August 23, 2019 |

Achieving Greatness through the Mitzvoth of Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur, 5771

A few months ago I drove to visit someone in a hospital. This hospital has a special parking spot reserved for clergy, so I confidently pulled into the clergy spot. As I exited the car, a security guard approached me and said, “I am sorry, this spot is only for clergy. Let me see your clergy i.d.” Well, I didn’t have any clergy i.d. on me, so I said, “I am a rabbi. Just look at the car I am driving. It has a Menorah on the roof, Jewish stars and other Jewish objects all over the car, biblical verses in English and Hebrew, and, to top it all off it says the name, phone number, and website of our synagogue!” The security guard was unimpressed. He told me to move the car. When I protested he said, “ANYONE can have a car like that.”

Of course, he was right. ANYONE can have a car like that. It’s a lot easier to have a car like that than it is to go through four years of rabbinical school and have a job as a rabbi.

The exterior trappings of our life are much easier to acquire than the inner, more genuine and more real attributes.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik once expounded on the difference between what he called the maaseh ha-mitzvah and the kiyyum ha-mitzvah. The maaseh ha-mitzvah is the formal, external act of the fulfillment of a mitzvah. For example, when one prays, one must formally utter the words of the prayer.

And then there is the kiyyum ha-mitzvah, which is the actual fulfillment of the mitzvah, e.g. in the case of prayer, the understanding that one is standing in front of Hashem and speaking with Him.

On Yom Kippur we have many mitzvoth which are external requirements for us to do. But ANYONE can do the external requirements. The purpose of these mitzvoth is the kiyyum ha-Mitzvah, to fulfill the underlying purpose of the mitzvah and to have a transformative experience.

We enter the holiday as one type of person and our goal is to leave the holiday as a changed being; a totally different person than the one from yesterday; yesterday we were average human beings, by the time Yom Kippur ends we want to remind ourselves that we have the potential for greatness and we want to live our daily lives in the presence of and service of Hashem.

On Yom Kippur we remind ourselves that we want to transform our lives before it is too late.

Yesterday, I officiated at a funeral for a 95 year old man. At his 95 birthday party this man said the following words of regret: “Probably what hurts most of all is my heart. Broken from all of the things I should have done but did not do. Broken from all of the words I should have said, but just did not know how. Broken from all these emotions I held inside for no one to see…not even myself.”

On Yom Kippur we remind ourselves to transcend our lives in a productive way so that we have no regrets when we reach the tender age of 95.

In order for Yom Kippur to become a transcendent experience we must take the maasei mitzvah of Yom Kippur—the external mitzvoth—and translate it into the kiyyum ha-mitzvah, the actual fulfillment of the mitzvah. The maazei mitzvah are supposed to help us transform ourselves.

It is relatively easy to perform these mitzvoth. The hard work is inside each and every one of us. We must take the day of Yom Kippur and these maasei mitzvah to look inside ourselves, identify our concerns, acknowledge what we want to work on, and then begin the process of executing a meaningful transformation.

Here are three examples of maasei mitzvah laws on Yom Kippur that ANYONE can do. First, the law – according to some this is even a Biblical law -- on Yom Kippur is that one should not wear leather shoes. Second, the custom is that one should ideally wear white clothing. Third, there is a biblical law that one should not eat or drink on Yom Kippur.

Not wearing leather shoes: The maaseh ha-mitzvah is really easy to fulfill there. After all, this is a great excuse to wear your more comfortable crocs, or other casual footwear.

But what is the kiyyum ha-mitzvah of not wearing leather shoes?

The medieval rabbi, Isaiah ben Avraham ha-Levi Horowitz (also known as the Shelah) explains: “When man takes the skin of an animal to make soles for his shoes, he demonstrates most dramatically that he rules over all and everything is under him.” [Quoted by Joel Wolowelsky, The Mind of the Mourner, Individual and Community in Jewish Mourning, p.9.]

Today we have very nice synthetic leather shoes, but as a child going to shul on Yom Kippur, I always thought it was odd to see people wearing their nice suits on Yom Kippur with canvas sneakers. My brothers and I used to imagine that after the sermon the rabbi would take out his basketball and shoot some hoops. It seemed bizarre.

But that is the point. It is supposed to be jarring. When we don’t wear leather shoes on Yom Kippur, we are supposed to remind ourselves to be worthy of wearing leather shoes the rest of the year, and by this we mean a life of divine service to Hashem; a life where we don’t succumb to the animal like temptations; a life where we live like noble human beings and not animals. If we can’t control our animalistic instincts, then we are no better than the animals. On Yom Kippur we remind ourselves that we need to live up to the greatness that God has created us with; and only if we do that will we once again be worthy enough to wear leather shoes.

The Talmud (Shabbat, 152b) even says that one who has shoes on his feet is a human being, but one who does not is as good as dead. So when we don’t wear leather shoes on Yom Kippur we are stating that without a noble purpose to our lives it is like we are dead. On Yom Kippur we remind ourselves that we have lost our status as regal creatures and we need to work in order to regain our status.

A second maaseh that we do on Yom Kippur is wear white clothing. One reason for this is because the white garments reflect the simple clothing that the Kohein Gadol wore in his service in the Beit ha-Mikdash on Yom Kippur.

