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For the week ending 11 September 2021 / 5 Tishrei 5782

What a Beautiful Baby! (Yom Kippur)

by Rabbi Reuven Lauffer
Library Library Library

The arrival of every Yom Tov brings with it a particularly precious moment: the recitation of the blessing “Shehechiyanu v’kiyimanu v’higiyanu lizman hazeh — Blessed are You, Hashem, King of the Universe, Who has granted us life, sustained us and enabled us to reach this season.” In a certain sense, the Shehechiyanu blessing encapsulates our anticipation and excitement for the Yom Tov at its nascent beginning. The Yom Tov candles are lit and Kiddush is being recited as we take the opportunity to thank Hashem for having brought us to this momentous time. We show our appreciation that we are able to celebrate Yom Tov and allow its spiritual joy to become a part of us.

But there is one exception: Yom Kippur. Obviously the Shehechiyanu blessing is not pronounced over a cup of wine on Yom Kippur, but it is nevertheless recited. After the haunting melody of Kol Nidre comes to an end, the congregation recites Shehechiyanu all together. Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year. It is also the most solemn and serious day of the year. A day spent in prayer, fasting and introspection. A day of both physical discomfort and spiritual discomfort as we contemplate the wrongs we have done over the year and try to rectify them through remorse and pledging to try not to make the same mistakes again. Yom Kippur cannot be described as a day of joy like the other Yamim Tovim, so why do we proclaim “Shehechiyanu v’kiyimanu v’higiyanu lizman hazeh”?

For this very reason, Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, (1854-1926), the third Belzer Rebbe, points out that Yom Kippur might not seem to be the right time to say Shehechiyanu. The Belzer Rebbe explains that the Shehechiyanu that we recite as Yom Kippur begins is over ourselves! On entering into Yom Kippur after an intensive and demanding period of repentance, it is as if we have become new people. The potential for change is so enormous that our Sages describe a person who has been through the process of atonement as being akin to a new-born baby. As an American author once put it, “You know what the great thing about babies is? They are like little bundles of hope. Like the future in a basket.”

And this is exactly what our Sages are conveying. On Yom Kippur our entire future is spread out in front of us — pristine, and just waiting for us to embrace it. For this reason alone we should recite the blessing of Shehechiyanu with great intent and concentration. To show our love for Hashem and our gratitude for the inestimable opportunities that He gives us to spiritually cleanse ourselves and to be able to start anew.

But it comes with a condition. Maimonides rules (Hilchot Shgagot 3:10) that the essence of Yom Kippur and our ability to completely cleanse ourselves of our sins is emunah — faith. Maimonides further writes that if a person does not believe in the power of atonement, Yom Kippur cannot atone for their sins. We have the incredible ability to undergo transformative change on Yom Kippur. To internalize the knowledge that we can change our inner self. But we need to believe that it is possible to do so in order for it to happen.

A Torah scholar once got on the bus in Jerusalem and sat down next to an elderly Russian man. After being stuck in heavy traffic for a while, the Russian turned to his seatmate and said to him in Yiddish, “Ich bin a Yom Kippur Yid — I am a Yom Kippur Jew.”

Not being quite sure how to react, the Torah scholar waited for an explanation. The Russian said to him, “Look at me. Do you see how many teeth I am missing? Six. I was drafted into the Russian army during the Second World War. We worked and fought, day in and day out, every single day of the year. There was no vacation, no leave of absence, no Shabbat and no Yom Tov. Even sick leave was given at the barest minimum. The army medics had their orders for calculating how many days of sick leave each wound or illness was to be allotted. For example, for a pulled tooth, one day of sick leave was allowed, and then back to the front line.

“During my first year in the army, when Yom Kippur drew close, I began to think of ideas of how to exempt myself from service in order to avoid desecrating the holy day. Finally, I had a moment of inspiration. In the afternoon before Yom Kippur, I went to the medic and complained of an excruciating toothache. I pointed to one of my teeth and asked him to pull it out. The medic had no way of knowing if what I was saying was true or not, so he gave me a swig of vodka and pulled out the tooth with a pair of pliers. The pain was excruciating but my plan succeeded. I was free from army duty for the day. The next year, when Yom Kippur came, I tried the same thing again and it worked. For six Yom Kippurs I served in the Red Army, and six times I had a tooth pulled. That is why I tell you that Ich bin a Yom Kippur Yid — I am a Yom Kippur Jew!”

Each one of those “Yom Kippur Jew’s” missing teeth was a tribute to his unsullied purity and innocence. To his belief in Hashem and in the power of atonement on Yom Kippur. Each tooth was testament to his being born anew each year. Our Sages teach us (Tractate Pesachim 54a) that the concept of atonement came into being before our physical world was created. The source of atonement belongs to an existence that precedes the physical. Through Yom Kippur, and through the immeasurable intensity of atonement, we are presented with the opportunity to unite with a “world” that transcends the here-and-now. To a reality that is not constricted and restricted by the physical world that we live in.

The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 17:2) relates that as Yom Kippur comes to an end, a Heavenly voice calls out, (Kohelet 9:7), “Go eat your bread in joy and drink your wine with a glad heart, because Hashem has already approved your deeds.” Perhaps this is why the Code of Jewish Law (Orach Chaim 624:5) says that after the fast on Yom Kippur it is correct to eat a joyous meal. This joyous meal shows that we believe in the power of atonement. After having spent the last twenty-five hours immersed in the delight of Yom Kippur, we have reached a level of purity and spiritual cleanliness that reflects the fact that “Hashem has already approved our deeds.”

Please accept my blessing that we all be signed and sealed in the Book of Life. And may we all be blessed with a year of good health and an unwavering attachment to our Father in Heaven with a bond that is as pure and unsullied as that of a new-born baby.

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