In the first year after Perestroika became a reality, one of my friends was leading the Kol Nidrei services in the main synagogue of Kiev on Yom Kippur night.

Announcements of the services had been posted all over the city and Jews responded eagerly. Old men who remembered accompanying their parents to shul as children, young families who wanted a taste of their heritage after more than a half-century of Soviet persecution, and youth in their teens who barely knew they were Jewish, flocked to the synagogue.

The chazzan chanted Kol Nidrei. The moving melody stirred the hearts of all those who had come. But as the service proceeded, my friend sensed feelings of disappointment beginning to surface. After all, most of the people had never been in a synagogue in their lives; none of them knew how to pray together with the chazzan. Despite the best intentions, Hebrew-Russian prayerbooks, and explanations in Russian, he could sense that the people were becoming bored, and within their hearts a question was beginning to take form: Were these the prayers that they had yearned for so many years to be allowed to say?

In the middle of the services, after the Amidah prayer, my friend ascended to the lectern and began to tell a classic chassidic story: The Baal Shem Tov was praying together with his students in a small Polish village. Through his spiritual vision, the Baal Shem Tov had detected that harsh heavenly judgments had been decreed against the Jewish people, and he and his students were trying with all the sincerity they could muster to cry out to G‑d and implore Him to rescind these decrees and grant the Jews a year of blessing.

This deep feeling took hold of all the inhabitants of the village and everyone opened his heart in deepfelt prayer.

Among the inhabitants of the village was a simple shepherd boy. He did not know how to read; indeed, he could barely say the letters of the alef-beis, the Hebrew alphabet. As the intensity of feeling in the synagogue began to mount, he decided that he also wanted to pray. But he did not know how. He could not read the words of the prayer book or mimic the prayers of the other congregants. He opened the prayer book to the first page and began to recite the letters alef, beis, veis — reading the entire alphabet. He then called out to G‑d: “This is all I can do. G‑d, You know how the prayers should be pronounced. Please, arrange the letters in the proper way.”

This simple, genuine prayer resounded powerfully within the Heavenly court. G‑d rescinded all the harsh decrees and granted the Jews blessing and good fortune.

My friend paused for a moment to let the story impact his listeners. Suddenly a voice called out: “Alef.” And thousands of voices thundered back Alef. The voice continued: Beis, and the thousands responded Beis. They continued to pronounce every letter in the Hebrew alphabet, and then they began to file out of the synagogue. They had recited their prayers.

Yom Kippur Today

On Yom Kippur, we fast. That’s what a Jew does on Yom Kippur. He realizes that a lightning bolt will not come down from heaven and strike him if he eats, but he is not concerned with reward or punishment. He doesn’t eat because he understands that G‑d does not want him to. He knows that a Jew does not do that on Yom Kippur.

A day before, he may not have felt this way. He may have been lax in the observance of one mitzvah or another. But on Yom Kippur he feels that he has to do what a Jew should do.

Why? Because there is something special about this day. Our Sages explain the idea using gematria, Torah numerology. The Hebrew word for “the Satan,” השטן, is numerically equivalent to 364. On 364 days of the year, Satan has the power to tempt the Jewish people. On one day, Yom Kippur, he has no power. A Jew is simply not interested in what he has to offer. On Yom Kippur, he has other things on his mind. Yom Kippur is a day for being Jewish.

What would happen on Yom Kippur? The High Priest entered the Holy of Holies, at which time he was alone with G‑d. No human or spiritual being was permitted to intrude upon his connection with Him.

Each year this sequence is replayed in our own hearts. The essence of the Jewish soul is one with the essence of G‑d. This bond is constant; it is not the product of our efforts. Consequently, neither our thoughts, our words, nor our deeds can weaken it. At this level of essential connection, there is no existence outside G‑dliness, no possibility of separation from Him.

This connection exists above time. But within time, it is revealed on Yom Kippur. On this day, we each “enter the Holy of Holies,” and spend time “alone with G‑d.”

This is the heart of the Neilah prayer, the final service recited on Yom Kippur. Neilah means “locking.” There are some Rabbis who interpret the name as meaning that the gates of heaven are being locked and there are a few short moments left in which our prayers can enter. According to chassidic thought, the meaning is that the doors are locked behind us. Each one of us is “locked in,” alone and as one with G‑d.

At this level of essential connection, there is no existence outside G‑dliness, no possibility of separation from G‑d, no possibility that the soul could be affected by sin.

The revelation of this level of connection removes the blemishes that sin causes. This kind of cleansing is a natural process, for the revelation of our inner bond with G‑d renews our connection with Him at all levels.

This is the meaning of the saying of our Sages that “the essence of the day atones.” On Yom Kippur, our essential bond with G‑d is revealed, and in the process, every element of our spiritual potential is revitalized.

This spiritual experience also renews our lives within the material sphere, endowing us with blessing, and causing each one of us to be granted a good and sweet year in all our material and spiritual concerns.

Looking to the Horizon

Maimonides describes Yom Kippur as “the time of teshuvah for all; for individuals as well as the community.” The ultimate expression of this motif will come in the era of the Redemption when, as the Zohar, the fundamental text of Jewish mysticism, teaches, Mashiach will motivate even the righteous to turn to G‑d in teshuvah.

What is teshuvah? Returning to G‑d by focusing on the G‑dly spark that lies within each one of us. In the era of consummate spirituality that Mashiach will introduce, everyone — even those who appear to have attained spiritual fulfillment — will realize the mortal limitations which constrain them, and will seek the inner core of their spiritual potential.

Similarly, it is the expression of the potential for teshuvah that will serve as the catalyst for the Redemption. For striving to reach our spiritual core will serve as the catalyst for the revelation of G‑dliness throughout all existence. As Maimonides writes: “Israel will be redeemed only through teshuvah. The Torah has promised that ultimately, towards the end of her exile, Israel will return [to G‑d], and immediately will be redeemed.”