, we would not succeed, as the Talmud tells us (Kiddushin 30b). Therefore, it is essential to always keep in mind that we are sinners – and always close to falling into transgression – and that God alone constantly rescues us.

But how can we, realizing that our sin is so deeply ingrained, have true regret over the past? So, too, how can we resolve not to sin in the future, when our experience shows clearly that without God’s help, we will certainly lapse again?

In truth, remorse over the past indicates an acute awareness of our lowliness – an awareness which must be engraved in the heart. In fact, the Hebrew word charatah, meaning “remorse” is related to charitah “engraving.” Once this awareness is so engraved, we stand a better chance of never again forgetting our history and slipping. This act of engraving, in turn, creates within our hearts a receptiveness to God’s mercies. Thus we can accept kabbalah, God’s mercy, with an absolute trust that God will save us from the bitterness of our soul and strengthen us to choose wisely in the future.

Four types of teshuvah

Early Jewish works of ethics speak of four categories of teshuvah:

  1. Teshuvat HaBa’ah-literally teshuvah “of what comes next” – this teshuvah that occurs when we refrain from repeating a transgression when we find ourselves in the same condition or environment that had engendered a previous misdeed.
  2. Teshuvat HaGeder-literally teshuvah “of the fence” – in the process of doing teshuvah, we erect for ourselves additional barriers and restrictions so that we may not be tempted to transgress. We deny ourselves even things that are permitted to us so that we will not inadvertently step over the line and fall.
  3. Teshuvat HaMishkol-literally teshuvah “of the measure” – this is penance commensurate to the transgression. We inflict discomfort on ourselves equivalent to the measure of pleasure we had enjoyed from committing the transgression.
  4. Teshuvat HaKatuv-literally teshuvah “of what is written” – we accept upon ourselves the equivalent of the Divine judgment as written and detailed in the Torah.

Teshuvah does not does not necessitate depriving or neglecting the body, according to the Baal Shem Tov — on the contrary, “a small hole in the body is a colossal cavity in the soul.” There are countless other means to refine ourselves such as giving charity or studying Torah. And am even better way is to transform the body so that whatever part of the body one used to commit an offense – a mouth to speak gossip or lie, a hand to strike someone – is re-energized to do good – a mouth to speak words of Torah, a hand to give to charity.

Verbal confession

In addition to regretting past deeds and resolving to do better in the future, most commentators include confession-viddui as another integral component of teshuvah.

Teshuvah is not complete until we articulates what went wrong in the past as well as verbally commit to change in the future. Why is this? Why do we need confession? Why is verbalization so integral to the process?

There are many reasons, but the ones we will explore here are related to the Yom Kippur service, where we confess our sins a number of times. On the most basic level, speaking gives voice to our thoughts, thus making them clearer, crystallized and structured. By articulating our thoughts, we unveil a deeper understanding of the matter at hand. Thoughts, as they exist in the mind, can remain elusive and unstructured. However, when these same thoughts “descend” into articulated language, they become comprehensible and coherent.

What’s more, not only do thoughts become clearer and more comprehensive when spoken aloud, they also become more of a reality. Words create our reality. When something is verbalized it seems to us all the more real.

Verbalization of teshuvah works the same way. Until our thoughts of teshuvah that germinate in the mind are verbalized, they remain elusive and vague. Through speaking about it and concretizing our repentance, our regret and resolve become all the stronger. Speaking endows the thoughts of change with a tangible reality, and the thoughts then attain permanence.

Additionally, “voice arouses intention,” which is a principle regarding the verbalization of all prayers and the reason why prayer is spoken and not left in the mind. It is through the verbalization of teshuvah that our inner feelings of wanting to return to God are revealed. The more we speak about a feeling of the heart, the more augmented and real the feeling becomes, and our teshuvah becomes more intense. What’s more, even if we had not yet resolved to undertake the journey to transform, our speaking about it will eventually bring us to do it.

Yom Kippur: a day of teshuvah

Yom Kippur was chosen as a day of teshuvah because it was the original day of forgiveness at the time of the birth of the Jewish nation.

A mere six weeks following the monumental encounter with God at Sinai, when the absolute oneness of the Creator was clear to the Israelites, they danced around the golden calf and proclaimed, “this is the god that took us out of Egypt.” Forty days of prayers elicited for them forgiveness, and then Moshe went up the mountain again for forty days, and when he descended this time, with the second set of tablets, he found a people eagerly awaiting his return and the Torah he was bringing.

That day was the tenth day of the seventh month of Tishrei, the day to be designated by the Torah as Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur became the one day of the year that embodies the concept of teshuvah most intensely. In the words of the Rambam – Maimonides: “Though teshuvah is appropriate at all times of the year, during the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur it is more appropriate, and it is accepted immediately. Yom Kippur itself is a time of teshuvah for all, and it is a cessation of forgiveness and absolution for the people of Israel.” (Hilchos Teshuvah 2: 6-7)

The Day of Atonement

“The essence of the day of Yom Kippur brings atonement,” the Talmud declares (Yuma). The day of Yom Kippur calls forth sublime measures of holiness, which are able to eclipse and eliminate all transgressions. Although the Talmudic sages wage a debate – as to whether or not the day itself absolves us even when we don’t do teshuvah — all opinions are in agreement that the essence of the day itself brings atonement. The debate is limited to the question whether the individual must set in motion this process through active participation by doing teshuvah, or if the day atones through mere passive participation by desiring teshuvah. What sense would it make to forgive an individual who makes no effort and doesn’t even desire forgiveness?

Therefore, the bare minimum is needed – that is, we must be at least passively accepting of forgiveness, and we must not interfere with the healing power of Yom Kippur. But, in order to achieve a complete and total teshuvah, we need to partake fully in the teshuvah process. Genuine teshuvah is attained when we can fuse the inspiration from above with the perspiration from below-when the lofty levels that are revealed from on high permeate and lodge deeply into our consciousness, becoming part of our every day reality.

Shabbat Shabbaton

Yom Kippur includes both these aspects: 1) it is a time when “the essence of the day brings atonement” as a revelation of unconditional love from above; 2) it is a time when we have reached the full potential of our own activities, beginning with the introspection during the month of Elul, and culminating with the end of the “ten days of awe.”

