The (Surprising) Meaning And Purpose Of Yom Kippur
Is Yom Kippur Really About Forgiveness?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
What does Yom Kippur truly mean? After all, Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement but we also define it as one of the Days of Awe – but what does forgiveness of our sins have to do with awe? How are we supposed to understand the spiritual meaning of Yom Kippur?
In Parshat Acharei Mot, it explains that Yom Kippur is the one day of the year we can directly connect with God, recreating the experiences of Sinai and the tabernacle. In this video, Rabbi Fohrman explains how it is through this contact with God that we are purified of our sins and we emerge reborn and pure on Yom Kippur.
Through this perspective, we start to see that the main purpose of Yom Kippur is to let God envelop us with His presence, and that forgiveness is a byproduct or secondary purpose. There is no magic wand or holy day that automatically wipes away our sins, but we can find forgiveness on Yom Kippur through a closeness with God and our efforts to let go of our sins.
Join Rabbi Fohrman as he challenges our understanding of what Yom Kippur truly means.
Why is Yom Kippur one of the 'yamim nora'im'?
What Does Yom Kippur Really Mean?
The word 'yamim nora'im' is 'days of awe': Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, Yom Kippur; and what exactly is awe anyway? Is it fear? It's not quite fear. How would we define the feeling of awe and why would we associate awe with something like Yom Kippur?
Now if you've ever been to synagogue on Yom Kippur you know that the liturgy is very solemn; but if you think about what's actually happening on this day, it's a day when we achieve a forgiveness for our sins. That's a wonderful thing, that's a good thing, that's a happy thing; why should that be associated with fear or awe? Why is Yom Kippur one of the 'yamim nora'im'?
Defining the Purpose of Yom Kippur
Put yourself in God's shoes and imagine that you were the writer of the Torah and that you were going to introduce the world to the idea of Yom Kippur. How would you do it?
I'd get right down to the point; "and God said to Moshe, saying, tell everyone, there's going to be this wonderful day when, once a year, I will purify you. And I will forgive you of your sins. Something like that. You'd give the date, you'd give the time, you'd close with a suitable exhortation.
Here is the very strange introduction that we actually get to the day that we now call Yom Kippur. "Vayomer HaShem el-Moshe," and God said to Moshe, "daber el-Aharon achicha," tell Aaron, the high priest, "al-yavo b'chol et el-ha-kodesh," tell him not to come into the innermost sanctum of the holy tabernacle any time that he wants, "mi-beyt l'parochet." Where is that place? It's behind the curtain.
There was a curtain that would separate the holy of the holies from the rest of the tabernacle, "el-pnei ha-kaporet," as he would go through the curtain, he would come close to the "kaporet" the covering over the ark, "asher al-ha-aron v'lo yamut." Tell him not to do this all the time, so that he doesn't die, "ki be'anan ereh al-ha-kaporet," because I, appear in a cloud, God says, over this covering, over the ark. "B'zot yavo Aharon el-ha-kodesh." I have a better idea, God says. This is how Aaron should come to the holy of holies and then the verses launch into this very long and detailed procedure through which Aaron can come into the holy of holies.
Now did you hear anything about Yom Kippur? Neither did I. At the very end of this long, long list of procedures, we finally find out when all of this happens: "V'hayta lachem lekuchat olam," you should do this procedure, forever, "b'chodesh ha-shvi'I," it should take place on the seventh month, that would be Tishrei, "b'asor la'chodesh," on the 10th day of the month.
And when you do this, "ta'anu et-nafshoteichem," you should fast when you do this. "V'chol mlacha lo ta'asu," you shouldn't do any 'mlacha,' you shouldn't do any work, "ki b'yom ha-zeh yechaper aleichem l'taher etchem," because on this day, God will forgive you, will purify you, "mi-kol chata'otecha, lifnei HaShem titharu," for all of your sins, you will be purified.
Well, one second, wasn't that on the topic sentence? Shouldn't that have been all the way back at the beginning? Isn't this the main point? Why are you not even getting to this until the end?
The way the Torah introduces Yom Kippur to us seems to be topsy-turvy. Don't come into the Kodesh this way, come into the Kodesh that way; long, long list and finally, ah! You should do this every Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is a day when you get forgiven of sins, isn't that what it's really all about? What's the logic describing Yom Kippur the way the Torah actually does?
Maybe the answer is that Yom Kippur isn't really what we think it is about.
Digging Deeper into the True Meaning of Yom Kippur
Maybe it's not primarily about forgiveness of sins. Maybe that's the secondary effect of something else that's primary. What's it primarily about?
Listen to the very first words and maybe we will see. "Vayedaber HaShem el-Moshe acharei mot shnei bnei Aharon." God spoke to Moshe after the death of the two sons of Aaron. "B'karvatam lifnei HaShem vayamutu." How did they die? They died when they tried to come close before God. That's how they died.
