Time – Part 3
Yom Kippur Afternoon Service 5774
Rabbi Joe Blair
Shabbat shalom and Shanah Tovah.
Permit me to begin by again repeating what I said earlier: the overarching theme I want to follow this year for the holiday is “time.” I have sought to explore the three segments of prayer across this day of Yom Kippur: the evening, morning, and afternoon, in terms of the concepts of Heart, Head, and Soul. We come now to the afternoon service, where I will address the last of these, and seek to tie all of these together.
Of necessity, my remarks have been spread across the entire holiday; if you were not here for part of them, you are welcome to turn to the website and read what I have said on the Rabbi’s Blog page – I will post it there after the holiday is done.
Last night we talked about how Erev Yom Kippur is about heart –the yearning and heart-call that draws us together ; this morning we spoke about head – the focus on meaning and evaluation. Now we speak about soul.
The Jewish conception of soul is a three part structure. At the innermost core is the inherently pure and holy Neshamah – that which is given by and returns to G-d. Next comes the Ruach, the breath of G-d and the spirit of life that animates and energizes us. Third is Nefesh, the most malleable component, which is impacted by our actions and choices, and which reflects our virtues and vices, those human traits and characteristics we practice in our life. We cannot affect the Neshamah, and the ruach is simply a fact – without it we cease to live. The only aspect of our soul we can affect is the Nefesh, and we do that by practicing and seeking to be better than we have been, living a life that embodies incrementally more of the traits and characteristics that are viewed as godly. Those who achieve a high level in their Nefesh are often viewed as saints or Tzadiks, those who are lacking in this arena are frequently seen as villians or sinners to be looked down upon. In truth, we all carry the possibility of both. As human beings, we are capable of striving to elevate our Nefesh, and thereby our soul, to live a godly life, and bring about positive changes in the world. We are also capable of the opposite – that is the consequence of possessing free will.
Another way of describing someone who has striven with themselves and is living a more godly life is to call them a hero.
It is hoped that through our fasting and prayer, we have succeeded in opening our heart, head and soul, that we have done all the hard work of self-examination and evaluation, become aware of our shortcomings, and that we are now in a position to work on improving and avoiding these pitfalls in the year to come, becoming ‘heroes’ in our life and in our world.
But what of the past – the errors we have made? You might ask, how can we be forgiven of sins or errors? Here is a short rabbinic tale that may help to answer that question.
How to be Forgiven of Sin
A man who had drifted away from religion came to a rabbi and gave him a long list of sins he had committed over the years, and told the rabbi that he had hoped by fasting frequently and punishing himself by sleeping on the rocky ground and putting pebbles inside his shoes, eating poorly and infrequently, he could be forgiven for his terrible deeds. He asked whether all of his actions were sufficient to attain forgiveness for his sins.
The rabbi listened closely and studied the list of sins carefully, then he remarked, “It appears that you have done a complete job. Truly a complete job.”
The man was pleased that the rabbi appeared to have approved of his penance. “Then I am forgiven?” he asked.
“Not quite,” the rabbi said, then asked, “Is not the soul a guest in our body, deserving of our kind hospitality? After all, today it is here, tomorrow it is gone.” (Leviticus Rabbah 34:3) The rabbi paused and thought for a moment, then continued, “You began by committing sins that would despoil your nefesh (soul). Having done that, you then directed your attention toward ruining your body as well. That is a complete job.”
The man began to cry, “Rabbi, rabbi, I want to be forgiven for the terrible things I have done. I thought I was doing what is right for penance, but now I see that I was wrong. What am I to do?”
The rabbi comforted the man, and said, “Don’t despair. Make it your habit to begin a meal with words of Torah (Scriptures) and a benediction/blessing.” (Megillah 12b). The rabbi instructed the man, “Eat three meals each day, pray from your heart, and study the Holy Words. Remember that ‘through kindness and truth, sin is atoned.’ (Proverbs 16:6) Do this and you will be forgiven by man and the Holy One, blessed be He.”
Astobished, the man looked up and asked, “how can this be?” The rabbi replied, “We learn that ‘G-d created man B’tzelem Elohim – in God’s own image’ (Genesis 1:27) Since man is created in the image of G-d, he has the ability to forgive and be divine in his deeds. For this reason we are taught, ‘Beloved is man who was created in the divine image.’ (Mishna Pirke Avot 3:14).”
According to many great rabbis, atonement does not require self-torment and punishment. We are not to afflict our soul to achieve Teshuvah. Rather, one should understand the gravity of transgressing the Divine will, appreciate how injurious this is to oneself, and make a concerted effort to refine his character so that he is no longer likely to repeat the improper behavior. Self-punishment can mislead one to think that he has achieved atonement, whereas nothing in his character may have changed.
An old Jewish teaching tells us that “great is repentance: it brings healing to the world.” (Yoma 86a)
- Adapted from a telling on the Story Tour website
As Kohelet tells us, to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. We have arrived at the time for fulfillment of our Teshuvah. We have opened our hearts to the call. We have entered our heads and examined ourselves, seen our flaws and errors and repented. In our souls we have prayed sincerely to improve.
Now we must go forward and act on what we have learned and resolved, and hold fast to the idea that we have the power by our choices at each moment to aspire to be more godly and more holy, and to integrate our hearts, heads and souls in order to elevate ourselves and our world.
May this be an auspicious and fortunate time for us all, and let us all pray that we can bring about a healing in the world and in ourselves, and make this a year of blessings for all who deserve them.
Shana Tovah Umetukah Tichateimu. May you be inscribed for a good and sweet year, full of blessings. We continue now with the conclusion of our service.
[Delivered at Beth El Congregation, Harrisonburg]