These two complimentary ideas are alluded to in the two verses in the Torah which mention Yom Kippur as a day that is a Shabbat Shabbaton – a Shabbat of total rest:

  1. Shabbat Shabbaton he lachem (Leviticus 16:31), which means “A total day of rest it [literally she] will be to you”
  2. Shabbat Shabbaton hu lachem (Leviticus 23:32), which means “A total day of rest it [literally he] will be to you”

Why twice – the first in feminine form, the second in masculine? The feminine represents the receiver, reflecting the one who is passively receiving revelation from above. The masculine represents a proactive stance. On Yom Kippur there is a melding of the two, beyond duality, beyond separation.

A day of transcendence, a time of immanence

On Yom Kippur, we aspire to operate on a level of transcendence, striving to mimic angelic behavior. Yom Kippur is a day of rest from normative bodily necessities. The restrictions of the day are not meant to bring suffering to the body (if inflicting pain was the intention there would be many much more effective ways of doing so), rather, the focus here is to cease operating in the normative physical sphere and ascend to function angelically. It is a day dedicated to the achievement of transcendence of the physical, as well as a transcendence of all negativity and transgression.

While every other day of the year we may struggle with our own inner Satan, on Yom Kippur, we experience a transcendence of all negativity and deprecation. The Hebrew word for Satan, ha’satan, which describes confining ego-consciousness, has the numerical value of 364. From this we learn that on 364 of 365 days of the year, we may struggle with our ego-oriented self, but on one day — Yom Kippur — we are given the power to completely transcend these limitations and be angelic.

There is a total materialistic transcendence, a “rest” from all things physical as we become angelic. We rest from all physical activities, such as eating, drinking, marital relationships, even from walking/movement, represented by the prohibition against wearing leather shoes. Many have the custom to stand as much as possible during the prayers, also to mimic angelic activity. Just as angels are peaceful towards each other, we too, ask forgiveness from one another. During the course of the prayers, a white robe (kittel) and white prayer shawl (talit) are worn in imitation of angels who “wear” pure white.

On Yom Kippur we recite loudly the Baruch Shem prayer, “Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever,” since Moshe heard this verse of praise from the angels on high and later taught it to the nation of Israel.

And yet, the point of elevation of Yom Kippur is in the downward return, when we are able to bring the inspiration from above into our day-to-day lives here below.

On Yom Kippur, we are advised to remind oneself of the sons of Aharon who died on this day “when they approached God.” According to mystical thought, they transcended in spiritual ecstasy, in a state of “withdrawal without return.” So deep was their sense of transcendence, they were not able to return and so they died. By recalling their deaths, we are reminded that the most important part of the transcendent experience of Yom Kippur is drawing the inspiration down into our everyday reality. To experience a ratzu, an urge and deep will to transcend and be angelic, together with shuve, the capacity to return.

Uva Le'tziyon: The Zion of Consciousness

Uva Le’tziyon: The Zion of Consciousness

When the Temple stood, it served as a conduit for holiness and Godliness to flow into this world.

Zachreinu: Cosmic Remembrance

Zachreinu: Cosmic Remembrance

In the world of kedusha, which signifies full integration, there is no forgetfulness.

Hayom Timatzeinu: Confident Prayer

Hayom Timatzeinu: Confident Prayer


As we reach the end of the prayers, we express the confident joy that God has accepted our prayers.


Insights into the Prayers of Yom Kippur

Yaale Tachenuneinu — Reflective Light

The usual acrostic pattern of the Piyutim (the special songs of the High Holidays) follows the Aleph Beit, beginning with the first letter aleph and following the established order. But here we find the order reversed, and there is a reason why.

There are two forms of light: 1) or yashar or direct light, and 2) or chozer or reflective light. The normal Aleph Beit order symbolizes the normal progression of direct linear light. But the reflective light emerges out of the darkness as even more powerful than the direct light, much like a mirror may reflect the rays of the sun light more intensely than the ray of sun itself.

Teshuvah is or chozer, reflective light that emerges from a darkness. And thus here, on Yom Kippur, with its focus on teshuvah, the order of this piyut is reversed.

We may sometimes feel like the last letter of the alphabet, but we should never despair since light can emerge even from the lowest of places, and sometimes that light is that much more bright.

The Thirteen Attributes of Mercy

The Talmud teaches that when Moshe despaired after the people had sinned with the Golden Calf, believing that their transgression was so damaging the no repair would be possible, God revealed to him and taught him the”Thirteen Attributes of Mercy,” as follows:

“GOD, GOD, Almighty, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abundant in loving-kindness and truth, remembering kindness for thousands [of generations], forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and erasing the guilt [of those who repent].”

God also told Moshe that whenever the people of Israel seek forgiveness in the future, they should recite the “Thirteen Attributes,” and they will be forgiven.

What do these “Thirteen Attributes” mean?

1 & 2) “GOD, GOD”—God is with us when we walk the right path, before we transgress, before we deviate from the Divine plan. But God is also there for us, and after we have strayed. God is there to extend an extra hand and help us find our way back to God.

3) “Almighty”—This name of God represents supernal kindness, a compassion beyond limitation. God’s initial desire to create the universe—and offer something to an “other”—has its source in this name.

4) “Compassionate”—God shows compassion even to those who are being punished, even to those whose negative actions caused a negative reaction, so that the consequences should not be so severe.

5) “Gracious”—God helps those who need the extra strength to overcome their negative temptations.

6) “Slow to anger”—God is patient with us, giving us the time to come to the right state of awareness and return.

7) “Abundant in loving-kindness”—God shows kindness even to those who have no merit whatsoever.

8) “[Abundant in] Truth”—Positive actions cause positive reactions and God ensures that this spiritual principle does not waver.

9) “Remembering kindness for thousands [of generations]“—Good deeds reverberate throughout generations and can bring benefit to our descendants.

10) “Forgiving iniquity”—God not only forgives but actually lifts up the sinner who embarks on a path of teshuvah.

11) “[Forgiving] transgression”—God does the same for those who have willfully transgressed, but now wish to amend their ways.

