The Mystic Drama of Yom Kippur


The Day of Atonement, is a day fraught with significance. Rituals of fasting and calls to repentance evoke in us feelings of regret, inadequacy, and vulnerability. For most of us, the tone of the Day of Atonement is set by a passage from the second-century Mishnah Yoma 8:1: “Six things are forbidden on this day: eating, drinking, washing, anointing with perfume, wearing sandals, and having sexual relations.”

But another equally authoritative text from the Mishnah contradicts the somber theme of the day. Mishnah Taanit 4:8 says: “There were no happier days in Israel than … the Day of Atonement. For on this day, the daughters of Jerusalem would go forth in white garments and dance in the vineyards.”

How do we reconcile the preoccupation with our shortcomings and the call to joyful celebration? We begin by taking a deeper look at the six items forbidden on the Day of Atonement. Why these? If we look closer, we see that these are the specific actions that God instructed Moses and the Israelites to follow in preparation for receiving the Torah at Sinai. They are all rituals of preparation for God’s appearance.

First, in Exodus 3:2-5, at the Burning Bush, God instructs Moses to remove his sandals because he is standing on holy ground: “God called to Moses out of the bush: ‘Moses! Moses!’ He answered: ‘Here I am.’ And God said: ‘Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.’” To remove one’s sandals is a sign of standing on holy ground. (In the Middle Ages, the practice of not wearing sandals became the custom of not wearing leather and the original significance became obscured.)

Second, when Moses went up Mt. Sinai for the first time, Exodus 19 relates that he and the entire nation spent two days in preparation for God’s appearance on Mt Sinai. Moses commanded them to wash their clothes in advance and to refrain from sexual relations until after God’s appearance. On the third day, when God appeared in thunder, lighting and a deep cloud, there was neither washing nor sexual relations.

Third, after Moses smashed the first set of tablets upon seeing that the Israelites had built the Golden Calf, he then went back up to receive the second set of tablets. Exodus 34 tells us that Moses did not eat or drink for forty days and forty nights on Mount Sinai. One does not eat, drink, or wear perfume in the presence of God.

The six prohibitions- removing one’s sandals and the abstention from food, water, washing, perfume, and sexual relations- are rituals of purification in preparation for God’s appearance to Moses and the Israelites at Mount Sinai. All of the elements that we are forbidden on the Day of Atonement are identical with the instructions that Moses and the Israelites followed in preparation for divine revelation. It is as if someone catalogued the specific actions that must take place in preparation for hearing God directly. So, rather than seeing these six prohibitions as rituals of repentance, guilt, or self-affliction, they should be seen as mystical rituals of preparation for hearing the divine voice. And, seen in this light, these rituals are pathways to a joyful outcome. But, still, what does this have to do with the Day of Atonement?

According to tradition, the Day of Atonement is the day on which God delivered the replacement tablets, the permanent, enduring second set of the Ten Commandments. That is why today is considered to be the one of the happiest days of the year. According to the tenth century Midrash, Seder Eliyahu Zuta 4:2, Moses came down from Mt. Sinai with the replacement tablets on the tenth of Tishri, the Day of Atonement. The text says: “On the first day of Elul, Moses ascended the mountain again to receive the second set of tablets. He descended on the fortieth day- the 10th of Tishri- and the people of Israel fasted from sunset to sunset.” The belief that the replacement set of the Ten Commandments was delivered on the Day of Atonement makes it the one of the happiest days in the Jewish year. The Day of Atonement is primarily a day of preparation for personally hearing the divine voice just as our ancestors did at Sinai.

We can now see the Day of Atonement as the great mystic drama in Judaism when we each become Moses, we each prepare ourselves for the great moment of hearing the divine voice. But what does it mean to hear the divine voice?

We each hear the divine voice in our own way. In the eighteenth century, the Hasidic rabbi Pinchas of Koretz, said: “We must each become an ear that hears what the universe is saying to us.” How does he suggest that we become an ear that hears the divine voice? We begin with listening to what our souls are telling us at every moment throughout our lives. This inner voice is what our ancestors called the divine voice, the voice of God at Sinai. But it is ultimately the voice of our own soul, the wisdom within us. Rabbi Pinchas was famous for telling people who came to him for advice: “Your own soul will teach you! Every person is constantly being taught by his own soul.” The inner voice constantly speaks to us but we are not always ready to hear it.

So, the Day of Atonement, is indeed a day fraught with significance. We engage in rituals of preparation for hearing the divine voice, pathways to a joyful outcome. On this anniversary of the day when Moses received the second set of Ten Commandments, we are each Moses, we each stand at Sinai. We each become an ear that hears what the universe is saying to us.