What did they do? They brought incense from the incense altar into the holy of holies, and they died. What does it mean? How were they trying to come close to God? Ah, where is God?" "Ki be'anan ereh al-ha-kaporet," because I, God, am there. I am in a cloud, hovering over the cover of the ark.
When else was God in a cloud? Exodus 24, verse 16, "vayishkon kavod HaShem al-har Sinai," the glory of God, rested on mount Sinai, "v'yechasehu he'anan." God's cloud covered the mountain and there too, the Ten Commandments, the tablets of the law… and what's inside the ark?
The same Ten Commandments. Now they're inside the tabernacle and there again, is God's cloud, hovering over the ark.
What the children of Aaron tried to do is come close to God, they tried to recreate the Sinai experience. They tried to approach God's cloud hovering over the ark but they did it in a way that God didn't command. God says I am going to give you a chance to be able to do, successfully, what they tried to do, unsuccessfully. Once a year you can do this, once a year you can recreate Sinai, once a year your cloud can merge with my cloud.
Listen to what Aaron does: "v'natan et ha-ktoret," he takes the incense, "al-ha-esh lifnei HaShem," he puts it on fire and there's this cloud of smoke from the incense. "V'chisa anan ha-ktoret," and this man-made cloud of incense, covers the kaporet, covers the upper covering of the ark, "asher al-ha-edut," which is on top of the Ten Commandments.
"V'lo yamut," and he will not die. Where was God? God was in a cloud over the ark and now, there's another cloud over the ark. The human cloud merges with the divine cloud. It's the moment of contact, the most dangerous moment, the moment that you could die – 'v'lo yamut' but do it this way and you will not die. The imperative for this is not forgiveness. You don't do this as a means to some end, you do this as an end in and of itself. Why do we connect to God? Because we connect to God. Because he's our source, because we want our cloud to merge with God's cloud. We don't want the Sinai experience to be a one-off experience in history. We want to recreate it year after year, that direct contact.
That's why it's a day of awe. To directly encounter your creator, the one from beyond, the master of the universe, who made the world? The emotion you have at that possibility is not quite fear, but it very surely is awe. Awe is the sense of being so small in the presence of something so large, so overwhelming. Yes, recreating the Sinai experience is an end in of itself, but nevertheless, that has a byproduct too.
"Ki b'yom ha-zeh yechaper aleichem." The by-product comes at the end, the by-product is forgiveness. On this day, God will forgive you, he will purify you from all of your sins. How is forgiveness a byproduct of contact with the Almighty? Look at the word, for forgiveness: yechaper – chaf, pey, resh. Where else do we have that word, in this whole story of what you do on Yom Kippur?
That route which we take to mean forgiveness actually was an object in the mishkan, an object which has pride of place in this procedure, in this avodah, which Aaron does on Yom Kippur. Over and over again, we hear about this thing in the mishkan. We hear about it seven times in the Torah's account of this avodah. It's the 'kaporet,' the covering of the ark.
The clouds merge over the kaporet. The kaporet is not a forgiveness thing, it's a covering. What if there's another way to read the verse about forgiveness? How? What's the mechanism of forgiveness? "Ki b'yom ha-zeh yechaper aleichem," today, God covers over you. You come into contact with God when the cloud of the Divine merges with the cloud of incense. God covers us, we become enveloped by God himself. God takes us in, "l'taher etchem," and that has a byproduct. It purifies you. We are washed clean by the encounter. "Lifnei HaShem titharu," before God, you are washed clean.
Understanding the Spiritual Meaning of Yom Kippur
There is a mechanism to Yom Kippur. Forgiveness doesn't come out of the blue, it's not that God waves a magic wand and you are forgiven. You have to let go of your sins, but even after you let go, you are still sullied by the action, you still feel dirtied by it. How do you become washed clean? Through contact, contact with your maker.
Rabbi Akiva said it. "Ashreichem Yisrael, lifnei mi atem mitaharin, u’mi mitaher etchem" fortunate are you, oh Israel, before whom do you become washed clean, and who washes you clean?
"Lifnei avichem she'b'shamayim," before your Creator in heaven. And he concludes, the way a mikvah, the pure, clean waters of the mikvah bath, purifies the impure, "kach HaKodesh Baruch Hu metaher et-Yisrael," so does God purify Israel.
It's exactly the same thing, the mikvah envelopes you. It's like the amniotic fluid. It covers you all over and you emerge reborn, pure.
Once a year, God himself envelops the entire people, like a mikvah and if we can but let go of our sins, we too can emerge from the encounter, unsullied, pure as a newborn child.