A broadcast by Rabbi Raymond Apple on the ABC Radio national network (Australia) in 1978 to mark Yom Kippur. The broadcast text subsequently appeared in the booklet, Days of Awe: High Holyday Broadcasts from the Great Synagogue, Sydney, published by the Great Synagogue, Rosh HaShanah, 1979.
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the “Sabbath of Sabbaths” — the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.
It is a 25 hour period, from evening to evening, completely given over to confession of sins, remorse over wrongdoing, and a search for reconciliation and forgiveness, during which Jews abstain from all food and drink.
This program presents a profile of the day.
The Biblical Yom Kippur centred around sacrificial rites in which the High Priest played the major role:
“And this shall be to you a law for all time: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall practise self-denial; and you shall do no manner of work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you. For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before the Lord” (Lev. 16:29-31).
After the Temple was destroyed, Yom Kippur lost none of its significance and solemnity. The Prophets had maintained that where there was no inner repentance, sacrifice alone was ineffectual.
Now, with special stress on true repentance, Yom Kippur developed such intensity that a whole volume was necessary to explain its rituals and values. It became known simply as Yoma — “The Day”.
The Kol Nidre service, which opens Yom Kippur, is impressive and moving. The plaintive melody of this traditional prayer, with its echoes of the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, and the numberless other calamities that have punctuated Jewish history infuses every worshipper with a sense of identification with his people and his faith.
The Kol Nidre prayer is based on the Biblical command that a person must honour his word and not break any promises he utters. In the exalted mood of Yom Kippur, one might promise God things that one is unable to fulfil. Thus, Kol Nidre provides an opportunity of seeking God’s forbearance.
Kol Nidre, however, does not apply to promises made to man. A Jew cannot be released from any obligation toward his fellow-man except with the consent of the person concerned.
The ineffably sad melody of Kol Nidre was possibly first heard during the medieval persecutions in Spain. Later, migrating Marranos (Jews forced to practise their religion secretly) introduced it to other countries. Because of its beauty and deep emotionalism it has become a Jewish musical heirloom.
Many Jewish teachers have explored the reasons for fasting on Yom Kippur. According to one view, the fast was ordained —
“As a penance — by this means we show contrition for the wrong we have failed to undo… The man who fasts for his sins is saying in so many words, I do not want to be let off lightly; I deserve to be punished…
“As self-discipline — self-indulgence and lack of self-control frequently lead to sin. It is natural that repentance be preceded by an attempt at self-discipline…
“As a means of focusing the mind on the spiritual — Judaism frankly recognises the bodily instincts and the need for their legitimate gratification… And yet with all its recognition of the bodily needs, religion seeks to encourage and foster the spiritual side of man’s life. By fasting on Yom Kippur the needs of the body are left unattended for twenty-four hours and the Jew gives all his concentration to the things of the spirit…
“As a means of awakening compassion — By knowing what it means to go hungry, albeit for a day, our hearts are moved for those who suffer. By fasting we are moved to think of the needs of others” (Louis Jacobs).
The Jewish tradition knows man is not perfect. And yet it is fundamentally optimistic about man’s ability to change himself for the better.
Milton Steinberg wrote:
“If it calls man a sinner, it also calls him little lower than the angels. If it describes him as capable of abysmal evil, it insists that he is equally capable of dazzling good. It holds that he is born not pre-damned but with a clean slate; that he has the power to keep himself righteous, or, having erred, to recapture his righteousness; that his salvation is up to him … ”
The belief that man can triumph over evil has inspired much thought on the true nature of repentance. It inevitably involves rejection of the deeds of the past and conversion to new attitudes, habits and ways.
The initiative for repentance, however, must come from man, not from God. Abba Hillel Silver said, “God’s love will meet man more than halfway, or, to use the superb imagery of Judah Halevi, ‘When I go forth to seek Thee, I find Thee seeking me’. The Psalmist too finds that ‘God is near unto all who call upon Him, who call upon Him in truth’. But the call must come from man. ‘Return to me and I will return to you, says the Lord of Hosts.’ The slightest effort on the part of man is met by God’s ready and gracious co-operation. ‘God says to Israel, open the door of repentance even if only the width of the eye of the needle, and I will open it for you wide enough for carriages and wagons to pass through.'”
In a homily on the Day of Atonement, the Rabbi of Ger warned against self-torture:
“He who has done ill and talks about it and thinks about it all the time, does not cast the base thing he did out of his thoughts. He will certainly not be able to turn, for his spirit will grow coarse and his heart stubborn, and in addition to this may be overcome by gloom… Have I sinned or have I not sinned — what does Heaven get out of it? In the time I am brooding over it I could be stringing pearls for the delight of Heaven. That is why it is written, ‘Depart from evil and do good’ — turn wholly away from evil, do not dwell upon it, and do good. You have done wrong? Then counteract it by doing right.”
This parable was told by the Chassidic teacher, Rabbi Chayyim of Zans:
“A man had been wandering about in a forest for several days, not knowing which was the right way out. Suddenly he saw a man approaching him. His heart was filled with joy. Now I shall certainly find out which is the right way, he thought to himself. When they neared one another, he asked the man, ‘Brother, tell me which is the right way. I have been wandering about in this forest for several days!’
“Said the other to him, ‘Brother, I do not know the way out either. For I too have been wandering about here for many days, but this I can tell you: Do not take the way I have been taking, for that will lead you astray. And now let us look for a new way out together!'”
Rabbi Chayyim added: “So it is with us. One thing I can tell you: The way we have been following thus far we ought to follow no further, for that way leads one astray. But now let us look for a new way.”
