Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, concludes and culminates the Ten Days of Repentance. We fast a full day (this year from dusk on September 15 to nightfall on September 16), one of five privations that render us fit to absorb the day’s immense spiritual power. Unique among holidays are its five prayer services, beginning in the evening with Kol Nidre, and climaxing with Neilah, just before sunset on the following day. The daytime Musaf service features a recitation, and thereby a simulation, of the High Priest’s atonement service in the ancient Jerusalem Temple. All in all, our prayer-filled efforts aim to elicit God’s forgiveness of individual and communal lapses and, on this basis, to deepen our bond to the Almighty.
Professor Wiesel would annually be given the honor in his synagogue of opening the special Kol Nidre evening prayer service by chanting the verse, “Or Zarua LaTzadik Ul'Yishrei Lev Simcha” (light is sown for the righteous, and, for the upright of heart, joy). His 92Y lectures refer to various aspects of the Yom Kippur holiday: the special service performed by the high priest; the Torah reading that refers to the death of Aaron’s sons; the exalted deeds of Hasidic masters inspired by the day’s majesty; the resonant meaning of the Book of Jonah, read at the day’s afternoon service; and the subtle significance of the evening prayers that follow upon the holy day. The excerpts that follow offer a brief spiritual compass of some Yom Kippur themes. May the words and sentiments deepen the meaning of our own prayers and empower us, as Professor Wiesel urges, to take responsibility for our future.
In the Bible: Jonah, October 9, 1980
Why must we [read] the Book of Jonah on Yom Kippur? Two hypotheses, two major themes. One, the emphasis is on repentance, which has dominated Jewish thought from its origins, meaning since Adam and Cain. Unlike Greek mythology, Judaism rejects the concept of fatalism. Fate is not inexorable. Decisions are never irrevocable. Man is not a toy whose functioning is prearranged. His link to infinity assures him or her access to endless possibilities. Destiny’s march can be stopped; its triumph is not pre-determined. In other words, the cycle of crime and punishment can be halted before it is completed. Evil can be aborted, deviated, vanquished. Better yet, it can be transformed. It can undergo endless mutations. How? By choosing repentance. It’s efficient for man to take hold of himself, to say to himself enough, I must turn around before it’s too late. And all evil decrees will be lifted. Such is the theme and the teaching of the Book of Jonah.
Teshuva means an act of consciousness, of awareness, a willingness to take sides and take responsibility for the future. One cannot modify the past, but one is given the power to shape the future. It all depends on the individual and the community. They can, if they wish, foil destiny and celebrate free choice. The lesson in Jonah: nothing is written, nothing is sealed, God’s will itself may change. Even though punishment has been programmed, it may be cancelled. And therein lies the beauty, and the grandeur, and the humanity of the Jewish tradition. Every human being is granted one more chance, one more opportunity to start his or her life all over again. Just as God has the power to begin, man has the power to continue by beginning again and again.
In the Talmud: Haninah ben Dosa, October 16, 1980
Achrayut, which means responsibility, contains the word acher, the other. We are responsible for the other and therefore, first of all, responsible for those closest to us. Take the high priest. On Yom Kippur it is his duty and privilege to pray for the welfare of the entire community of Israel, but before that he must pray for the welfare of his own family. Yes, his family ranks first. It would be inhuman to require him to place strangers ahead of his parents and brothers and sisters. Only if he loves them can he love the entire household of Israel.
Readings and Memories, October 30, 1997
On Yom Kippur, you fast the whole day. And then [comes] the Neilah service, which is such a great, great service; it’s the most beautiful, most melodious service. And then immediately afterwards, you daven ma’ariv. And already, you say: Selach lanu avinu ki chatanu, “Please, God, forgive us for our sins.” What kind of sins? When did you sin? You didn’t leave the synagogue. You are still there. So when did you sin? And the answer is: if you ask the question, you are already a sinner. For what is a sin? Arrogance, gaavah, pride, vanity. You think you have no sins? That is a sin.