Every other day, the Kohein Gadol wore elaborate garments made of gold and other precious fabrics and stones. But on Yom Kippur he minimized his fancy adornments and wore the simple garments that the regular priests wore every day.

The rabbis teach us that reason the Kohein Gadol wears white garments on Yom Kippur and not gold garments is because “ein kateigor naaseh seneigor, we don’t want the prosecutor to serve as the defense attorney.”

The fancy gold garments represent the prosecutor. They are the trappings with which we which we camouflage ourselves every day.

Recently, I had the great honor of reciting a benediction at the George Washington University graduation. As part of this honor I was invited to sit on the stage with all the distinguished professors. It was a very special day for the University, so naturally everyone was naturally wearing their most distinguished garments. All the professors had fancy and colorful robes representing who they are, where they came from, and what knowledge they have accumulated. (By the way, instead of a graduation robe, I wore my tallit and my bekeshe.)

In this respect the Jewish approach is the opposite of the general culture. Yom Kippur is our most special day, our holiest day, and so what do we wear on Yom Kippur? Do we wear our fanciest clothes on Yom Kippur? Just the opposite! We wear only simple white garments.

The kiyyum ha-mitzvah of wearing white garments on Yom Kippur is to remind ourselves to remove the disguises with which we fool ourselves every day. We typically wear fancy clothing to impress others or to display a presentation of success. In truth, the clothing we wear hides us from ourselves and from our friends. Because we wear nice clothing we think we are successful and special, and we forget we are flesh and blood put here for a divine purpose. It is often the case that the clothing we wear distracts us from our divine mission.

In fact, the white kittel that men wear on Yom Kippur is similar to the tachrichin, the shrouds that we will all wear when we die. On Yom Kippur, we are reminding ourselves of our coming death so we can remember to live our lives in service of Hashem.

Yom Kippur is the day where no pretense is allowed. This is why the Mishnah tells us that Yom Kippur was the most appropriate day to find a spouse. All the single women would borrow white garments and go out into the field. The garments were borrowed so that there would be no pretense, because when looking for a spouse you need to see the genuine entity.

So too, on Yom Kippur we wear the simple white garments in order to banish pretense from our lives so that we can remind ourselves to serve Hashem with genuine devotion. We must strip ourselves of our adornments in order to see who we really are.

And a third maaseh that we do on Yom Kippur is to refrain from eating and drinking.

Some people have a real problem fasting on Yom Kippur. But that is mostly psychological. Physically, most of us have no problem going for a day without food.

The real issue here is not the physicality of abstaining from food, but a realization of how much we use food in our lives to distract us from serving Hashem.

Food helps us keep up the illusions that we live our lives with. It helps distract us.

When we are bored, we eat. When we are depressed, we eat. When we are celebrating, we throw a party and we eat. When we want to show how successful we are, we spend money on expensive food.

But when we are busy and focused on a task, then we are often too busy to eat.

The kiyyum ha-mitzvah of fasting is to cause us to realize how much we use food as a way of bringing us away from Hashem.

At the end of Yom Kippur, if we have really worshipped properly, then we shouldn’t even be hungry. By the end of the day we should be elevated; we should no longer notice what is missing. We will no longer be hungry. We will often feel like we can go another 24 hours without eating.

When Yom Kippur ends, I often don’t want to eat. To eat is to destroy the majesty of the moment. It is to brutally force us back in to the world. On Yom Kippur, we had immersed ourselves in the world of Hashem and when we eat we are back in the grubbiness of the daily grind of our lives.

But we must eat at the conclusion of Yom Kippur. Because by fulfilling the mitzvoth of Yom Kippur we have refocused ourselves. We have reminded ourselves that we have a noble calling to serve Hashem and that calling has gotten away from us. So we perform mitzvoth on this day to bring us back to that special level.

On Yom Kippur we go without leather shoes, we wear simple clothing, and we refrain from eating and its all for the same reason: to remind us that we must push ourselves to reach lofty heights with our humanity. Too often, we think because we are humans, we are thus great. That is too easy a trap to fall into. Yom Kippur reminds us to push ourselves to achieve greatness with our lives.

The last prayer that we say on Yom Kippur is a wordless prayer. It is the blasting of the shofar at the conclusion of the fast. It is a majestic sound; a coronation. On Rosh Hashanah we crowned Hashem as King of the Universe. But on Yom Kippur the shofar is crowning us.

When we fulfill the purpose of the mitzvoth—the kiyyum ha-mitzvoth—of Yom Kippur, then we are reminding ourselves that we are great and noble creatures. We are great because we have overcome our earthly distractions and we are serving Hashem with every fiber of our being. Once again we are worthy of the enormous potential placed inside each and every one of us. We have achieved greatness at last!

Missing

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

Joined: August 8, 2007

Shmuel is Rabbi of Ohev Sholom -- The National Synagogue, the oldest Orthodox synagogue in Washington, DC. His communal responsibilities include teaching classes, coordinating adult education, creating programs for the elderly,the youth, and the sick, and ministering to the pastoral needs of the...

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