It is the night of Yom Kippur, moments before the opening Kol Nidrei prayer. The synagogue is full, and rows of memorial candles add a warm beeswax scent to the somber atmosphere. Memorial candles, not for the departed, but for the living.
As the clock gradually shuts out the pre–Yom Kippur time that now seems so frivolous, congregants softly whisper lines of psalms. Latecomers shuffle into the crowded synagogue, filing past a setting sun in snow-white robes that amplify the woolen tallitot.
We no longer require material sustenanceDo we resemble the dead, I wonder? To some, our solemn attire reflects traditional, all-white burial shrouds. We have lit memorial candles for ourselves and now walk in shrouds on this most solemn day. We neither eat nor drink. And on this Eve of Awe, we stand unprotected by falsehood before G‑d’s direct scrutiny, facing our Maker as on the day of passing.
Do we resemble the angels? An alternative insight sees our pristine uniform as portraying legions of supernal beings, with brilliant candles signifying an unleashing of spiritual radiance. Our experience of perpetual human frailty contains one exception, one full day in which we are drafted to augment the hosts of heaven, dedicating ourselves entirely to singing G‑d’s praises and offering supplication before the Heavenly Throne. Earth joins hands with Heaven. We request forgiveness and receive purity. We avoid food because we no longer require material sustenance; angels do not eat.
Well, which is it? Do I evoke a hopelessly expired body whose soul has departed for a better existence, or am I the delighted image of a soaring spirit unencumbered by the burden of corporeal casing? Have I been wrapped in shrouds, or did I don a garment of light?
I glance around. All eyes obediently follow printed words. I alone stare intently at a white sleeve. Is no one bothered by the clothing debate raging within me in these final moments before Kol Nidrei? I justify my musings by reasoning that if our High Holiday attire were not to conjure reflection, it would serve no purpose at all.
A full day with an empty stomach
Perhaps the polemic between seraph and shroud hinges on my perspective of a full or empty stomach.
Right now, for example, I am far from hungry. Our sages have enjoined us to eat a large festive meal prior to the fast, to prevent malnourishment for the duration of Yom Kippur. I complied.
Now the sun is almost buried, the cantor waits like a sentry at his post, and the beadle is visibly impatient. But can tonight truly be considered Yom Kippur? Can the feelings of sanctity, humility, remorse and purity that are synonymous with the sacred fast honestly coexist with satiation? Surely, missing breakfast and lunch tomorrow will do more to formalize the Yom Kippur atmosphere than a full-stomached Kol Nidrei!
I mentally fast-forward to late tomorrow afternoon. I can picture myself sneaking longing gazes out of the edge of my tallit at the overly sluggish hands of the synagogue clock. I can imagine myself wondering to G‑d whether He would have done better in obtaining a day of concentrated prayer filled with fire and energy by permitting me bread and water. Will my mounting shift of focus from the sacred liturgy to the time of day indicate that I am truly “experiencing” Yom Kippur?
How I yearn to retreat to the obscurity and travails of earth, if only to escape the severe honesty of the heavensThree sharp claps on the podium shatter my contemplation. Two tall men with snowy beards and bedecked in flowing white glide silently towards the Ark. I have mere seconds to resolve my dilemma before the scrolls join a standing congregation for the commencement of the service.
Saved by an angel
With sudden urgency, I realize that if my Yom Kippur is going to be decided by the extent to which I am bereft of sustenance, then my white robe indeed signifies a corpse—the remains of a human deprived of material life and nourishment. In that case, I must prepare to face my Maker as on the day of death, eternally ashamed of my record, desperately pleading forgiveness for deeds I can no longer amend, violently trembling in the penetrating and inescapable light of truth. How I yearn to retreat to the obscurity and travails of earth, if only to escape the severe honesty of the heavens. But it is too late.
Ouch! While such contemplation certainly has its purpose, Yom Kippur is also a day of profound joy. More importantly, our most hallowed date cannot possibly be governed solely by a digestive organ.
Gazing at my pale sleeves, I switch to the angelic track.
Yes, I must urgently develop an inner atmosphere of sanctity, a craving for G‑d’s closeness. This is a day of forgiveness engineered out of sublime love, not fatal reproach. Yom Kippur is a rare period of manifest unity between G‑d and ourselves.
After an entire year, G‑d suddenly and emphatically reaches out. Our Father and King makes Himself intimately available. From Kol Nidrei until tomorrow night’s prolonged blast of the shofar, G‑d hugs us so warmly that we feel thoroughly ashamed of every deed, word or thought that was contrary to His revealed will and plan. How could we have betrayed the Love of our souls? We would do anything for Him!
G‑d’s tight embrace loosens sins from the depths of our innermost identities; they are pressed to the surface, where the words, emotions and resolutions of Yom Kippur combine with a heavenly light to forever wash them away, leaving marks of mutual affinity in their place.
Our intimacy with G‑d on this day is so extraordinary that our bodily demands appear as awkward as an archangel in a restaurant. Who wants to eat?! Let the plate wait until our period of intense G‑dly union is successfully completed. Can I remove myself from the deafening insistence of corporeal demands for just one day? Just for once, I want to find the courage to say “no” to the constant abuse of earthly existence. I desire G‑d’s closeness! I want to spend one sacred day alone with my Maker.
Let me borrow an angel’s cloak for a fraction of time. I promise to return it as soon as the stars sing strong on tomorrow’s night. Until then, let me use it to melt my inner obstacles that distance me from my G‑d. I will beg His pardon, resolve to remain faithful, and delight in rare union with Him.
Yom Kippur will intensify as the day progressesYes, Yom Kippur has arrived, despite my full stomach. And Yom Kippur will intensify as the day progresses. Let the impatient beadle remove the clock entirely from the synagogue wall. When the fast is over, I will not rush to return the angel his cloak. I will not hurry to gobble a morsel. I will not gladly exchange my tools of loving prayer for a plastic cup and metal spoon.
A surge of spiritual energy powers through my body. No, I am not a corpse. And I can thrive without food. I have chosen to return G‑d’s intimate embrace this day, and even my clothes have turned appropriately pure.
And not a moment to soon, because Yom Kippur is set to begin.
All around me, eyes moisten, throats tighten, candles flicker. With a melody that has stirred souls from times ancient, the cantor gradually intones:
“Al da’at hamakom, ve’al da’at hakahal . . .”
He pleads for the consent of the heavenly and earthly tribunals. I, too, request permission from my personal heaven and earth to unite in atonement, purity and intimacy with G‑d, at least for one day.
“Kol nidrei, ve’esarei . . .”
The swaying cantor chants an annulment of vows, oaths and pledges. I mentally free my body from its vow to consume food without considering the spiritual. I release my soul from its pledge of unthinking subservience to its earthly casing. I relinquish my unspoken oath to choose earth’s satisfactions over a closer relationship with G‑d. I nullify my self-imposed barriers and regretful choices that disrupt intimacy between my G‑d and myself.
“Miyom kippurim zeh ad yom kippurim . . .”
At least for a day, perhaps for a year.