Commentary for Yom Kippur

22 Sep

Yom Kippur is often said to be the holiest day of the year.  In Judaism, one of the most important ways that we make something “holy” is by making it different.  You can make Kiddush out of any old cup you have lying around, but to have a special cup that you only use for Kiddush makes that cup holy.
Our holidays work in a similar fashion.  They each have special mitzvot attached to them- both things we are required to do and things that we prohibited from doing- that let us know that this day is different from any other random day of the year.  This is a holy day.  Even within the context of holy activities such as prayer, we still do things to set holidays apart.  They have their own Torah and haftarah readings, special prayers, and even special tunes for the prayers that we would usually do on non-holidays.  The High Holidays even have their own special High Holiday-only cantillation for the Torah reading as well.
One of the better-known changes to the service for Yom Kippur is that the second line of the Shema (“Blessed is the name of His glorious Kingdom for all eternity”), which is normally said in an undertone, is said out loud together by the entire congregation.  The midrash in Devarim Rabah (2:36) gives the reason for this as follows: Moses overheard this prayer from the angels and taught it to the Israelites.  We do not usually say it aloud because we are sinful and not as pious as the angels, so to say it aloud would be presumptuous of us.  But on Yom Kippur, when we shut out physical concerns- living, for just a day, like the angels do- and strive to be more holy than we usually are, we elevate ourselves to the level of the angels and are worthy of reciting it aloud.
So on Yom Kippur, we all become angels.  What a nice thought.
The point of Yom Kippur, however, is not for us to be perfect little angels one day a year.  The point of Yom Kippur is to have a day on which we must reflect on our actions over the previous year and develop strategies to help ourselves refrain from making the same mistakes again in the coming year.  Yes, it is the day on which God (hopefully) exonerates us from our sins (or at least reduces our punishment), but that will only happen if we make a sincere attempt at repentance.  Yom Kippur takes place on the tenth of Tishrei, but unlike other holidays, it is not about only the tenth of Tishrei.  It is about every other day of every other month as well.
Interestingly, the only regularly scheduled Torah reading for the High Holidays that does not use the special High Holiday cantillation is the Torah reading on Yom Kippur afternoon.  This reading (Leviticus 18) is a warning from God to the Israelites of many things that they shouldn’t do when they start their new lives in the Promised Land or else they will be punished.  The High Holidays may be about to end, but the year has just begun, and this final Torah reading of the High Holidays is read with the same cantillation that we use the rest of the year in order to teach us that we need to take Yom Kippur- the lessons we have learned about ourselves and the promises we made to ourselves and to God- with us throughout the rest of the year.

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