If you had one day to live, what would you do? Most of us pretend that we would indulge some life long desire, or engage in some favorite activity. Yet to do so implies that our lives mean nothing beyond our immediate experience. With only one day left to live, would I spend it sky diving or getting drunk?
Yom Kippur by contrast issues a challenge to us. If you had only one day left to live, spend it repairing broken relationships and reaching out to God. Take the time to meditate on your values and feel the genuine regret of mistakes. It is a day to put ourselves right with God because there may not be another day.
Yom Kippur creates an atmosphere of mortality. Its restrictions and practices remind us of the limited time we are granted on Earth as an inspiration to use that time more fully. Even our clothes reflect the somber mood of Yom Kippur. It is customary to wear white garments on Yom Kippur. Isaiah says that God’s forgiveness means our sins will become “white like the driven snow.” The white clothing moves us away from the vanity of our dress and towards our desire to be cleansed.
Some, myself included, go so far as to wear a kittel, a white robe, at Yom Kippur. I wore a kittel at my wedding; and I will wear it again in the grave. It is as if I am having a dress rehearsal for my own funeral.
Where Judaism generally encourages us to enjoy the physical, on Yom Kippur we turn away from the needs of our body and focus only on the needs of the spirit. It is as if we are reflecting back on our lives, liberated from the physical side of ourselves. “And this shall be a statute forever to you; that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all, whether it be one of your own country, or a stranger who sojourns among you;” Lev. 16:29. These afflictions commanded by the Bible direct us away from the material and back towards God. There are five specific afflictions of Yom Kippur.
- We are commanded to fast. Food, particularly for Jews, brings us together as a joyful community. The Kol Emeth Shabbat Kiddush is marvelous in its ability to create community around a shared meal. Passover seders have the same quality. These meals build community and give us the Oneg, the joy, of Shabbat. We remove that comfort on Yom Kippur. It helps us focus on our own need to change. Fasting means to refrain from eating and drinking.
- We afflict ourselves by not wearing leather. Originally a commandment to refrain from wearing shoes, our Rabbis gradually permitted shoes not made of leather. It removes another source of physical comfort because leather shoes are generally more comfortable. By refraining from wearing leather on Yom Kippur, we also avoid benefiting from the death of another creature. Generally, human needs take precedence over animal needs for Judaism. On Yom Kippur, when we plead with God out of humility, we deny ourselves this precedence. For this reason, I generally wear canvas shoes on Yom Kippur.
- Anointing is also forbidden on Yom Kippur. This restricts the use of make-up, perfume, or after shave. Such beauty aids, while generally permissible, are tied to our vanity. Proverbs teaches us, “beauty is vanity;” at Yom Kippur we set aside our vanity for one day.
- Jewelry is not worn on Yom Kippur for the same reasons that we do not anoint. For this reason, I remove my wedding band before Kol Nidre.
- Physical intimacy between a husband and wife is forbidden on Yom Kippur. Such intimacy is the greatest source of comfort and pleasure humans can have. Our Rabbis praise it enthusiastically. On Yom Kippur, however, it is a focus away from the somber, solemn themes of the day.
All of these symbolic practices exist to inspire us to change. Once a year and only once a year we turn away from the material and turn towards God. We remind ourselves of how limited our lives are to inspire change in us immediately. This day helps us put the rest of our days into perspective. Then the balance of our lives is restored.
May we all be sealed in the book of life for goodness, blessings, health, and prosperity.
Shabbat Shalom & an easy Fast,
Rabbi David Booth