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The Joy Of Spiritual Transformation

The Joy Of Spiritual Transformation

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 7:39 p.m.
Torah: Lev. 16:1-18:30
Haftorah: Ezekiel 22:1-19
Havdalah: 8:41 p.m.

“For on this day He will forgive you, to purify you from all your sins” [Leviticus 16:30].

The major source for Yom Kippur is to be found in this week’s Torah portion of Acharei Mot.

It is fascinating to note that while Yom Kippur is the most ascetic day of the Hebrew calendar, it is nevertheless considered a joyous festival, even more joyous than Shabbat because it precludes mourning. Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev would often say, “Even had the Torah not commanded me to fast, I would be too mournful to eat on Tisha b’Av and I would be too joyous to eat on Yom Kippur.”

Why the excitement and joy? Yom Kippur is our annual opportunity for a second chance, our possibility of becoming sinless and purified before God. On Pesach we celebrate our birth as a nation; six months later, on Yom Kippur, we celebrate our rebirth as human beings.

Despite the hard work entailed in pre-Pesach cleaning, that is still much easier than a spiritual purification, which entails Kapparah (usually translated as forgiveness, and literally meaning a covering over) and Taharah (usually translated as purification, and literally meaning a cleansing). These two divine gifts correspond to the two stages or results of transgression. The first is a stain or an imperfection in the world as a result of an act of theft or the expression of hateful words. The second is a stain on the individual soul as a result of his/her commitment of transgression.  My revered teacher and mentor Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik zt”l believed that Kapparah — removes the first stage. Taharah — the repentance of the soul, the decision of the individual to change his personality and be different than before — removes the second. Kapparah is an act of restitution utilizing objects or words; Taharah is an act of reconstitution of self requiring a complete psychological and spiritual recast.

Clearly Kapparah — restitution (paying the debt, bringing the offering, beating one’s breast in confession) — is much easier to achieve than a reconstitution of personality. How does one pass the second phase, acquiring the requisite spiritual energy and spiritual inspiration to transform his/her inner being to be able to say: “I am a different person; I am not the same one who committed those improper actions” [Rambam’s “Laws of Repentance” 2, 4].

The answer is to be found in the manner in which we celebrate Yom Kippur. It is a day when we separate ourselves from our animalistic physical drives in order to free our spiritual selves to commune with God. The purpose is not to make us suffer but to enable us to enjoy the eternal life of the spirit in God’s presence.

Yom Kippur, a day spent almost exclusively in God’s company, can be a transforming experience. In 1973 I was lecturing on the life of Rav Yisrael Meir Kagan, known as the Chafetz Chaim. I was telling my audience how, although very few individuals are capable of chastising others, this great Sage was the rare exception. I heard it said that a teenage student in the Yeshiva of Radin had been caught smoking on Shabbos and was about to leave the Yeshiva. The Chafetz Chaim met with him for a few minutes and the student not only became observant again but went on to become ordained by the Chafetz Chaim himself.

When I concluded, an elderly gentleman in the audience came up to me visibly moved and literally shaking. “Where did you hear the story?” he asked. “I didn’t know that anyone knew about it — it happened to me!” We both went outside and I couldn’t help but ask what it was that the Chafetz Chaim said to him?

“I was about to leave the yeshiva,” the man replied. “All of my bags were packed … I wanted to leave the yeshiva, and then this great sage, shorter than I was, greatly respected by the entire world and always greeting even the youngest child, appeared out of nowhere and invited me to his home. Gently guiding me, holding my hand, we entered a two-roomed hovel, the living room having not one piece of furniture that was whole. My hand was still in his, and he looked into my eyes and said but one word: ‘Shabbos!’ He then began to weep and if I live until 120 I will never stop feeling the scalding heat of these tears as they rested on my hand. He embraced me once again, repeated the word ‘Shabbos’ and took me to the door. At that moment I felt deeply in my soul that there was nothing more important than Shabbos, and that this great Jew loved me and I wished to be ordained by him…”

It is this kind of inspiration that Yom Kippur hopes to effectuate as we stand in God’s presence for a full day. This is the message of Rabbi Akiva at the end of the Tractate Yoma: “Fortunate are you, Israel! Before Whom are you purified and who purifies you — our Father in Heaven!” The Lord is the Mikveh of Israel. Just as a mikveh purifies those who are impure, so does the Holy One purify Israel.  

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone, and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.


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