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Reflections on Death & Yom Kippur

“Primal Fast for Primal Fear”
Joel Bassoff
Yom Kippur D’rash
Highland Park Minyan
September 14, 2013

What is it about Rosh Hashanah that makes everyone come back for Yom Kippur?  Or, what is it about Yom Kippur that makes everyone who spent all that time at Rosh Hashanah services come back?

Even Jews who skip Rosh Hashanah show up for Yom Kippur.  Most famously, in 1934, Hank Greenberg, baseball’s leading batter and the first-baseman for the Detroit Tigers – and a non-practicing Jew – played on Rosh Hashanah.  But, on Yom Kippur, he skipped a crucial American League pennant race game against Yankees, and instead spent the day in shul.

It never goes the other way – observing Rosh Hashanah but skipping Yom Kippur.  Why?

Because Yom Kippur is the “holiest day of the year”?  Where does it say that?  Not in the Torah.  Yes, the Torah calls Yom Kippur a “shabbat shabaton”, but shouldn’t that mean that Jews who don’t observe Shabbat should not observe Yom Kippur even more?

According to the Torah, the penalty for working or not afflicting oneself on Yom Kippur is “karet” – being cut off from your people.[i]  The penalty for working on Shabbat is death.[ii]

Shabbat is in Ten Commandments; Yom Kippur isn’t.

Lots of Jews don’t observe Shabbat, but almost everyone observes Yom Kippur.

It not because the Torah or Talmud say to observe it.  It must be something else.  But what?  The only authoritative source for Yom Kippur being “the holiest day of the year” is Hank Greenberg’s rabbi.

Let’s go back to Rosh Hashanah services.  What is the theme of Rosh Hashanah?  God’s sovereignty.  The birthday of the world.  The shofar.

Shouldn’t these make Rosh Hashanah holier than Yom Kippur?

But we’re here because we still have unfinished business from Rosh Hashanah.

Is it atonement?  But what exactly is “atonement”?  Some kind of mystical cleansing? Isn’t it merely imagery?

We’re taught than Yom Kippur does not atone for transgressions between people.  “[S]ins against other people require that restitution be made and that forgiveness be obtained before asking God for forgiveness.”[iii]

But aren’t the sins against other people exactly the ones we’re concerned about?  After all, these days, how can you sin against God without also sinning against another person?  It not as though idol worship is an issue these days.  None of the sins in the “Ashamnu” or “Al Ḥet” are ritual transgressions.

Is it that Yom Kippur is an occasion to apologize to those we’ve wronged?  But the apologies, if made, are merely formulaic.  “If I ever did anything to offend you, I’m sorry.”  All I’ve done is to put the burden on you to figure out what Idid.

If my apology is more specific, I might end up reminding you of something best forgotten. 

I can imagine an effort to make a “real” apology.

You say to your co-worker, “I’m sorry I called you a slacker at that meeting.”

Coworker: “What meeting?!  I don’t remember you ever saying that.”

You: “Oops, you’re right!  I never said it to you.  It was your boss I said it to.”

Coworker: “You told my boss what?!  You jerk!  No wonder I didn’t get a bonus.  I hate you now, and I’ll never forgive you!”

If it’s a tort or a crime, an apology can lead to devastating legal consequences, beyond the harm caused.

It’s rare for Yom Kippur to be an occasion for meaningful apology, or forgiveness.

So, if Yom Kippur is supposed to provide atonement, it’s not really effective.

Is Yom Kippur about pledging to do better in the coming year?  The Jewish version of New Year’s resolutions?

I’ve never heard of anyone who was transformed from a scoundrel into a tzaddik by Yom Kippur.  Prison is more effective.  (I think of Michael Milken, Ivan Boesky and Jack Abramoff.)

Consider this poem by Ze’ev Falk:

All the vows of our lips, the commitments of our hearts, and the yearnings for t’shuvah that we felt deeply and expressed sincerely in thousands of prayers last Yom Kippur – did not change our day to day lives … over the course of the year that just passed. …

Directly after last year’s Ne’ilah we descended from the heights of our enthusiasm and returned to our customary ways of living.[iv]

So why to we keep returning for Yom Kippur in such large numbers, and spend so much time reciting and listening to these prayers, if they don’t change us?

Do the repetitions of the “Ashamnu” and “Al Ḥet” cleanse us?

If ritual confession did the trick, then we could just come to the Selichot service on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah, and be done with it.  But, everyone who goes to Selichot comes back for Yom Kippur.

If we’re looking for a mystical cleansing aren’t there better ways.

In the Torah reading[v] we learn that sins can be physically transferred to an animal and sent into the wilderness.

These days, we have tashlich.  Toss your sins in a brook and let the fish eat them.