12) “[Forgiving] Sin”—He forgives and lifts up those who return from the ways of apathy and carelessness.

13) “Erasing the guilt”—Ultimately, we are given the power to go back in time and erase the negative activity as if it has never occurred. We can completely obliterate it from our consciousness and from reality. God erases it, and, through a teshuvah of love, allows our liabilities to be transformed into merits—vice becomes virtue.

Al Chet—Transcendent Confession

As we recite the Al Chet prayer, listing the terrible sins it contains, a question comes to mind: Are we truly so negative?

“Just as we ought to know our shortcomings, we should also know our value.” Just as it is important for us to acknowledge where we have failed in order that we can take responsibility and seek to amend our behavior, so, too, it is important that we don’t belittle ourselves by assuming responsibility for something we haven’t done. A person who keeps on knocking himself or herself down will not have the strength to get up, and this is especially true if there is, in fact, no reason to be down in the first place.

Of course, on a subtle level, most people, it could be argued, are guilty of every sin listed in some shape or form. For example, most people have “taken the blood” of another person by embarrassing someone. Likewise, most people have “committed idolatry” by expressing anger. But, even if this is true, what about the truly holy ones who have not committed these sins in any shape or form?

Another question that might be asked: Is this the right time to be confessing our sins? Can it be that on this holiest of holy days, in a holy place, among holy people, there’s nothing better to talk about than this? Were we not supposed to have examined our behavior, confessed our sins, and expressed our regrets in the month of Elul, which preceded Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?

The theme of Yom Kippur is utter transcendence. The great twelfth century Jewish philosopher, Maimonides (Rambam) writes that Yom Kippur is a day when it is a mitzvah to “rest” from eating, drinking, and other physical endeavors—it is not a day when we refrain from food, but a day when we rest from it, when we transcend our physical selves. Indeed, everything we do or do not do on Yom Kippur is meant to mimic angelic behavior. Angels, as completely spiritual beings, have no physical needs or limitations.

These limitations are considered the opposite of angelic. Indeed, the Hebrew word for Satan (hasatan), which describes the satanic/ego consciousness, has the numerical value of 364. From this we learn that on 364 of 365 days of the year, we may struggle with our constricted, ego-oriented self, but on one day—on Yom Kippur—we are given the power to completely transcend these limitations and be angelic.

Considering this, it is even more troubling that we should speak of such terrible sins, while we are, or aspire to be, in this lofty, angelic state.

And yet Al Chet—this recitation of sins—fits precisely with the theme of transcendence.

Note that the language in the Al Chet is not singular but plural—”we” are guilty of these sins, not “I.” The use of the plural “we” is the ultimate expression of personal-ego transcendence. We are able to transcend our focus on “I” and connect to the collective soul of Israel—to the “we.”

When we recite the Al Chet and ask forgiveness, it is not—at least hopefully not most times—for our personal transgressions that we ask, but for the transgression of all members of our community. We share in the pain of others and feel their lack as our own. When we do so, we express the pinnacle of transcendence, reaching the place deep within where we are rooted in Divine oneness, where we are all one.

During the course of reciting the Al Chet, we follow the order of the alphabet to rectify this world, which was and is continually created through Divine speech—the Holy Aleph Beit—in which are contained all the sounds and vibrations of creation.

Selach Lanu, Mechal Lanu, Kaper Lanu

Every negative act, not only effects us negatively but has cosmic influence—repercussions that are felt throughout all worlds. When we commit by omission or commission a negative deed, we blemish the Divine light apportioned to existence, distorting, as well as reducing the divine energy immanent within creation. To replenishing what our actions has taken away requires reaching the divine energy that encompasses and is transcended of creation.

This encompassing surrounding infinite light is hinted at by the circular letter samech, which also points to our essential request in the Selichos penitential prayers: Selach lanu-”Pardon us, forgive us, atone for us.” The first letters of “Pardon us, forgive us, atone for us” comprise the phonetic spelling of the word samech. Pardon us for closing our eyes to the divine presence, for not honoring the Divine presence. Forgive us for not humbly fulfilling our obligations and Atone for our insensitivity to our Beloved, for blemishing our deep-rooted mutual love through a lack of awareness. And therefore, pardon, forgive, atone for us through the energy of samech, the infinite surrounding light.

Reading the Torah

On Yom Kippur, the Torah reading is divided into six sections or aliyot. During the week, the Torah is read with three aliyot, but on special weekdays a fourth aliyah is added, on holidays a fifth, and on Yom Kippur a sixth. In addition to the simple reason that we increase the aliyot in keeping with the holiness of the day, there is a symbolic reason as well:

Yom Kippur is called in the Torah: Shabbat Shabbaton. Just as Shabbat inspires an elevation of the six days that precede it, so on a more comprehensive level, Yom Kippur elevates the entire year. ‘Six’ represents the world of the ordinary (the world was created in six days); ‘seven’ represents the crowning of creation, the element of transcendence that completes creation. Yom Kippur comes along and completes the past, elevating the world of ‘six’ and embracing it within the reality of ‘seven.’

The Torah reading speaks of the aftermath of the death of Aharon’s two sons. There are various explanations of why they perished. The Kabbalah says that they died in ecstasy, in spiritual rapture. In their great desire to be at one with their Divine source, they literally transcended the physical world and expired. This is called ratzui bli shuv, “desire to transcend without a return.”

On Yom Kippur, we are like angels, operating in a transcendent consciousness devoid of materialism, and we need to remind ourselves that the ultimate purpose of our transcendence is in the return. Our moments of physical transcendence are not ends in themselves, rather they are a means to greater strength and clarity, so that once we return, we can be involved with our earthly reality below and yet remain above.

Haftorah for Shacharit

During the morning service we read from the Book of Yeshayahu (Isaiah), which contains one of the greatest of all prophetic calls for teshuvah. The prophet reminds us during our Yom Kippur fast that fasting without any ethical conduct is meaningless.

We need to keep in mind that our fasting is not mere affliction of the body, but a means to transcend our body—to transcend our ego-oriented existence and tap into the deepest resources of our soul. We do this in order to discard any negativity that holds us back from being one with God, and by extension one with our authentic self.

