Rabbi Ephraim Sprecher, Dean of Students and Senior Lecturer at Diaspora Yeshiva, is not only a popular speaker and teacher, but also a dynamic thinker and writer. A student of Harav Yaakov Kamenetsky and Harav Gedalia Schorr, Rabbi Sprecher was granted smicha (rabbinical ordination) by Torah Vodaath Yeshiva. Prior to his current position, Rabbi Sprecher was a professor of Judaic studies at Touro College in New York. In addition to his duties at Diaspora Yeshiva, Rabbi Sprecher writes a regular column on various Judaic topics in the Jewish Press, and lectures regularly at the OU Israel Center in Jerusalem.
Yom Kippur's Mystical Challenge
Published: Wednesday, September 19, 2007 07:13:44 AM
Number of views: 2548

The common perception of Yom Kippur is the ultimate "Don't - Can't" experience.  Don't eatDon't drinkCan't even wash your face. For most people, Yom Kippur is an ordeal that we have to get through, an exercise in self-denial that is even more constricting than Shabbat.
 
The long synagogue service and repeated emphasis on guilt and sin turn Yom Kippur into a day of awe and anxiety despair and dread. It certainly does not appear to be a day of celebration.
 
Yet, many Yom Kippur laws seem to contradict the somber mood of the day. We enter the fast by eating a festive meal, dressed in our finest clothes. We recite the "SheHeCheyanu" blessing, thanking G-d for allowing us to reach this unique time in the year. We put on the kittel, a white robe that symbolizes purity and innocence, not guilt and punishment.
 
The last Mishnah in Ta'anit says: "There is no more joyous day for Israel than Yom Kippur." How are we to understand such an apparent contradiction? Furthermore, Yom Kippur, just like all the other festivals, has the power to cut short, and even entirely cancel, a period of mourning. In the words of the Talmud, the rejoicing of the nation pushes aside the mourning of the individual.
 
It is written in Vayikra (23:32) "On Yom Kippur,  "Ve'Initem et nafshotaichem." This is usually translated as, "You shall afflict your souls." However, the word also has another meaning, as we find in reference to the mitzvah of bringing the first fruits (Devarim 26:5) "And you shall answer and sing (V'Anita) before G-d, when you bring the first fruits to the Temple."
 
Therefore, in the context of Yom Kippur, the phrase "Ve'Initem et nafshotaichem" doesn't have to be translated only as "You shall afflict your souls."
 
On the one hand, one can't hide the fact that Yom Kippur is spent looking deeply into one's soul, exposing weakness and shortcomings. That certainly causes one to be afraid of being found guilty on the Day of Judgment. But Yom Kippur is also the Day of Atonement, when all sincere Ba'alei Teshuvah are guaranteed forgiveness by G-d. It is this most comforting element of Yom Kippur that allows us to rejoice during the festival of forgiveness.
 
The verb "Ve'Initem," in addition to meaning "You shall afflict your souls," can also be translated, "You shall allow your souls to sing." You shall free your soul of all of its usual bodily needs and desires and dedicate a 25-hour period to your soul and to G-d.
 
Within the comforting embrace of the G-d of Love and Forgiveness on Yom Kippur, our bodily needs become of almost no account, as our souls take over our bodies, singing to G-d. Yom Kippur is a grand and unique opportunity for every Jew to receive a new beginning in life, a second chance. That's why the Talmud in Ta'anit tells us that G-d gave us the Second Tablets on Yom Kippur, symbolizing that G-d always gives us a second chance to become better human beings.
 
Judaism is an optimistic and forgiving religion that allows for change and the ability of a person to begin a new relationship with others and with G-d. The prayers of Yom Kippur reflect this perspective.
 
More than 10 times, we repeat that this day serves to atone for all our sins, to purify us and restore our holy character. Because on Yom Kippur, by attaining repentance and forgiveness, our bond to The Creator is restored and renewed.  The crucial message of the day is not just that the opportunity for a clean slate exists, but how we realize that opportunity.
 
We do this by concentrating on our soul. All year long there is tension and conflict between body and soul, between the physical, material needs and one's spiritual soul. In virtually all the battles between the forces of the spiritual and the physical, the physical desires win.
 
We indulge our physical cravings, doing that which feels good, and that which brings us pleasure. On Yom Kippur, the day belongs to the soul, as our physical activities are diminished, if not altogether eliminated. The soul, freed of its physical bonds, can now soar upwards, ascending to higher levels of kedushah, where it can express its deepest feelings and emotions.
 
On Yom Kippur, we are like angels, who neither sleep, eat, nor have marital relations. So that we can, for one day out of the year, devote ourselves exclusively to singing the praises of G-d. Dressed in white, we are confident that our true nature, the G-dly soul, is being fulfilled. Such elevation of the spirit is true inner joy.
 
The sounding of the shofar at the end of Yom Kippur is directly linked to the shofar blast that once was sounded every half-century on the Jubilee year. Just as that dramatic shofar blast signaled freedom through a release from debts and an end to physical slavery, so our own shofar blast symbolizes the ability of a Jew to rise above material and physical desires, freeing the soul to bond with G-d. Therefore, let us all accept the challenge to rejoice on Yom Kippur.

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