In traditional communities, people do kapporos with a live chicken.

But, everyone who does tashlichor kapporos still comes back for Yom Kippur.

What does Yom Kippur offer that Selichot, Rosh Hashanah, tashlichand kapporos don’t?

Fasting.  It’s the fasting that makes Yom Kippur effective.

So why do we fast on Yom Kipur?  Because the Torah tells us to?

There are lots of things the Torah tells us to do that we don’t do.

Anyway, what does the Torah tell us?  Ta’anu et nafshoteichem” “You shall afflict your souls”.[vi]

How did “afflict your souls” become “fasting”?  “Afflicting your soul” could be weeping and wailing.  Fasting is an affliction on the body – the guf.

Why is fasting the affliction of choice?

The answer is not self evident.  Even the rabbi’s of the Talmud debated it.

Our Rabbis taught: “You shall afflict your souls.”

One might assume that one must sit in heat or cold in order to afflict oneself, therefore the text reads: And you shall do no manner of work; just as the [prohibition of] labor [means]: sit and do nothing, so does ‘affliction’ [signify]: sit and do nothing.

But say perhaps: If one sit in the sun and is warm, one may not say unto him: “rise and sit in the shade;” or, when he sits in the shade and is cool, one may not tell him: “rise and sit in the sun”?

— It is as with labor: Just as you have made no distinction with regard to labor, so in connection with the affliction is no distinction to be made.

Another [Baraitha] taught: “You shall afflict your souls”. One might assume that one must sit in heat or cold to afflict oneself, therefore Scripture said: “And you shall do no manner of work”.[vii]

“You shall do no manner of work” means “you have to fast”!  Obviously!

It looks like the people decided that on Yom Kippur they would afflict their bodies, and they would do it by fasting. The rabbis then tried to come up with a rationale for it.

How do we know that it was the people and not the rabbis who decided what the afflictions should be?

The rabbis noted that the Torah mentions “afflictions” five times, and therefore, we are to afflict ourselves in five ways.

The people were afflicting themselves by: not eating, not drinking, not bathing, not wearing shoes, not anointing themselves, and not having marital relations (that’s Mishnafor “sex”).

The problem is – that’s six afflictions.  The rabbis wouldn’t have been able to get the people to give up an affliction that they were determined to afflict on themselves, so the rabbis “made it fit” by declaring that “not eating” and “not drinking” is one affliction.

The Haftarah gives us an alternative to fasting:

Is this fast that I wanted, a day when a person afflicts his soul? …

Surely this is the fast that I want: Loosen the bonds of wickedness … divide your bread with the hungry, bring the moaning poor to your home; when you see the naked, clothe him …[viii]

But we never take Isaiah up on it. We do righteous, charitable things, and, comes Yom Kippur, we fast anyway.

It’s fasting that defines Yom Kippur, not the service.  If you take a break from services, you don’t feel like you’ve violated Yom Kippur.  But if you eat or drink – if you violate the fast – you’ll feel like you violated Yom Kippur.

Why does fasting on Yom Kippur keep such a powerful hold on us?

It think that the issue is not atonement, or at least, not just atonement.

Yom Kippur is about a primal need to confront a primal fear.

What’s the most primal fear?

Death.  At this time of year, our liturgy keeps reminding us of fear and death.

Beginning with the month of Elul, we read Psalm 27 after every morning and evening service.  The psalm is meant to be reassuring, but it’s a twice-daily reminder that the world can be a dangerous place:

2Evildoers approach me to devour my flesh; my tormenters and my foes against me …

3An army would besiege me … war would arise against me …

5He will hide me in His shelter on the day of evil …

—The psalmist assumes that there will be a day of evil.

9… do not abandon me, do not forsake me …

10Though my father and mother have forsaken me …

—We’re reminded that we’re always at risk of being abandoned.

Then we get to Rosh Hashanah.  Nice holiday but –

On the first day, we read a story about a man who sends his mistress and son into the wilderness with nothing more than a morsel of bread a container of water.  The water runs out, and they almost die.[ix]  Troubling stuff.

On the second day, we read a story about a man who takes his son to a moun­taintop, ties him up, and comes thisclose to killing him with a knife.[x]Unsettling stuff.

On both days, we recite “Avinu Malkeinu”:

Avinu Malkeinu, banish plague, sword, famine, captivity, sin, destruction, and persecution …[xi]

That’s a scary list.

Then there’s “Unetaneh Tokef” –

Who by fire and who by water; who by sword [like Isaac?] and who by wild beast; who by hunger and who by thirst [like Ishmael?]; who by storm and who by plague.[xii]

Those are a lot of painful ways to die.