Yizkor — Remembrance

After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, a custom developed to raise the memory of our lofty ancestors so that their merit should stand by us now and for our offspring in the future.

Every holiday when the Torah portion speaks of offering charity (tzedakah), those who no longer have parents say Yizkor and resolve to offer tzedakah in the memory of their beloved ones.

Yom Kippur is known in Hebrew as Yom Kippurim, the plural form indicating that it is a day of spiritual atonement both for the living and for those that have passed on. Thus on Yom Kippur, we also invoke the memory of our ancestors for a dual purpose: 1) that we can be sustained because of their holy memory, and 2) that through our positive actions, we inspire an elevation of their souls if such might be needed above.

Everything that exists on a physical level corresponds to what exists on the spiritual level—physical is a reflection of the meta-physical. When two people are related on a physical plane it is because they share the same root in the source of souls in a supernal sphere.

This means that although our actions can impact the entire world, those that are most affected by what we do are the souls most closely connected to our own soul. Thus, when children in this world give charity in honor and merit of their departed parents, this action can affect the ascension of the parents’ souls above.

In our world, there are choices; in the next world, there are only the effects. Free choice, the power to elect a new reality, to forge a new content/context, exists only in this manifestation. Since this is so, only in our world can people truly grow, expand and develop. There is always room for change and space to leap into new and unexplored realities. For this reason, any movement in the world of souls is dependent on the actions we take or actions we refrain from taking in this life. What level of integration our soul has with its source, or with what measure of intensity the personal light of our soul merges with the source of light, is contingent on what we do and refrain from doing in our present life.

This is so because the physical world below is founded on chesed (“loving-kindness”), and in the world of chesed, there are always second chances. This is not so in the spiritual world above, which is founded on gevurah/din (“strict justice”). There, everything is absolute and unconditional.

And yet, since our souls are closely rooted in the world above with our ancestors’ souls, our actions below can and do stir movement above. When we do something noble in the memory of our loved ones, not only are we ennobling ourselves, but we are essentially causing an elevation of their souls, an elevation that would otherwise not be available for them.

We fill their void, allowing for their soul’s ascent into the upper worlds, and by doing so fill the emptiness and void that their passing has left us. Yet, repeating the words of Yizkor alone is not sufficient. We need to be totally committed with strong resolve to do good, give to charity—in their name and for their benefit—and then certainly, the effects will be felt by them spiritually and by us spiritually, mentally and even physically.

Avodah — In the place of the High Priest

During Temple times, it was Kohen Gadol (the “High Priest”) who performed the essential service on Yom Kippur. Today, with the Temple in ruins, we are taught “its ruin is its repair,” meaning that the illness contains the cure. The fact that we don’t have the Kohen Gadol means that we must all become priests. By reading about the service of Yom Kippur, we not only recall the details but evoke the same energy so that our prayers stand in the place of the Temple offerings.

The Ten Martyrs

The story of the ten martyrs tells of a sadistic Roman ruler who questioned ten Jewish sages: “What should happen to a man if he is found kidnapping one of his brothers from among the children of Israel and selling him into slavery?” They instantly answered him, “That kidnapper shall die.” He then informed them that the Jewish people have yet to pay for the sin of the sale of Yosef by the ten sons of Yaakov, and that he means to correct this oversight. The story then describes in very graphic language the savage execution of the ten sages.

It should be pointed out that, in actuality, they did not die at the same time, although they all perished at the hands of the Romans. For example, Rabbi Yishmael, the High Priest, died at the end of the second Temple period, while Rabbi Akiva was murdered after the Bar Kochba revolt, some 60 years after the destruction of the Temple.

Therefore, we know that this recitation is not merely trying to relay historical facts, but a greater spiritual truth. It is not by chance that the numerical value of the Hebrew names of the ten sons of Yaakov equals 2858, which is the same as the Hebrew names of the ten martyrs. According to the Kabbalah, nothing is mere coincidence; everything is Divinely orchestrated, and when two words or concepts are related numerically, this is an outer indication that they are intricately related on a deeper level. Clearly, this numerical correlation is not what links them together, rather they share a deeper commonality, and the numerical correlation is an outer reflection of that commonality.

In our fragmented world, we perceive differentiated time and space; from our linear perspective, the past is gone, the future has yet to come, and all that exists is the fleeting present. But there is a deeper and higher view in the universe—of absolute unity and oneness—in which there is no differentiated time and space, no past, present or future, no beginning, middle or end. In that reality, everything exists in the eternal present.

The world of souls functions in that non-linear, unfragmented reality. Reincarnation—where some souls incarnate once again into this world in order to rectify past mistakes and retroactively affect souls that manifested here years ago—can only be understood from a perspective of a non-linear reality. Thus, the ten sons of Yaakov, who sold their brother Yosef into slavery, were later reincarnated as the ten martyrs in order to make a tikun—to rectify their past deed and elevate their souls.

Generally, reincarnation means that the entire soul that existed in one body descends into another for the purpose of rectifying or completing past life experiences. But the type of incarnation described in the ten martyrs’ story is different—more accurately it should be called not reincarnation but impregnation (ibbur).

During the course of one’s life, a person may become impregnated with an additional soul for a short period of time. The impregnated soul does not come to substitute for the present soul, rather it is like a guest within the host soul, achieving what it needs to and then it departs. Sometimes this soul impregnates the body in order to assist the host soul; at other times it does so for its own purpose—to live once again through certain physical experiences and as a result achieve a sought-after elevation.

Of course, the ten sons of Yaakov did teshuvah during their life for the sale of Yosef, as the Torah indicates, yet a slight blemish was still in place on their souls. And so they entered the bodies of these ten sages who were then martyred.

While it is true that the ten sons of Yaakov plotted to do harm to their brother, ultimately, as Yosef himself stated, their deeds served the Creator’s plan. “Although you intended to harm me, God intended it for the good, in order to accomplish… that a vast people be kept alive.” (See the Book of Genesis 50:20.) Indeed, if Yosef had not become the vizier of Egypt, his family would have succumbed to hunger. There are multi-dimensions to everything that occurs in life. Sometimes, what seems negative and destructive from a surface perspective is really positive or the source of something constructive.

