Parshat Vayeilech, Deuteronomy 31:1-31:30
This week we will be celebrating Yom Kippur. More Jews will be going to a synagogue on this day than any other day in the year. How can we be sure that we have a positive experience on this solemn day? Is there inspiration to be found in reciting the Al Chet, confession of sins, multiple times?
Chasidism finds the answer in the history of Yom Kippur. After the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, Moses ascended the mountain to receive the Tablets. Forty days later, on the 17th of Tammuz, the Jews served the Golden Calf, leading to Moses breaking the first Tablets. Moses then ascended the mountain for another 40 days to beg for forgiveness on behalf of the Jews.
After the initial forgiveness granted at the end of the second set of 40 days, Moses ascended for the third time for 40 days to receive the second Tablets, which indicated the complete forgiveness for the sin. This period concluded on Yom Kippur. Since then, Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year and the Day of Atonement.
The Talmud in Taanis 26b quotes the verse from Song of Songs, b’yom chatunato — “on the day of His wedding” — and says this refers to the day of the giving of the Torah. Rashi comments that this is referring to Yom Kippur, the day of the giving of the second Tablets. Remarkably, the Talmud here is referring to Yom Kippur as our wedding anniversary!
We find this correlation of Yom Kippur and a wedding in some of the customs practiced by many communities on the wedding day. Examples include the groom and bride fasting on their wedding day, saying the Al Chet prayer and the chatan wearing a kittel under the chuppah.
One of the verses often quoted in our Yom Kippur and Selichot prayers is from Leviticus 26:44: “But despite all this, while they are in the land of their enemies, I will not despise them nor will I reject them to annihilate them, thereby breaking My covenant that is with them, for I am the L-rd their G-d.” The Zohar explains that this verse not only promises that G-d will not forsake us, but also alludes to why G-d will not forsake us.
The word for “annihilate” in Hebrew is l’kalotom, which shares the same root as the word kallah, a “bride.” The Zohar explains this with a parable of a groom
(G-d) searching for his bride (the Jewish people). His pursuit brings him to the tannery, considered by the Talmud to be the filthiest and malodorous of market places, where he finds his beautiful bride reeking from the foul smells of her work. The groom, completely in love, ignores the smell; in fact, as far as he is concerned, he is in a marketplace of perfumes, and he brings his wife out of the tannery and cleans her to restore her inner and outer beauty.
As Rabbi Akiva exclaims in the conclusion of the Talmud tractate Yuma (Yom Kippur), “Happy are you, Israel, for who cleanses you [of your transgressions]? G-d who is in heaven. For it is said, ‘Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean.’”
This is the paradigm that Chasidism use to understand our relationship with G-d. On Yom Kippur, we come to G-d asking for forgiveness for our sins because we are in a relationship with Him, and we recognize that we may have not lived up to our responsibilities. G-d, for His part, is seeking us out, looking to “purify” us and forgive us so we can continue with a happy and healthy relationship in the coming year.
If you ever attended a Chabad wedding, you certainly noticed that through the chuppah, the atmosphere is very solemn, and only afterward is there joyous dancing. When my close friend Michoel got married, a mutual friend who had never been at a Chabad wedding before asked me the next week if Michoel was happily married. I was perplexed at the question until I realized he had left the wedding right after the chuppah, and all he had seen was the solemn part of the wedding.
The Chabad custom is to sing a joyous marching song at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, just before the blowing of the shofar. One of the greatest memories of growing up in Crown Heights, N.Y., and praying in “770,” Chabad headquarters, was watching the Rebbe’s glowing face as he lead the thousands of Chasidim in the singing at the conclusion of Yom Kippur. While the day was spent in earnest prayer, it concluded in a palatable sense of joy — like the dancing after the wedding ceremony.
This also explains why Yom Kippur is immediately followed by the holiday of Sukkot, called zman simchateinu, a time of joy, which culminates with Simchat Torah, the most joyous day on the Jewish calendar. The joy we experience is that of the reunification of the Bride and the Groom, and celebrated with exultant dancing as we conclude the reading of the Torah, our marriage contract.
A chatimah and gmar chatimah tovah.
Rabbi Yisroel Altein is director of Chabad of Pittsburgh. This article is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.