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Oct. 12, 2005
/ 9 Tishrei, 5766
Yom Kippur: Celebrating Forgiveness
Rabbi David Aaron
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are very different experiences. Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment. G-d is judging me and judgment can make me feel distant from the Judge. In fact, the Hebrew word for a judicial "decree" is gezer, from the verb form, li'gzor, meaning "to cut." That is what judgment can do. It can make me feel cut off from the Judge.
In addition to being the Day of Judgment, Rosh Hashanah is a day to acknowledge the truth of monotheism. It's the day on which I recognize that G-d is the one and only King, and I am not the King. There is an infinite gap that separates the King and myself. Next to the Infinite, I am infinitesimal. This past year I did wrong and disobeyed the King's will, because I mistakenly thought that I knew better than G-d, and what I wanted to do would bring me more success and pleasure than what G-d asked of me. But now, on Rosh Hashanah, I realize how foolish I was to think this way. I realize that my true fulfillment can only come from obeying G-d the one and only King Who created me and this world. I realize how foolish I was to reject His guidance and rebel against His directions. And finally, on Rosh Hashanah, I recognize that G-d's judgment comes from His love for me, and when I accept it, it is transformed into compassion.
Yom Kippur, however, is another story. Yom Kippur is a Day of Atonement, which is defined by love and forgiveness. On Yom Kippur, we get a glimpse of ourselves, our choices and our relationship to G-d from another perspective G-d's perspective and come to recognize how inseparably close we are to G-d. This is the transformational power of Yom Kippur.
Rosh Hashanah is a day dedicated to understanding ourselves and G-d in the light of monotheism. Yom Kippur, however, celebrates how everything looks in the light of panentheism, which is the perspective of the World to Come.
Monotheism means that there is one G-d, one King, and we are not G-d. Panentheism (which should not be confused with pantheism) teaches that G-d is not just the one and only ruling power and there are no other G-ds, but that G-d is absolutely the one and only reality there is nothing but G-d, and we exist within G-d. That does not mean that you and I are the Almighty. However, we are souls sparks, aspects and expressions of the Almighty. We do not exist apart from G-d, rather we exist within Him.
As the Kabbalah explains, in the beginning of Genesis, G-d created a space within Himself, so to speak, and within that space, created beings other than Himself. This self-imposed limitation is called tzimtzum, the constriction or withdrawal of divinity. G-d withdrew and limited His endless being to create a space and a place for beings other than Himself free beings who can do other than His will.
We exist within G-d much as an idea exists within the mind of the thinker. The difference, however, is that an idea has no free choice. We, however, have free choice but, mysteriously, any choice we make still remains within the context of G-d's being and the confines of G-d's will. Therefore, we are free and yet, ironically, G-d is still absolutely in control. We are free to disobey and do other than G-d's will, but we are not able to oppose G-d's will or undermine His plan. This, of course, is a paradox that cannot be comprehended by our rational minds.
What difference, then, do our choices make?
Our real choice is whether to become a conscious partner with G-d in the making of history or an unconscious tool in His plan. We can choose to do G-d's will and contribute to His plan in an active and conscious way, and thereby, experience the ecstasy of the unchangeable truth that G-d is one and we are one with G-d. Or, we can choose to oppose G-d's will and ironically, through our own choices, fulfill G-d's plan without even knowing it. When we do this, however, we deny ourselves the joyous knowledge of our inseparable connection to G-d and instead suffer pains of alienation and separation from G-d.
The truth is that our wrongdoings are actually our punishment. We are not punished for our sins but by our sins. They make us feel disconnected, alienated and isolated from G-d, who is actually the ground, context and essence of our very existence. In other words, our choices create our own heaven or hell.
If we knew deep in our hearts that G-d is one and that we are one with G-d, then even though we could do other than G-d's will, we would not want to.
Strangely, the name Yom Kippur hints that it is a day like Purim. (Yom means "day," the prefix k means "like" and Purim means "lots," which were also drawn on Purim). That is because the mysterious truth revealed on Yom Kippur that we exist within G-d is revealed with even greater intensity and clarity on the holiday of Purim.
On Purim, we are supposed to drink until we are so drunk that we confuse, "blessed be Mordechai" (the hero of the Purim story) and "cursed be Haman" (its villain). In other words, we are so intoxicated that we can't tell the difference between Mordechai, the heroic leader of the Jewish people, and Haman, the evil person, who tried to destroy them. How could this be?
