The Spiritual Journey of Yom Kippur
by Chief Rabbi Ben-Tzion Spitz
There are some things that can only be understood when experienced. There are some things that only by living through them, by feeling them personally can we finally gain the insight, sense the power of the moment. A Complete Yom Kippur is one of those experiences.
What is a Complete Yom Kippur? A Complete Yom Kippur is much more than coming for the “highlights”: Kol Nidrei which starts the fast, Yizkor in the middle of the day, when we remember our beloved departed, or Neilah, the last moments of Yom Kippur just before the heavenly gates of prayer metaphorically close. To come to synagogue for just those moments is to merely nibble at the edges of a sumptuous spiritual feast.
However, a Complete Yom Kippur is more than coming and being present in the synagogue for the entire service. It is more than being in attendance for all of the night services and then for all of the day services — from the morning blessing until Havadalah. It is much more than even that.
A Complete Yom Kippur is spiritually elevating. A Complete Yom Kippur connects you with your inner self, finds the quiet place in your soul that is you and then introduces the intimate, precious, unique you to God. How does that happen? How does saying and listening to prayers, sitting in the synagogue and fasting accomplish such a spiritual journey and why is it important at all? Why do we need a spiritual elevation?
Because we have a soul. We have a soul, joined to a body. For many of us, the body is in the driver’s seat. The body dictates our wants and needs and their fulfillment. Our body dictates our choices. That is often good, sometimes vital, but then something sad happens to our souls. Our souls dry up. Our souls are not heard. Our souls remain hidden, unheard, unfulfilled, lost in the inner noise of our daily lives and needs. Our lives become eroded, materialistic, less meaningful, less satisfying when the partnership of the body and the soul is in such an imbalance. A Complete Yom Kippur can rectify that.
The first step is fasting. By fasting we are signaling to the body that today is the soul’s day. No more giving in to cravings. No more listening to our stomach. Today is the soul’s day. The soul needs spiritual food. Real spiritual food. Not chocolate or ice cream or meat or whatever our palate enjoys. No. We need food that bypasses the stomach and directly feeds the soul, even if it’s unconscious. It may be the prayers written by our ancestors, it may be a tune we heard with our grandfathers, it may be a word the Rabbi says, it may be a thought we had in the quiet of our minds. We need a diet of spirituality for 25 hours. That is part of what will rejuvenate our souls.
The second step is prayer. Prayer is not only listening to the choir. There are two types of prayer. Personal and communal. We need both. We need the direct communication of our inner selves with God. It takes time to find that inner self. We need to close our eyes, take a flashlight and search for the self that is hiding in the quiet places of our mind and our heart. It takes time. It can take hours. It can take a full day, only to be discovered at the very end of the services. However long it takes – it is worthwhile, perhaps even critical.
We need communal prayer. We are and always have been a people that put a high value on community, on doing things together. We need to raise our voices together and in our unity bring our prayer to God. There are few things in creation that are stronger and more powerful than communal prayer. It breaks through guardian angels and all of the heavens above. God has no choice but to listen to communal prayer. Our souls want, need and beg to be a part of that.
But what is the magic of a Complete Yom Kippur? How does the fasting, the prayer, the community transform Yom Kippur into a spiritual event? How do these ingredients elevate the soul? What does one need? What does one need to do?
I think the third and final ingredient that one needs for a successful Complete Yom Kippur is endurance. One needs what we call in Yiddish zitsfleish, the ability to sit down, to stay put. In our world of instant communication it is almost impossible. Turn off the cellphone. Tell people you are taking the day off to talk to God. Yom Kippur is a test of endurance. It is a test to see if for at least once a year we can set aside a full day for God. To stay exclusively in His house. To talk to Him and to listen to Him. We’ve been given the rare opportunity to spend an entire day with the Chief Executive Officer of Creation, the President of the Universe, the King of all Kings. How can we give up the chance?
For those that can endure, something strange and wonderful begins to occur. It is usually not during Kol Nidrei, Yizkor or Neilah. It is most often during the quieter times in between. It is neither hunger pangs nor delusions from being faint from fasting. What happens is that the soul begins to stir. The quiet of the mind and the spirituality of the day awakens the other ignored but more important half of our selves. For many it is a surprise, like meeting a long-lost relative. For some it is uncomfortable, almost like meeting a stranger in the night. For others it is a relief, the saving of a brother from drowning in a stormy sea. And for others it is a joy, the union of a parent with a child or of one loving spouse with the other after a long absence. That is the effect of the stirring of the soul.
But the experience does not end there. Now that the soul has awoken from its long slumber it gasps for air. It needs to reach out. It needs to talk to God. It needs to transverse the crudeness of our bodies, the banality of our mundane thoughts and reach out to its source before it is buried once again under the triviality and numbness of daily life. It must connect with its maker; establish its presence before it is submerged in the long coma of the spirit. A soul fully unleashed will make you cry. Tears of a newborn may slip out of your eyes. You may start to remember what you have done in your life. You may come to regret parts of it. You may search for new meaning in your life. New direction. You may seek to correct old wrongs and perform new rights. That is repentance. That is what a Complete Yom Kippur is about.
It is a special, unique, powerful day that God has given as a gift to our souls. It requires fasting, it requires staying in the synagogue as long as possible, it requires endurance that will surprise you when you discover it and it leads to the liberation and elevation of the soul. That is Yom Kippur. Don’t miss it. Come to the synagogue for fuller instructions and directions.