Yom Kippur 5768 (2007)
Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year. For 25 hours we live on the level of angels. We don’t eat or drink. We dress in white. We pray almost the entire day. You can feel it… Yom Kippur is different. It is the holiest day of the year. It’s also perhaps the happiest day of the year. It’s also the scariest. Why? What happens on Yom Kippur that makes it the holiest, happiest, and scariest day of the year?

Happiest & Holiest

To understand why Yom Kippur is the happiest and holiest day of the year we need two short introductions to two Torah concepts: Assur, and Yovel .

Intro #1: Assur

A year is a long time, and unfortunately, we’ve probably made a lot of mistakes in the past year. When we read through the list of things we apologise to Hashem for on Yom Kippur - betrayal, theft, speaking slander, wickedness, deceitfulness, rebelliousness - to name just a few, we find that most, if not all of these things, apply to us all on some level.

Our Sages teach us that Ivrit, the Hebrew language, was the tool that Hashem used to create the entire world. Even before He created our world He created His toolkit – Ivrit. Every word in Ivrit, which our Sages call ‘lashon hakodesh’ or the Holy Tongue, describes either an object or an action, and is used to describe that object or action for a specific reason. Hashem doesn’t do things at random!

The word for something forbidden by the Torah is ‘assur’. Why this word? The Maharal of Prague explains that the same word ‘assur’ describes someone who is tied up, or captive. One of the blessings we say in the morning prayers is Blessed are You, God, King of the Universe, who ‘matir assurim’ or ‘frees the captive’. The word assur means both something forbidden by the Torah, and someone who is captive or tied up. What’s the link? Why are these two things described by the same word?
The reason is that when they are the same thing. When we do something assur, forbidden, we become assur, tied up. When we do all these things that are forbidden by the Torah, we tie ourselves up to some other force other than God. We make for ourselves another god. Be it money, or our body, or whatever else. We tie ourselves up to something else, and become captive to it. As this happens, we become very distant from Hashem, and it becomes harder and harder to be close to Him.

Now, we don’t see this. Our eyes don’t have the right lenses. If we had the right lenses, if we could look at the world, and at ourselves with spiritual lenses, we would see that we have tied ourselves up, and that our actions have had that same effect on the world itself. Everything is where it is not supposed to be. It’s all out of place, and not functioning properly, and causing problem after problem. We, and our world, are a piece of string all tangled in knots, when it was originally designed and planned to be a beautiful tapestry.

Intro #2: Yovel Year

Every 50 years in the Jewish calendar, the land of Israel experiences a special year called Yovel:

“You shall sound a blast on the shofar, in the seventh month, on the tenth of the month – on Yom Kippur you shall sound the shofar throughout your land. You shall sanctify the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants; it is a yovel year for you, and you shall return, each man to his ancestral heritage, and you shall return, each man to his family.”
(Vayikra 25: 9-10)

I know that the Artscroll translation always makes it sound like Shakespeare wrote the Torah and it can put you to sleep (really the Hebrew is much better!), so I’ll sum up for you what these verses are telling us about the Yovel Year. The Torah doesn’t just deal with mitzvot like Shabbat and Kashrut, it also describes how to build an ideal society, including an economic system that will also take care of social needs. It is pretty much a capitalist economy, but not to the extent of a place like America is today. There are certain built-in safeguards to stop the society from being too materialistic and to stop the gap between rich and poor becoming too wide. One of those safeguards is the Yovel year, which comes around every 50 years. In this Yovel year, anyone who bought a house in the past 50 years gives it back to its original owner, and they themselves return to the area that their family was originally allotted when the Jewish people first entered the land of Israel. That’s what the Torah means when it says ‘and you shall return, each man to his ancestral heritage… each man to his family.’ In the Yovel Year, everything returns back to its place.

Back To Yom Kippur
Now that we’ve had our two introductions we can come to understand what takes place on Yom Kippur.

Surprisingly, there is one place in Tanach that Yom Kippur is actually called ‘Rosh Hashana’ (Sefer Yechezkel). But Yom Kippur isn’t New Years day!? It’s on the 10th of Tishrei! The real Rosh Hashana was on the 1st of Tishrei! That was New Years day! Why is Yom Kippur called New Years Day!?

Our Sages explain that Yom Kippur is the New Years Day of the Yovel year. Meaning that all the mitzvot of the Yovel Year, with everyone returning back to their original places and so on, only kick in on Yom Kippur. If you glance back at the verses written above, you’ll say that the Torah says pretty clearly that you sound a Shofar on the tenth of the month – on Yom Kippur, and that’s when Yovel starts. Yom Kippur is the New Years Day of the Yovel Year.

Why is that? Why not have Yovel start at the regular beginning of the year – Rosh Hashana? Why should it start on Yom Kippur?
Because Yovel is a year long version of Yom Kippur. And now we are beginning to understand what happens on Yom Kippur…

In the 49 years leading up to Yovel a lot of people moved around.
And in the past year, since last Yom Kippur, we have become assur, tied up, to a lot of things that we shouldn’t be tied to.

On Yovel everything returns to its place. All the families and houses go back to where they are supposed to be and who they are supposed to belong to.

On Yom Kippur, Hashem puts back in its rightful place everything that we have moved out of place in the past year. On Yom Kippur Hashem unties every knot we have made in ourselves in tying ourselves to something other than our true Creator. On Yom Kippur Hashem demolishes every barrier that we have placed between us and Him.
It’s a new beginning. Where our mistakes are wiped away, and those things that have been holding us back disappear. Where we return to our real selves. Where we return to Hashem.

To someone who knows how incredible and meaningful it is to have a close relationship with Hashem, but has somehow lost that closeness in the mistakes they have made in the past year, there can be no greater happiness than this gift that Hashem gives us on Yom Kippur. This is a day of unparalleled holiness and happiness.

So why is it the scariest day? Because we stand in judgement. We don’t deserve this gift that we’ve described above. Based on our actions, we don’t deserve a fresh start, but Hashem gives it to us because He loves us. We are His children, with a special potential and a special task. He wants to undo our mistakes! But it will only happen if we return to Him in teshuva. We need to want to reconnect, and reestablish what we’ve lost and close that gap between ourselves and our Creator. We need to regret the mistakes that we’ve made.
This doesn’t mean taking practical steps that are bigger than we can handle – there are times that a person can make a big jump in their observance and manage to maintain it, but they are very rare. We always need to take small steps forward, always moving forward, slowly but surely. But it means wanting to move forward and grow and come closer to Hashem, and realizing how we can practically do that this coming year.

Yom Kippur. What can be achieved on this day! The holiness of the closeness with Hashem that we can come to! The happiness of such an incredible opportunity! The trepidation of missing it.
This is the holiness, happiness and trepidation of Yom Kippur.

May we all be able to take advantage of this incredible day and be sealed for an entire year of happiness and holiness, for us and all of Am Yisrael.
Shana Tova u’metuka!

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