“The Magic of the Day of Atonement”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The Jewish calendar has an abundance of “propitious” or “favorable” times and occasions. Nissan, the month of Passover, is regarded as a propitious time for redemption. The month of Av, when the Temples were destroyed, is an ominous time. Adar, the month in which we celebrate Purim, is known as a favorable time for joy. The months of Elul and Tishrei are known as propitious times for repentance.

Scripture actually confirms the propitiousness of this time for repentance. The prophet Isaiah (55:6) calls out, “Dir’shoo Hashem b’hee’ma’tz’oh, k’ra’oo’hoo beeh’yotoh kah’rohv,” Seek G-d when He is to be found, call upon Him while He is near. It is during the months of Elul and Tishrei that the Divine presence is particularly imminent, and G-d is especially near His people. The Chassidim go so far as to say that during these two months, G-d, the King, leaves His palace and waits out in the field for His subjects to seek Him out.

The Al-mighty has told us, says the prophet Ezekiel 33:11, “Eem ech’pohtz b’moht ha’rasha,” G-d does not desire for the evil person to die. He desires rather for everyone, including the wicked, to repent and live.

This most optimistic attitude toward repentance and forgiveness is very much reflected in the High Holiday prayer service. Even as the congregation recalls its sins on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, they sing the litany of their trespasses with a joyous melody, “Ah’shahm’noo, bah’gahd’noo,” we have sinned, we have rebelled, etc. This is because the People of Israel are secure in the knowledge that G-d desires His people’s return. Forgiveness is thus guaranteed.

The Talmud, in Yoma 86b, cites a most astonishing statement. The rabbis say, “G’dolah teshuva, sheh’z’doh’noht na’ahsoht lo kish’gah’goht,” repentance is so great that when a trespasser repents, premeditated sins are regarded by the Al-mighty as accidental and unintentional. The Talmud goes further, stating even more dramatically, “V’ahl ha’shav b’ahavah, ahm’roo,” and for those who return and repent out of love, they say, “Sheh’z’doh’noht na’ah’soht lo kiz’choo’yoht,” premeditated sins are considered as if they were meritorious acts.

The late great Professor Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits (1908-1992, rabbi, theologian and philosopher, Chicago and Israel) has written:

Teshuvah, a uniquely Jewish concept, means literally “response” or “return.” Repentance and “renewal” of faith are only one phase of teshuvah…The return to G-d is not merely “a change of heart,” but a change in one’s way of life. …Teshuvah is a turning away and a turning toward–a matter of believing and of altering one’s daily living.

Teshuvah is thus an experience of personality transformation. When performed out of fear, it lessens the burden of sin, but does not remove it; intentional transgressions become unintentional ones. Teshuvah undertaken out of love, accomplishes a fundamental transformation, in which healing and purification are complete. Intentional sins of the past function almost as meritorious deeds in their impact and significance for the new personality. Past failures may serve as new sources of spiritual strength and security for the baal teshuva, “the man who returned.” (“When Man Fails G-d.”)

Historically, Yom Kippur was always one of the most joyous days of the Jewish calendar, specifically because it was a day in which acceptance of penitents was guaranteed. In the Midrash Rabbah, Shir Hashirim 5:2, we find the following remarkably loving statement: “Says G-d to Israel: Open for Me a doorway of repentance no bigger than the eye of a needle, and I will open to you a gate [of forgiveness] wide enough to drive through wagons and carts.”

Throughout rabbinic literature, G-d’s desire for the Jewish people to repent, and His preparedness to forgive them for trespasses large and small, is described as a passion, an obsession, reflecting His unrequited love for His people.

The Pesikta Rabbati 44, 184b-185a, describes, in the form of a parable, the “great effort” that G-d is always prepared to make to accept the penitent. A king’s son had traveled a hundred days’ journey from his father. His friend advised the prince to return home, but the young lad said, “I cannot, the trip is too long.” Then his father sent word to his son, “Come back as far as your strength permits, and I will go to meet you the rest of the way.” Thus G-d says to Israel (Malakai 3:7), “Return to Me, and I will return to you.”

Is there any question why Yom Kippur was historically one of the most joyous days in the Jewish calendar?

To our great good fortune, the reason to be joyous is no less valid today than it was two thousand years ago.

May you be blessed.

Yom Kippur will be observed this year on Friday evening, October 7th through nightfall on Shabbat, October 8th, 2011. Have a most meaningful fast.

The first days of Sukkot will be observed this year on Wednesday evening and all day Thursday and Friday, October 12th, 13th and 14th, 2011. The intermediary days [Chol HaMoed] are observed through Wednesday, October 19th. On Wednesday evening, the festival of Shemini Atzeret commences, and is celebrated on Thursday, October 20th. The final day of the festival, Simchat Torah, begins on Thursday evening, October 20th and continues through Friday, October 21st.