And, in case we still haven’t gotten the message, we read:

People come from dust and return to dust.  Our lives are fragile …. We are like a clay pot that is easily broken, like grass that withers, a flower that fades ….[xiii]

Rabbi Benjamin Yudin noted that, other than fasting, the afflictions of Yom Kippur – no leather shoes, no bathing, no anointing and no marital relations – are the same restrictions that are supposed to be observed by someone sitting shivah.[xiv]

How do we deal with this primal fear.  We can repress it, but only for so long.  Then, to function, we have to confront it and conquer it.

In some cultures, people overcome fear by going through a dangerous physical ordeal.  Australian aborigines have their walkabout in the desert.  Among American Indian tribes, would-be warriors would prove their bravery by subjecting themselves to lengthy fasts and tortures.

Yom Kippur is our ordeal.  It’s like we pass through a 26-hour tunnel of death and emerge on the other side – safe, sound … and victorious.

How is Yom Kippur like death?

The fast is like a physical approximation of death.  We know that those who are dying stop eating.  We feel weaker and weaker.  We know that if we continued our fast long enough, we would expire.

In traditional circles, men wear the white kittel.  It evokes the burial shroud.

We start with Kol Nidrei.  Kol Nidrei is incongruous. It’s not a prayer.  It has nothing to do with repentance or atonement.  It’s counterintuitive that we start Yom Kippur by backing out of our promises to God.  Only two things can annul an oath.  Kol Nidrei – and death.

At Ne’ilah, we’ll recite Avinu Malkeinu, with its references to suffering and death.  (If it wasn’t Shabbat, we’d recite it in every service.)

In the Avodahservice, we picture the Koheyn Gadol standing on the brink of death.  One mistake, and God would kill him.

In the Martyrology, we confront torture and death.

In Yizkor, which for many is the pinnacle of the High Holy Days, we remember and confront that our own families have been marked by death, and the room is filled with tears.  (We know the Yizkor is the pinnacle because the mantra before Yom Kippur is, “what time is Yizkor,” never “what time is the d’rash”.)

In some traditional circles, there’s a prayer, Tefillah Zakkah, that’s recited prior to Yom Kippur:

May the fast be regarded as if we had offered our body upon the altar and may it be accepted before You as a satisfying aroma, like a sacrificial offering….[xv]

What do we learn from this?

—That the our liturgy and our religious practices reflect a deep understanding of the human psyche, perhaps in ways we’re not consciously aware of (unless you’ve prepared a Yom Kippur d’rash).

—That we abandon troubling liturgies and difficult practices at our peril.

The wisdom of Judaism is that we don’t go through this ordeal alone.

We do it as a group – a very large group.

You know that you’re not alone in confronting these primal fears.  You look in the machzor and you see that we’ve been confronting these fears for a very long time.  You look around the room, and you see that you have a built-in support group.

You look back and remember that you were able to get through this ordeal last year – and hopefully you ended up a little stronger and a little more confident.

Ultimately, how do we emerge from this ordeal with the strength and confidence we need to face an uncertain and scary future?

I think the answer is in the Psalm that many of us started reciting 40 days ago to usher in this period of trepidation.

1The Lord is the strength of my life.  Of what should I be afraid?”

Regarding the Lord: some people consider God to be a supernatural being.

For some, God is manifested in their own strength and resolve in the face of adversity and fear.

Some find God’s presence in the midst of a supportive and caring community – as Michele and I felt when we lost a loved one.

What is God?  As Psalm 27 says:  1“The Lord is the strength of my life …”

The Psalm concludes: 13“Had I not trusted that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of life! 14 Hope to the Lord; strengthen yourself, and He will give you courage, and hope to the Lord.”

May we continue to draw strength from one another and give strength to one another.

[i] Leviticus 23:29.
[ii] See, e.g., Numbers 15:35
[iii] See Machzor Eit Razon, p. 59.
[iv] Printed in Machzor Eit Ratzon, p. 5.
[v] Leviticus 16.
[vi]Leviticus 16:29.
[vii] Yoma 74b.
[viii] Isaiah 58:5-7.  See Machzor Eit Ratzon, p. 230.
[ix] Genesis 21:14-16.
[x] Genesis 22.
[xi]See Machzor Eit Ratzon, p. 151.
[xii]See Machzor Eit Ratzon, pp. 252-253.
[xiii]See Machzor Eit Ratzon, p. 254.
[xiv]As heard on “JM in the AM”, WKCR-FM, on September 13, 2013.  Rabbi Yudin is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shomrei Torah, Fairlawn, N.J.
[xv] Rabbi Avraham Danzig.  Printed in the ArtScroll Machzor for Yom Kippur, p. 47.

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