May 27, 2022 |

Yom Kippur: A Call To Greatness

The theme of Yom Kippur is forgiveness. Almost all of our special Yom Kippur prayers are centered on the theme of confessing our sins and asking God for his forgiveness.

A major part of the Mussaf service is the description of the Avodah—the service of the High Priest in the Temple on Yom Kippur. That too is centered on this theme; it tells the story of how we achieved forgiveness in the time of the Temple.

But there is one oddity that does not seem to fit: the story of the Ten Martyrs. During the repetition of the Mussaf Amidah we tell the story of how ten great rabbis died vicious deaths at the hands of the persecuting Romans.

Each line of this powerful prayer is a story in and of itself.

For example, we tell the story of Rabbi Akiva, the great and holy rabbi. All we say in our version is but one sentence:“Vehotziu rabbee Akiva doresh kitrei otiot, the Romans led out Rabbi Akiva who was such a scholar that he was able to derive laws from the crowns of the letters of the alphabet, vesarku bisro bemasrekot pipiyot, and the scraped away his flesh with sharp combs.”

But the rabbis of the Talmud tell us the rest of the story: As they were scraping the flesh off of Rabbi Akiva he was reciting the Shema and accepting the yoke of heaven upon himself. His students asked him why he was doing this and he replied that he was finally able to fulfill the words of the Shema: “bechol nafshekha, with all your soul.” He now knew that he could serve Hashem with his entire soul. And as he came to the word echad at the end of Shema, his soul departed and flew up to heaven.

These are powerful stories. And they are sad and gruesome too. So sad that the only other time we read them in our liturgy is on the saddest day of the year, on Tisha Beav.

Why do we read them on Yom Kippur? Yom Kippur is not a sad day. It is a happy day. According to the Mishnah in Taanit it was the happiest day of the calendar, since we are celebrating our forgiveness and the second chance that we are getting. So why are we reading this story?

One reason why we recite this prayer is because this corresponds to a theme of Yom Kippur which is often overlooked. We seek forgiveness from Hashem for a second chance so that we can live a life of greatness! Yom Kippur is the call to greatness. It is a reminder to ourselves that we are the children of God. So we cry out to Hashem: “Give us another chance to reach our potential!”

This call to greatness is the reason why we read the story of the Ten Martyrs. We want to be inspired by these great martyrs—not by their death, but by their lives. These great rabbis understood the essential aspect of life—service of God through dedication to Torah, even in the face of persecution, and especially as their physical world was crumbling around them. They understood that more than it matters how long one lives for, it matters how one lives.

There is a beautiful story in the Talmud about this same Rabbi Akiva that powerfully illustrates this point.

Says the Talmud(Berachot 61a):“The Roman rulers decreed that it was forbidden to teach Torah. A certain person named Papus ben Yehudah found that Rabbi Akiva was continuing to teach Torah in public. He said to Rabbi Akiva: ‘Are you not afraid of the rulers?’ Rabbi Akiva said, “I will tell you a parable. One time there was a fox walking along the shore and he saw fish that kept moving from place to place in the water. So the fox asked the fish, ‘Why do you keep moving around?’ The fish answered: ‘We are afraid of the nets which are trying to catch us.’ So the fox said, ‘Why don’t you come up on the shore and live with me just like our ancestors used to live together?’ To which the fish answered, ‘Fool!If we are afraid in the place where we live, how much more so should we be afraid on the dry land where we will die!’ So too, when we engage in Torah study we have life as it states ki hu chayekhah ve-orech yamekhah, but when we abandon Torah study how much more so do we need to be afraid.”

A little while later, Rabbi Akiva was arrested and put in jail. But soon after that they also caught Papus ben Yehudah and put him in the adjoining prison cell. Rabbi Akiva turned to Papus and said: “How did you get here?” Papus responded: “How fortunate are you Rabbi Akiva that you were arrested for studying Torah. Woe to me, for I was arrested for nonsense!”

The martyrs understood this message. And that is why we read about their decisions on Yom Kippur.

This is the message of Yom Kippur as well. We must live our lives with the recognition that life is about making a choice. One path is a difficult choice but it is the path of Torah; the other path might seem easier, but such a path is a path without life.

Thankfully, most of us aren’t forced to make choices about martyrdom today. But we are all constantly making hard decisions; maybe it is about how much charity to give, what job to take, what school to go to, or where to live. This story of Rabbi Akiva should be our guide; just like we can’t live without oxygen, so too we can’t live without the Torah.