In the context of Yom Kippur, once we reach a higher level of teshuvah—teshuvah from love—our past misdeeds are transformed into merits. What seemed previously totally negative and unredeemable, now, in its new context, is viewed in a positive light. The fault becomes the seed for virtue, transforming an obstacle into a rung of a ladder that allows us to climb to a higher place.

The Death of Rabbi Akiva

When Rabbi Akiva was taken out to be executed, it was the time to recite the Shema. He told his disciples, “All my days I have wondered about this verse of the Shema, ‘[love God] with all your soul,’ which I take to mean ‘even if He takes your soul.’ I asked myself, ‘When shall I have the opportunity of fulfilling this?’ And now I have the opportunity!” While they were raking his flesh with iron combs, he was accepting upon himself the kingship of heaven; he prolonged the last word of the Shema—echad, meaning “one”—until he expired. And then a heavenly voice could be heard proclaiming: “Happy are you Akiva that your soul has departed with oneness.”

Everything that occurs in life occurs on two levels: the physical outer level, and the metaphysical inner level. From the outside, it may look like the gentle and holy sage, Rabbi Akiva, was murdered by savage beasts, and yet, the heavenly voice proclaimed that Rabbi Akiva departed this earthly realm of existence in a state of ecstasy and oneness. While they were ravaging his body, he was simultaneously entering a lofty meditative state and saying the Shema, declaring God’s oneness.

The goal of Torah is to teach us to integrate the body and the soul—because, while we yearn to transcend the body, we cannot accomplish the soul’s true purpose without it. Rabbi Akiva used the suffering of his body to lift off into complete transcendence. He thus achieved oneness with God. And in this pure state of bliss, his lofty soul left his body.

Shema Kolienu

Our brains, our power, our art are all from God. Even when we decide—and it is our own decision—to do good and to restrain ourselves from the opposite, we are only playing our part in a cosmic script for which we were formed.

But we can call out to the Infinite Light and ask forgiveness. That is not in the script. When we do teshuvah—when we return to God—we return to a spiritual place where we unite with God’s oneness.

So, when we cry out, “listen to our voice,” perhaps we mean that God should disregard what we are saying, for our intention and focus might not be good, but simply listen to whom is speaking. This is the power of teshuvah, revealing the internal bond between our deepest selves and the Infinite Source of all light.

Reading the Torah for Minchah

“Spirituality” is not always synonymous with “Godliness.” In fact, sometimes the more “spiritual” a person becomes, the more open and receptive he or she becomes to adultery. There is an openness and receptiveness in spirituality which can lead a person to believe that everything should be open, and there should be free interchange on all levels of human interaction.

Reading this Torah portion (from the Book of Leviticus), which details with forbidden sexual relationships, ensures that such a mistake will not occur. Clearly, this reading is also necessary since many people struggle with such temptations, and those that have fallen are reminded to do teshuvah.

In addition, by reading this Torah portion, we are pleading to our Creator and saying, “Just as you have demanded of us that we do not “reveal the shame” (the literal translation of illicit relationships), so too we ask that You not reveal our shame—the shame of our mishaps and deviations—and bestow upon us all your blessings in the new year.”

Haftorah of Mincha: Yonah & the Fish

During the Minchah service, we read the Book of Yonah, which tells the story of the Prophet Yonah who was designated by God to bring the city of Nineveh to teshuvah, but who resisted the assignment.

The great city of Nineveh, a big Assyrian city with a population of over 120, 000 people, was notoriously corrupt. Yet God decided to give its citizens a chance to mend their ways, and He sent Yonah to warn them of the dire consequence of their negative actions. But, feeling overwhelmed by his Divine mission, Yonah chose to run away instead.

Often, we human beings choose to act this way or that, and then later invent reasons for our actions, which are not the real root cause of our behavior. The Talmudic sages tell us that Yonah reasoned that if, in fact, the people of Nineveh would change their ways, they would be spared, and then they would declare that his prophetic vision was false to begin with, or that Divine judgment does not exist. He also reasoned that if they succeeded in mending their ways, this would reflect negatively on the people of Israel, who were constantly being reprimanded for their negative behavior, and who had not mended their ways.

So Yonah fled. He boarded a ship only to find himself in a middle of a tremendous storm. Aboard the ship, everyone prayed intensely while Yonah slept. When they caught on that he was to blame for the savage sea, he told them to throw him into the water in order to save the ship. And so they did.

Once overboard, Yonah was swallowed whole by an enormous fish. Still alive inside, he prayed to God. In response, the fish spit him out. Thus chastised, Yonah went to Nineveh, preaching as he was directed by God. Nineveh heard him and repented.

A literal reading of the story teaches us many things—about the human tendency to flee our innate responsibility, a tendency which we dress up with justifications and rationalizations, and about the power of transformation and teshuvah, a power that can radically change our reality.

But everything in the Torah has at least four levels of meaning: 1) pshat, “simple/literal”; 2) remez, “allegorical/symbolic”; 3) drash, “implied/interpretive”; 4) sod, “secret/mystical.” Each level of meaning is not intended to supplement or exclude the others, rather it includes and supports the others.

In terms of the story of Yonah, while there was a real prophet named Yonah, his name (which means “dove” in Hebrew) suggests that we are also speaking here about the soul—which the dove represents—our deepest sense of self. In the Song of Songs, the dove is the image used to describe the loving and loyal lover, who is madly in love with her beloved (i.e., God).

Our love for God is our soul reality, and the soul is who we truly are. As the soul descends into this world, it becomes embodied and enclothed within a “ship,” a metaphor for the body, which carries the soul on the journey of life.

In a harmonious existence, the body and soul are joined as one—this is what it means to exist as a fully functioning human being. But the body and soul not functioning together are likened to a blind and a lame person. The soul on its own is lame—it sees where it needs to go, but it lacks the tools (the limbs of the body) to get there. The body on its own is blind—it may be able to go where it wants but (without the sight of the soul) has no inkling where. In short, the soul empowers us to see, but it is the body that actually gets us there. The body moves about, but it is the indwelling hidden spirit that directs the movement. Together, in harmony, they join and can become the best of friends.

