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The impact of erev Yom Kippur was more powerful in my life than that of Yom Kippur itself. I don’t know whether I can state this adequately; I find it almost impossible to convey. What really changed my life, and shaped my character, were the few hours before Yom Kippur. I am not going to give you a description. I can only say that they were moments in my life when I felt somehow more than human. These were very difficult hours. It was a great challenge for us to discover whether it was still possible for us in our civilization to go through such great experiences. It was great fear and trembling, great paḥad, great awareness that you are now to be confronted. There was no fear of punishment, not even a fear of death, but the expectation of standing in the presence of God. This was the decisive moment. Get ready, purify yourself. Terribly lacking in explicitness, but tremendously powerful. And behind it a full sense of one’s own unworthiness and a sense of contrition…
Let’s talk about the “business” of Yom Kippur. What is it? It is the day in which God Himself purifies us. And we will either succeed or fail with our congregations to the degree that we are able to convey precisely such a basic concept… There is no paḥad today, correct? We have no paḥad. Everything is fine. Soon we will have helicopters in every courtyard… To make the mistake we are making is to forget how much anguish there is in every human being. Scratch the skin of any person and you come upon sorrow, frustration, unhappiness. People are pretentious. Everybody looks proud; inside he is heartbroken. We have not understood how to channel this depth of human suffering into religious experience. Forgive me for saying so, but we have developed Jewish sermons as if there were no personal problems. And when we do speak about the inner problems of men we borrow from psychoanalysis, aleha hashalom…
We are all failures. At least one day a year we should recognize it. I have failed so often; I am sure those present here have much to be contrite about; we have missed opportunities. The sense of inadequacy ought to be at the very center of the day.
But confessing our sins is not the only aspect of that day which we must emphasize. It is a day of great solemnity, because the day itself atones. This is the grandeur of the day, the mystery of the day. The real contrition was erev Yom Kippur; Yom Kippur is “gud Yontiv.”
If you don’t mind, I’ll tell you something my grandfather the Oheiv Yisroel said. We fast on both Yom Kippur and Tishah b’Av. What is difference between the two days? On Tishah b’Av, he said, ver ken essen (who can eat)? On Yom Kippur, he said, since a Jew is like an angel, ver darf essen (who needs to eat)? I think that these few words offer an insight into the nature of Yom Kippur. To be angelic. It is not an empty phrase; it is a matter to be experienced and studied. One day a year we can transcend the human to enter the state of ver darf essen.
I would strongly advise you to stress and develop this aspect, along with the aspect of contrition. To put contrition another way, develop a sense of embarrassment. The root of any religious faith is a sense of embarrassment, of inadequacy. I would cultivate a sense of embarrassment. It would he a great calamity for humanity if the sense of embarrassment disappeared, if everybody was an all-rightnik, with an answer to every problem. We have no answer to ultimate problems. We really don’t know.
In this not knowing, in this sense of embarrassment, lies the key to opening the wells of creativity. Those who have no embarrassment remain sterile. We must develop this contrition or sense of embarrassment. Tell your congregation that the Book of Psalms is full of expressions of embarrassment. Teach them the meaning of sin, a word which has disappeared from the Jewish consciousness in America. We have no sin. We only have customs and ceremonies. The even more difficult, and more noble, task is transmitting the solemnity of the day. Yom Kippur is a day, ver darf essen.
These two ideas belong to the essence of the day.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel from [“Remarks on Yom Kippur”] in Mas’at Rav (A Professional Supplement to Conservative Judaism), August 1965, pp. 13–14 — reprinted in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity (ed. Dr. Susannah Heschel, 1997), pp. 146-147.
“Remarks on Yom Kippur, an essay by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (August 1965)” is shared through the Open Siddur Project under their Fair Use Right (17 U.S. Code §107 - Limitations on exclusive rights: Fair use), in respect to the copyrighted material included. Any additional work that is not already in the Public Domain is shared under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.