Yom Kippur is an unbelievable gift from Hashem to improve the way we live; to make us realize how great we are; how much potential we have to improve ourselves. The stories of these Ten Martyrs should personally inspire each and every one of us to push ourselves a little harder and a little farther when it comes to service of Hashem.

Just like the purpose for reading about the martyrs is to push us just a little but more in service of Hashem, so too, this is the purpose of all the mitzvoth that we are commanded to do. And so too, it is the purpose of the entire Yom Kippur.

This idea is taught by the great Ramban. He writes in his commentary on the Torah (Deuteronomy 22:6), “Lo nitnu hamitzvot elah letzaref et habriyot, the only reason why Hashem gave us the mitzvoth was to purify people.” Every mitzvah was given to us from Hashem to improve the way we live and act.

As a proof text for this idea, Ramban quotes a prayer from the Neila service which states atah hivdalta enosh mirosh, Hashem separated man from the beginning of time to stand before him. Of all the creations, He considered only man worthy to stand before him. In order to help us stand before Him, He gave us the mitzvoth, to purify our actions so that we might be worthy to stand lifnei Hashem.

Rabbi Soloveitchik (Machzor, 790) explains why this phrase atah hivdalta enosh mirosh was inserted into the final prayer of Yom Kippur. He teaches that it was the Saboraic sages who inserted this passage into the Amidah of Neilah, as this prayer and statement is not mentioned in the Talmud. They did not want Yom Kippur to end with the theme of the lowliness of man, but rather with the theme of the greatness of man. The reason is because Yom Kippur ends with the phrase Shema Yisrael, which is a recognition of God as King, and that statement is most powerful when it is uttered by one who reflects His greatness.

So we end Yom Kippur by declaring that as human beings we are different; we were set aside by Hashem; we have a mission and a role to reflect His greatness; and if we fulfill His commandments to us and practice His teachings then we will achieve such greatness.

This is the point of Yom Kippur and this is the reason why we read about the great martyrs. Just like they achieved greatness, we too are pushing ourselves to achieve what we were created for.

This is why we recite the Yizkor prayer on Yom Kippur. It is a reminder to us that when we live life properly, like we are being taught to on Yom Kippur, then we will not die. We might physically die, but our greatness will continue to forever impact and permeate the world.

This is what the rabbis mean when they teach that the spiritual impurities normally associated with death do not envelope the truly righteous.

And in fact, the source for this too, is Rabbi Akiva.

Says the Midrash Mishlei (chapter 9):

It was the eve of Yom Kippur and Rabbi Akiva was still held captive in his jail cell where he was studying Torah with his student Rabbi Yehoshua. After Rabbi Yehoshua departed from him and went home, Elijah the prophet came to Rabbi Yehoshua in a disguise on Yom Kippur night and said, “Shalom alekhah rebbi umori.”

Rabbi Yehoshua was surprised. He turned to this strange man and said, “How can I help you?” So Elijah the prophet, still in disguise, responded: “I am a kohein (and thus unable to touch a dead body) and I have come to inform you that Rabbi Akiva has died in prison.” Immediately the two of them set off for the prison. They found the prison gates open and the guard and all the prisoners asleep. Elijah the prophet bent down to help Rabbi Yehoshua lift up Rabbi Akiva and place him on his shoulders.

Rabbi Yehoshua turned to him and said, “Rebbe, did you not tell me that you are a Kohein and are thus unable to touch a dead body?” To which Elijah responded: “Know, my son, chas veshalom, there is no tumah—ritual impurity—when it comes to the death of Torah scholars, and not even to their students.”

Ritual impurity is a function of death. But when it comes to those who lived a life of Torah there is no death; not with them and not with their students.

And just by being here today on Yom Kippur we too can say, “Not with our grandparents; and not with our grandchildren.”

We will live on because we understand that we were “hivdaltah mei-rosh, separated from the start for a purpose.”

The rabbis tell us that on another Yom Kippur, Rabbi, Eliezer ben Shamuah, was being taken out by the Romans to be executed. His students gathered around him and said, “Rebbe, what do you see in heaven?” He replied, “I see that they are carrying the coffin of Rabbi Yehudah ben Bava and next to his coffin is the coffin of Rabbi Akiva. And the whole time these two great rabbis are debating the Torah.”

So the students asked, “Who is judging this debate?” He answered: “Rabbi Yishmael the Kohein Gadol.” And who wins the debate, the students wanted to know? He replied: “Rabbi Akiva wins, because he devoted all of his strength to Torah.”

When we too devote all of our strength to Torah, then we too will achieve the level and the immortality and the greatness of Rabbi Akiva. Yom Kippur is here to remind us that we are all capable of such greatness.


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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