Our task is to journey onward in life, to steer our ship to the city, and transform our surroundings. We choose the seas upon which we sail—they can be waters of Torah or waters of commerce and desire.

And then there are those doves among us that direct our ship deeper into the sea, away from the city, from our environment of responsibility. This includes those who run away from responsibility by immersing themselves further in the Torah, at the expense of assisting their fellows, and it also includes those who become fully engrossed in their own aggrandizement.

Of course, the city is not an appealing place. Nineveh represents a society gone astray, a civilization gone off course, a place where the dove/soul finds it difficult to live; it refuses to go there. Yet, God decrees to Yonah/dove that saving this city is its mission.

Those of us who shy away from responsibility—from building and helping our fellow man along the path of truth—do so until we run into rough water and encounter a tragedy. Sadly, it seems that tragedy brings us closer to the truth of our reality, to introspection and self-evaluation, even more so than a joyful experience, which generally merely reinforces arrogance. A tragedy tends to break down our ego’s resistance to the experience of truth.

Perhaps this awareness overwhelms and wrecks havoc with our internal paradigm, and believing that we lack the strength to change, we may gives up. We are like Yonah, who tells the sailors to throw him overboard. Of course, no sooner does he hit water than he is swallowed by a big fish.

The word for “fish” in Hebrew, dag, is related to da’aga, which means “worry.” Before the last strand of light is eclipsed, as we sink into oblivion, a Divine worry awakens within us—this is the soul still pulsating within our body, reminding us that there is still hope to realize our potential.

The Divine worry nags us, goads us, to return to our responsibilities and not give up. And in the belly of our worries and existential anxieties, a small glimmer of light emerges, and we find ourselves projected onto land once again.

Ultimately, like Yonah, we get back the city, and our arrival there inspires others to do teshuvah.

Neilah— Closing the Gates

In the context of prayer, Yom Kippur stands out among all other days and holidays.

On an ordinary weekday, we say three prayers: morning (Shachrit), afternoon (Minchah) and night (Maariv), corresponding to the three time zones of prayer that were initiated by the three patriarchs: Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, respectively. These time zones correlated in Temple times to the daily offerings. On Shabbat and on the holidays, there was extra offering known as the Musaf (“extra”), and today we say a fourth Musaf prayer on the Shabbat and on the holidays.

But on Yom Kippur, an extraordinary fifth prayer is added: Neilah “Closing of the Gates.” This either refers to the closing of the Temple gates at the end of the day or this alludes to the closing of the gates of heaven, as the day is coming to a close.

On the two days of Rosh Hashanah (considered a single “extended day”), we pray eight times; on Yom Kippur we pray five times. But, according to a mystical principle, each of Yom Kippur’s five prayers comprises ten, for a total of 50. Altogether the prayers of the Days of Awe number 58 (which is the numerical value of the Hebrew word chen meaning “grace.” These 58 prayers are meant to elicit God’s grace for the renewal of creation on Rosh Hashanah and to forgive iniquity on Yom Kippur. “The poor use entreaties,” says King Shlomo in his Proverbs (18:23), for chen represents the most beloved aspect of prayer.

According to Kabbalah, each of these prayers has the power to access a different level of soul, as follows:

Level of Soul Prayer
5 Yechidah (Unique One) Neilah (Locking of the Gates)
4 Chayah (Living One) Musaf (Extra)
3 Neshama (Breath of Life) Minchah (Afternoon)
2 Ruach (Spirit) Shachrit (Morning)
1 Nefesh (Life Force) Maariv (Evening)
  • The nefesh is the lowest and densest level of the soul, the part of the soul that most clearly interfaces with the physical. It is the nefesh that ensures survival and impels the body to nourish and protect itself. For the most part, the nefesh represents functional consciousness.
  • The ruach manifests as emotional consciousness. It gives us the spiritual ability to rise above immediate existential needs and appreciate matters of emotional value. Music and all the fine arts are expressions of ruach, albeit in its lowest form.
  • The neshama is the soul level of our intellectual ability. It gives us the power to rise above ourselves and elect our own destiny by exercising our freedom of choice. It helps us see beyond ourselves and catch a glimpse of transcendence.
  • The chayah is the level of our dearest will, our want to be one with our source in God. With this level of soul, we not only have an awareness of transcendence but, in fact, do transcend.
  • The yechidah is the highest, deepest, most profound level of soul—it represents uniqueness, oneness. It is the part of us that does not seek oneness, but is one with the Ultimate One.

Neilah gives us the chance to reach this the fifth level of soul, yechidah. As the sun is setting and the heavenly gates are slowly closing, we are faced with a moment of truth, and we respond by a full awakening of the deepest level of our soul.

As we recite the fifth and last prayer, we enter the deepest chamber above, and we move heaven to arouse Divine blessings for Ketivah Vechatima Tova, so that we are “written and sealed for good”—physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.

During the course of Yom Kippur we rip our hearts asunder, we open up completely, for this is what real teshuvah is all about, exposing ourselves, facing ourselves honestly. And so, as the day comes to a close, we recite this lofty neilah, which also means closing up, as in a closing-up prayer, putting everything that was spilled out back, and reintegrating and becoming whole again.

Shema, Hashem Hu, and the Shofar

We conclude the Neilah with the blowing of the shofar and the thunderous declaration of Shema (“Hear O Israel, GOD is our God, GOD is one”), we then shout out Baruch Shem (“Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever”) three times, and HaShem Hu Elokim (“GOD, He is God!”) seven times.

Having reached this point in prayer, we can loudly declare our firm belief in the absolute oneness of the Creator, and our willingness to live and die by this truth. We have journeyed inwards and upwards, and our unequivocal affirmation of oneness is absolute.

Then, we continue with the angelic praise of Baruch Shem and loudly pronounce it three times, demonstrating that God’s oneness permeates all dimensions of our reality—past, present and future.

HaShem Hu Elokim is a declaration that comes from the Book of Kings (18:39) which relates the confrontation between the Prophet Eliyahu and the 450 priests of the pagan deity Ba’al. To save the Jewish people from their idolatrous influences, Eliyahu had challenged the priests of Ba’al to offer a sacrifice alongside his sacrifice, in order to see which would be accepted first by a fire from heaven. Although the priests prayed and cried to Ba’al all day, their sacrificial bull only lay rotting on its altar. However, when it came Eliyahu’s turn, he uttered only one short prayer and a pillar of fire immediately descended, consuming not only the sacrifice but the altar as well. The people gathered there then loudly proclaimed: HaShem Hu Elokim! HaShem Hu Elokim!