There is a fundamental Talmudic principal that teaches, "When wine goes in the secret comes out." The secret is the mysterious and miraculous oneness of G-d. If we are in a normative sober state of rationality, it doesn't make any sense to us to bless the evil Haman. Only when we get drunk can we go beyond the confines of the rational mind. On Purim, we are able to say "blessed is Haman" because although he was evil, even Haman contributed to G-d's plan for goodness and become a catalyst to the renewal of the Jewish people's commitment to their heritage. (How so? We will have to leave that for another article)
Yom Kippur is like Purim because on that day even our misdeeds can be seen as positive forces in serving G-d's will and plan. Therefore, on Yom Kippur, G-d forgives us, and we can forgive ourselves. The darkness can serve the light, and the ugly past can be recycled into a beautiful future.
On Purim we get so drunk that we bless the evil Haman, while on Yom Kippur, we can find the blessing in all our evil deeds and wrongdoings. This, of course, is true only if we sincerely regret what we've done and commit never to return to those foolish ways again. Then, and only then, can we appreciate that all that we did that took us so far away from G-d is now helping to revitalize and increase our feelings of closeness and love for G-d. If we realize that, then all the conflict was worth it. The past is redeemed in that moment. And then all the pain of the past turns into ecstatic pleasure.
When you fight with your spouse, one reason to make up is fear. You fear that she will tell all your friends what a jerk you are, or she will lock you out of the house. Therefore, to save yourself the discomfort, you say you are sorry. However, there is another reason to make up that is higher. You could apologize for the sake of love. You realize how silly it is to fight with the one you love, the one with whom you are one. For a moment you lost your mind and forgot how much you really care for her and how deep and eternal is your connection. The issue of contention was so petty compared to the power and beauty of your soul connection to each other.
When you apologize because you fear punishment, then you successfully end the argument and prevent further damage. But you don't cash-in on your conflict the fight was simply a waste of energy, and this is really just a cease-fire. But when love motivates you, then the conflict turns into a force that promotes an even greater awareness of your oneness and adds to your love. Then, you actually gain.
So it is when we fight with G-d, so to speak, as when we transgress His commandments and turn against His will. Turning away from G-d causes separation and alienation and is the opposite of a mitzvah (religious duty), the purpose of which is to promote G-d's oneness and our oneness with G-d to reveal the light of love. But when separateness is recycled to promote oneness, then we make a profit.
However, this conversion of a wrong into a right can happen only when our return to G-d is motivated by our love for G-d and our desire to experience G-d's oneness and our oneness with Him. Return to G-d motivated by fear of punishment does not accomplish this transformation. Return out of fear still comes from a perspective that we exist separate and independent of G-d that we are here on earth and G-d is over there in heaven, but that we should not act against G-d's will for fear of punishment. Return from fear cancels out the negative effects of wrongdoing, but it cannot transform it into the profitable positive force like return from love, which empowers us to cash in on our previous debts.
Yom Kippur is cash-in day. It offers the perfect ambiance to return to G-d in love, redeem our dark past and turn it into light.
On Rosh Hashanah, G-d is perceived as if He is over there, and we are over here. G-d is the King, and we are neither G-d nor King. G-d is the Judge, and we are the judged. We feel fear, and we feel far. However, on Yom Kippur, G-d is our place, space, context and essence. Even though we recognize that we and G-d are clearly not one and the same, we are completely one with G-d. On Yom Kippur, we know that G-d is one, and we exist within G-d completely absorbed, submerged and surrounded by His being. We feel close, and we feel loved.
Yom Kippur is a day when we can immerse ourselves in the all-embracing oneness of G-d and emerge pure. On that day, the light of the World to Come shines into the world, and we can see ourselves and our actions from G-d's perspective. In that light, even our transgressions of the past become blessings for our future, the darkness now serves to enhance the light, and the ugly conflicts now increase the splendor and beauty of the love we share with G-d.
On Yom Kippur, we celebrate forgiveness, because we realize that only love is real everything else is illusion.
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Rabbi David Aaron is the founder and dean of Isralight, an international organization with programming in Israel, New York South Florida, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Toronto. He has taught and inspired thousands of Jews who are seeking meaning in their lives and a positive connection to their Jewish roots.
He is the author of the newly released, The Secret Life of G-d, and Endless Light: The Ancient Path of Kabbalah to Love, Spiritual Growth and Personal Power , Seeing G-d and Love is my religion. (Click on links to purchase books. Sales help fund JWR.) He lives in the old City of Jerusalem with his wife and their seven children.
© 2005, Rabbi David Aaron