Penitence is sometimes sudden. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook wrote:
“There are times when penitence comes suddenly. A sudden flash of spiritual awareness confronts the soul. All at once one becomes conscious of the evil and the sordidness of sin, and he is converted into a new person. And in the same instant, he feels a profound relaxation within himself Such penitence is a token of some special grace, the influence of some great soul force, whose ways are to be traced to the ultimate mystery of our being.”
On Yom Kippur morning, the Scriptural reading is from Leviticus 16 and describes the elaborate procedure in the Temple on Yom Kippur, directed by the High Priest, who wore not his usual costly robes, but simply linen garments, symbolic of purity and humility. A highlight of the ceremony was the confession of the sins of the people over the head of the scapegoat, which was sent into the wilderness to a desolate region called “Azazel”.
Maimonides commented: “Sins cannot be carried like a burden, and taken off the shoulder of one being to be laid on that of another being. But these ceremonies are of a symbolic character as if to say, we have freed ourselves of our previous deeds, have cast them behind our backs, and removed them from us as far as possible.”
The reading from the Prophets, from Isaiah 57 and 58, trenchantly criticises those who spend the day in fasting and saying prayers, persuading themselves that to follow the ritual will in itself bring forgiveness. “Is such the fast that I have chosen?” thunders the Prophet. Is it not all a pretence, unless it is accompanied by ethical and moral dealing? Only then can a man be confident that God will hear his voice!
There is a Memorial Service on Yom Kippur. Its purpose is stated by a 14th-century authority as being to “break the heart of man” and stir him to repentance.
Israel Abrahams wrote that the justification for prayers for the dead was that “the generations were bound together in filial piety; death did not end or break this bond. The virtues of the fathers worked forwards to mitigate some of the faults of the children and the virtues of the children worked backwards to remove some of the imperfections of the fathers.”
The afternoon service features a reading of the Book of Jonah.
Jonah, living in ancient Israel, is commanded by God to summon to repentance the inhabitants of corrupt and sinful Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian empire (and implacable enemy of the Israelites). Jonah tries to escape his duty, but in vain. After being saved from the inside of a big fish and from the stormy sea, God again commands him to do His bidding. Now, Jonah obeys. Scarcely has he uttered his message to Nineveh than the people of the city are moved to penitence.
To Jonah’s great disappointment, God “saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, which He said He would do unto them; and He did it not.”
God explains His compassion for all creatures, in these words, “Should I not have pity on Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than six score thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand, and also much cattle?”
Many ideas relevant to the Day of Atonement are conveyed by the story of Jonah.
• Like Jonah, man at last finds that he cannot escape from God.
• God’s compassion is universal. Jonah at first showed reluctance to go to Nineveh, and then was angry that the city was saved; but God showed him dramatically that His mercies were over all His creatures, including the people of Nineveh and even their cattle.
• Repentance, if it is accompanied by new and better deeds, as was that of the inhabitants of Nineveh, will always find acceptance by God.
• Jonah’s fearless declaration, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord,” has its lessons for those who would deny their Jewish origins or who find them a source of embarrassment.
The universalism of Divine compassion is summed up in this fine passage from Jewish literature: “I call Heaven and Earth as witnesses, that whether it be gentile or Jew, man or woman, serving man or serving maid, according to the deed that each does the spirit of holiness will rest upon him.”
A special prayer used to be said at the time of the closing (Ne’ilah) of the Temple gates; the idea was later taken over to the Yom Kippur Service and suggested a fervent, renewed plea for reconciliation with God before the gates of Heaven were closed. Weary after a long day of fasting and prayer, with the sun about to set, we make a final appeal that our day may have been well spent and our voices heard On High.
The Ark remains open throughout Ne’ilah, and from the first Kaddish onwards the traditional melodies combine a note of solemnity with one of triumph. Confident that our fate will have been inscribed for good in the Heavenly record, we now say, “seal us” instead of “inscribe us for life”.
“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.
Blessed be His glorious sovereign Name for ever and ever.”
The triumphant, confident conclusion of Ne’ilah, and of Yom Kippur, comes with the declaration, with one voice, of the Jew’s belief in God and His Unity.
With deep insight into the faith of Judaism, Hermann Cohen wrote: “He who has not seen a Jew say Shema Yisra’el at the Ne’ilah service or at the confession before death, has never seen religious ecstasy.”
Both at this culminating moment of Ne’ilah and at the moment of death the Jew neither fears the future nor feels oppressed by his past. A new serenity and spiritual exaltation comes over him. The past has been confessed and his burden of guilt is lifted; pardoned, cleansed, and very near to God, he is ready to embark upon a new future of fulfilment of God’s purposes.
Finally comes the seven-times echoed cry of the Israelites at Mount Carmel in one of the most famous episodes in Jewish history.
Elijah had challenged the people: “How long do you hesitate between two opinions? if the Lord is God, follow Him — and if Baal, follow him!”
In a dramatic demonstration the true power of the Lord was made evident; and now the people realised at last that “The Lord, He is God! The Lord, He is God!”
To many a Jew long-estranged from his people the scene in the Synagogue at Ne’ilah time has been a turning-point. In Zangwill’s words, it has the impact on the emotions of a “magnetic tremor”.
The heart and mind of the Jew know at this moment that he is linked with his people in a bond which history has made firm. And his innermost thoughts find expression in the words of the old Sephardi prayer, El Nora Alila:
“Generations of our sires
Strong in faith walked in Thy light;
As of old renew our days
As Thy gates are closed this night.”