Among the names of God listed in the Torah, the two of this declaration are the most significant. The essential four-letter name of God, the Tetragrammaton—which we are forbidden to pronounce and which we generally render as HaShem (meaning “The Name”) or in prayer as Adonai (most often translated as “Lord”)—stands for God’s transcendence. The name of God, Elokim (which we translate as “Almighty” or “God”), stands for God’s immanence, God’s manifestation as Creator of nature.

The declaration HaShem Hu Elokim testifies there is only Oneness—the Creator’s immanence and transcendence are part of the same. There is absolute unity, and everything in the universe of the many is included in the Creator’s Oneness.

When the Jewish people first uttered this declaration after witnessing Eliyahu’s demonstration, they affirmed this fact, which stands counter to the beliefs of idolatry that present a part as the whole, fragmenting one force and believing it to be “the All.”

HaShem Hu Elokim is a statement of our awareness that there is only One, that all is absolute unity. Such a declaration can only occur at the pinnacle of the Yom Kippur experience.

Blowing of the shofar symbolizes the ascent of the Divine Presence, the Shechinah, that has rested upon us and upon the day, as it says “God ascends with a teruah [sound of the shofar].” The declaration of HaShem Hu Elokim repeated seven times accompanies the Shechinah as it ascends above the “seven heavens,” returning to its source of emanation.

The blowing of the shofar is a sign of confidence—we are showing that we are confident that God has accepted our prayers. It is a Chabad custom to rise up in joyful song at this point. There is a tremendous spiritual relief that sweeps over the community as the prayers of Yom Kippur are coming to a close—we have unburdened ourselves of the negativity that has weighed us down, and we feel good that our prayers were accepted on high.

From a place of personal redemption, we express our yearning for global salvation—a yearning to have our exile come to an end, to return to Yerushalayim where we belong.

Higher Teshuvah

What now?

Have we not already cleaned our slate? So why are we again praying for forgiveness in the Amidah of Maariv following Yom Kippur prayers?

There is a Chassidic saying that, after Yom Kippur, the first thing we need to do is teshuvah. What can that mean?

There is a story told about Rabbi Saadiah Gaon, the 9th century Babylonian sage, that may shed some light. Once he was asked by his students why he was in a constant state of teshuvah. He replied that on one of his many trips, he spent a night at an inn, and the inn-keeper, being a pious individual, treated him very nicely as he did all his guests. The next morning, when the inn-keeper saw a huge crowd gathered at his inn to greet the great sage, he realized who his guest was. Some time later, with a bitter heart, the inn-keeper came to ask forgiveness from Rabbi Saadiah for the way he treated him. “But why are you apologizing?,” the great rabbi asked, “You treated me so nicely.” The inn-keeper replied, “No, I treated you as I would all other guests, but had I known who you were, I would have treated you as was fitting for a man of your stature.”

This experience, Rabbi Saadiah said, caused him to be in a constant state of teshuvah. As he explained, “Everyday that I live, I gain in my knowledge, awareness and understanding, and everyday I realize that compared to my understanding today, there is much more room to grow. Everyday, indeed every moment, calls forth for new measures of return.”

New possibilities—undiscovered spiritual opportunities—are opened to us with every new day lived. A new day can bring greater awareness and understanding, and with the new awareness can come a renewed understanding of our true and deeper potential. We learn how much more we can improve, and how much further we can grow.

If ever there was the perfect time to resolve and accept upon oneself a greater and more profound level of teshuvah, it is now, right after Yom Kippur. And so, at the end of this great day, we immediately begin the process of teshuvah—for teshuvah, as a reflection of life and growth, is continuous and ever evolving, bringing us always to new heights, but now our teshuvah is with love and integration, and spiritual elation.

The Joy of being Freed

When we are forgiven, we feel relief and are overjoyed. Though on a conscious level, we may not know whether we are forgiven or not, but the fact that there is great palpable joy felt in the air as Yom Kippur comes to an end is proof that we have all been forgiven. Deeply our souls sense this cleansing and feel purified and free.

As Yom Kippur comes to a close, a heavenly voice rings out, “Go your way, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has already accepted your works.” (Ecclesiastes 9:7.) It is a time of great joy, as our teshuvah has been accepted, and our repairs are complete.

Customarily, we speak about building a sukkah, the booth of the holiday of Sukkot, which is referred to as “the time of Joy.”

Kol Nidrei: All Vows

Yom Kippur night is a unique time for men in that a prayer shawl (talit) is worn during the night service. Although we should make sure to put the talit on before sunset since we are commanded to wear the talit only during the day, when we do so at night, we do not recite the customary blessing. The reasons why the talit is worn at this unusual time are many: for one, during the Maariv service, the Thirteen Divine Attributes of Mercy are recited, and tradition has it that a talit should be worn when reciting them. Additionally, the talit, a white garment, is worn to mimic angelic behavior, and angels are said to “dress” in pure white.

While some people can reach teshuvah by simple inner reflection and introspection, others need a push, something external to impinge on them and inspire them. For some, a talit is worn as a sign of transcendent consciousness, for others the talit is a stark reminder of death and the transient nature of physical existence. Customarily, the dead are buried in a talit and a kittel (a white robe), and so on Yom Kippur these garments are worn to inspire (if needed) a will for teshuvah.

Kabbalisticaly, the covering of the talit shawl represents the light of makif, a surrounding all encompassing force that hovers above the penimi, the inner immediate present dimensions. It is the uniqueness of Yom Kippur where the divine nukvah-receiving force is elevated into higher dimensions, and that is why only on this night can the garment of makif, the talit, be worn.

The custom is to take out the Torah scrolls from the ark for the Kol Nidrei prayer. This is done to inspire the congregants to pray, and to insure that our prayers are linked to the Torah. The chazzan (the one leading the prayers) is flanked at both sides with two people holding Torah scrolls. This is done to mimic a court, a beit din of three, as a court is needed to annul vows. In addition, just as Moshe was flanked by Aharon and Hur, when he prayed for the Israelite victory during the war with Amalek, so too, on fast days, such as Yom Kippur, three people represent the community.

