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The Day of Essences

The Day of Essences

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On Yom Kippur, we set aside the external trappings of what it means to be a human being and we return to the essence of who we are—G‑dly beings that existed long before our bodies came into being. In kind, or more aptly stated, as the impetus for our transformation, G‑d also shows us His essence and relates to us directly, without the regular buffers in place.

In other words, Yom Kippur is the day when we get real.

The rest of the year we wear many hats and we are busy doing. Doing what a parent does; doing what a spouse does; doing what a bread-winner does; doing what a member of a community does. On Yom Kippur, we strip down to our true selves and we just be.

The Mechanics of Atonement

Indeed, this getting down to essences is how atonement works. When we have faltered, it is because of our lack of ability to deal with the world. We were supposed to interact with the world in one way, and we chose to interact with it in another, whether in how we eat, do business, engage in intimate relations and so on.

On Yom Kippur, we don't need a world and we don't have to figure out how to deal with itBut when we get down to our essence – an essence which has no need to be bogged down in the trappings of this mundane world – we arrive at a place within ourselves that remains completely above the fray. Our essence cannot be sullied for it stands aloof from the incidental matters in which our rest-of-the-year selves are embroiled.

And so, on Yom Kippur, we divorce ourselves from the world and join G‑d in a true state of Oneness. On Yom Kippur, we don't need a world and we don't have to figure out how to deal with it. We don't work, we don't eat, we don't engage in marital relations. We don't do anything. We be.

Affliction or Transcendence

On Yom Kippur we are denied five bodily needs: eating, marital relations, bathing, anointing and the wearing of leather shoes. On a basic level, these five modes of abstention are called "afflictions," but the inner dimension of the Torah sees them in a very different light, not (only) as self-denial, but as self-transcendence. We do not deprive our bodies on Yom Kippur; we return to our essence and rise above our bodies. Whereas the rest of the year, we are nourished by eating, on Yom Kippur we are nourished directly from the Source of All Sustenance without need for the intervening medium of food.

During the rest of the year, the soul engages in the task of interacting with the world through the body, taking the mundane and making it holy. This is known as the task of elevating the sparks of G‑dly energy that are encumbered within the physical world. This task is necessary for the refinement of the world and the ultimate transformation of the physical plane into a heaven-on-earth. The whole year round, the soul's mission in this world is to find G‑d within the trappings of this world; but on Yom Kippur, when we and G‑d reveal our essences, we relate directly to one another without the usual game of hide-and-seek.

Taking Off Your Shoes

The fact that we do not wear leather shoes on Yom Kippur is a symbol of the rare and unique relationship with G‑d that exists on Yom Kippur.

Leather soles represent a barrier between man and the earth upon which he stands. In macrocosm, this signifies the buffer that exists between G‑d and His world. Creation is a dynamic, on-going process, a vast apparatus composed of various planes of existence. Normally, the creative energy filters its way down through this system before reaching us. On Yom Kippur, however, G‑d removes the scaffolding which connects the highest heavens to the earth and "takes off His shoes," so to speak, placing Himself in direct contact with the lowest plane of existence. Our removing our shoes is simply meant to mirror this state.

The leather soles have not been removed but have become so refined that they cease to act as a barrierThe rest of the year, we interface with the world in order to reveal its latent G‑dliness. On Yom Kippur we interface directly with G‑d and thereby reveal our own G‑dly nature. In other words, in the normal mode of conduct, we are G‑d's emissaries, embodied souls which need to eat, work, procreate, manage households and so on, all so we can express the G‑dly intent in these things. On Yom Kippur we step back from these roles and return to our true, eternal essence which is directly at One with G‑d.

Anti-Asceticism

So, if our true essential state is to be aloof from worldly needs, does this somehow imply that dealing with the physical world the rest of the year is little more than a necessary evil? To the contrary.

We spoke about the buffer between our physical existence and G‑d being like the sole of a great universal shoe. On Yom Kippur we remove our leather shoes to indicate that this barrier has been removed. In truth, however, this physical representation is not an exact counterpart. In truth, the leather soles have not been removed but have become so refined that they cease to act as a barrier.

During the rest of the year, we are enjoined to deal with the physical worlds as our mission as servants of G‑d. The Hebrew word for servant, eved, shares the same root as the word for "tanning [hides]." A tanner takes tough leather and makes it soft and pliable. The eved of G‑d is thus one who takes the unfinished hides of physical existence and works them over until they become almost transparent to the G‑dly intent that lies within them.

Yom Kippur is not an escape from our year-round task of grappling with the material but the net result and culmination of it. Whenever we have acted mindfully and deliberately in our dealings with the world, when we have partaken of our bodily needs for the sake of heaven, we have actually been softening tough leather so that on Yom Kippur, when the essence of this project is revealed, we catch a glimpse of the sum total of our work that will ultimately be realized with the coming of Moshiach.

Rabbi Shais Taub is Creative Director at Jewish.TV. He is the author of G-d of Our Understanding: Jewish Spirituality and Recovery from Addiction. He and his family make their home in Pittsburgh, PA.
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Jorge Qro. Mexico October 7, 2016

On Yom Kippur... On Yom Kippur... The day of atonement, somehow my idea of atonement was that I had to do something to repair the many misdeeds I had made in the years past; or at least to afflict myself to know the expiatory value of torture, also I had to forgive my enemies or at least forget what they did to me, last but not least I had to repair the damage and ask for forgiveness from those I had offended. As the years have passed, I realized that there has been always a reason to act the way I did.
And now... My soul thanks my merciful G-d for the opportunity of this Yom Kippur, for the opportunity to let me show myself before Him, humble and harmless asking from Him His cleansing blessing. Reply

Rochel Chein for chabad.org October 19, 2015

Anonymous, I agree with you. This is the month of Elul, preceding the High Holidays, is a time of repentance and introspection, in preparation for the Ten Days of Repentance beginning with Rosh Hashana and culminating on Yom Kippur. On a smaller scale, many observe the day preceding Rosh Chodesh, the start of the new month, as a day of repentance, known as Yom Kippur Katan, a mini Yom Kippur. Additionally, weekly and even daily accountings are encouraged: take a few moments before going to bed to think over the happenings of the day, what must be rectified and what went well. Reply

Anonymous ny September 23, 2015

One day for all this? Really? What is that about? Everyday needs to be inventory day for our behaviors! Maybe this is the problem.. Only one day is emphasized.
Asking only one day. Think about that. Reply

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