All vows

The prayer called Kol Nidrei (“All Vows”), whose author is unknown, dates back at least to the 9th century, a period of Byzantine persecution, though some say it was composed as early as the 6th century when the King of Spain ordered all the Jews to convert or die.

One might expect that the initiating prayer of Yom Kippur would express the theme of the day – perhaps speak of our soul’s deepest yearning to merge openly with its source or of our commitment to the transcendence of the day. But instead, this prayer speaks of annulling our vows, which suggests a lack of spiritual development, a way of avoiding responsibility.

Scholars have speculated that the Kol Nidrei prayer first gained prominence during the Dark Ages of Medieval Europe. Back then, many Jews were forced to relinquish their Judaism or die, and as a result, many converted, vowing allegiance to another faith. On the eve of Yom Kippur, these poor Jews would secretly gather and whole-heartedly beg God that the vows they made in the previous year would be totally annulled, thus reaffirming their complete devotion to their roots. With such a history, it is obvious why this emotionally charged prayer evokes an intense response from us.

While this may be true, its history cannot be the only reason that Kol Nidrei has such power.

For one, the Talmud states that the person who desires that his or her vows not be binding should declare in the beginning of the year that all future (and as some commentaries say, also past) vows be rendered powerless. Thus, as the year begins we render all vows void, and here is why:

Yom Kippur represents the oneness of time, space and consciousness. As such, it is a day when our essence has real potential to be revealed. It is a day when we have the ability, more than ever, to transcend material limitations and connect with the essence of who we are.

Our essence exists above and beyond all restrictions and confinements. It is a place within that is beyond plurality or fragmentation-a place where we are at one with all reality, with our Divine source. Externalities have no affect on this level of soul; it remains pure and in its perfect state under all circumstances and conditions.

During the course of the year, we live for the most part in a reality of the external. We operate in a physical universe with all its limitations, where we are connected to our lower self. So when it comes to keeping our word, we must. If we promise someone we will do him or her a favor, the honorable thing is to do it, even if we do not feel up to it. To be honest demands that we are mindful of our words, actions and thoughts; whether it is a promise made to our fellows or to God, we must keep our word no matter what.

Yes, we should do as we say, and part of the simple reason we offer this prayer is to remind us that although our words are binding, there is still a misalignment between our minds, hearts and actions, and a discrepancy between one day and the next.

Yom Kippur demands and inspires us to be more. As we begin the holiest of days, traveling deeper within, we annul future vows, saying to ourselves that we no longer need the external pressure of our words to inspire noble behavior. From now on, we plan to live mindful of what we feel deeply. We plan to fully integrate our actions, words and thoughts with our beliefs. Our minds and hearts will be in the same place. This is how we aspire to live in the year to come.

Yom Kippur affords us an amazing ability to tap into the deepest resources of soul, explore and reveal the essence of who we are, and then live accordingly for the entire year to follow.

Finally, since every action below affects a mirror reaction above, we plead with God: “True, we may have led a life full of dubious behavior, and we know that our spiritual alienation from our Source of Life causes a physical condition of exile and hardship. This has happened to us because You have token an oath to respond in kind to our behavior. But now that we are annulling our personal oaths, we ask that You to do the same, and once again allow Your Divine presence to rest among us in Your holy city.”

Building the Divine kingdom

From a more mystical perspective, the annulling of vows fits with the over-arching theme of the High Holidays: the building of the Divine kingdom – binayan hamalchut.

The building of the supernal kingdom awakens a renewed Divine desire to be a king – to rule, nourish and sustain physical existence.

According to kabbalah, the concept of kingdom/kingship-malchut is intricately connected with speech. After all, a king rules through his words, which become his commands.

In the language of Kabbalah, malchut is the “crown” of the lower universe. It is the final, and in some ways, the most important of the Ten Sefirot—the ten Divine spheres or channels with which God created the world and which continue to permeate all reality. Each of these ten channels is like a hologram, reflecting itself as well as the other nine. This means that malchut, in addition to being a sefirah in its own right, is also included in the other nine sefirot – within chochmah (“wisdom”), binah (“understanding”), daat (“knowledge”), chesed (“loving-kindness”), gevurah (“strength”), tiferet (“beauty”), netzach (“victory”), hod (“thanksgiving”), and yesod (“foundation”) — just as each of the other nine is included within malchut.

Since the objective of these Days of Awe is to inspire a renewed “building of a kingdom” within all the Ten Sefirot, we are given ten days — from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur — to do it. On each day, we seek to build malchut within another sefirah.

As a reflection to this truth, we also aspire to build our own malchut, by correcting/rectifying our speech. Every time we promise and say we will or will not do this or that, we create a form of reality through our words. Therefore, when our actions do not match that reality, an emptiness results. Vows uttered but not fulfilled are empty, lacking vessels of fulfillment. And in order to repair this lack, in order to build the necessary vessels, we need to remedy how we speak. We begin by becoming conscious of our words. And now it is clear why there is such an emphasis on vows during the High Holidays.

As we aspire to build malchut above, we correct and put in order our malchut below. A vow is the most powerful vehicle of speech, closely mimicking Divine speech. Creation came into existence through Divine speech-when God said “let there be light,” there was light, and so forth. While some primordial forms of creation emerged through direct speech, and others through more complicated and detailed word combinations and permutations, all in all, everything was – and is – created through Divine speech, which is an expression of malchut.

The creative ability of our own speech remains elusive, detached from practical and tangible reality, except in the case of vows. When we make vows using our speech, we must follow through with our actions.

And so, as we aspire to build malchut above, we do our part below building, correcting and putting in order our own malchut, our own speech, particularly that speech which is deeply associated with actions.

Le'david Hashem Ori: God as Light & Strength

Le’david Hashem Ori: God as Light & Strength

God will extend a hand and assist us in the process of self-transformation and re-unification.


Songs of Praise

A closer look at the special nature of the prayers of Rosh Hashanah.