Friday, October 7, 2011

Yom Kipur: Face to Face

The following is based on a conversation with HaRav Moshe Shapira Shlit’a. Please feel free to print this out and read it over Yom Kipur.

After forty days of preparation, after experiencing the fresh feelings of Elul, the anticipation as we moved towards and awe we felt on Rosh HaShanah, after praying and fasting and working on ourselves during Aseres Yimei Teshuva we’ve finally made it. We have arrived at Yom Kipur. A day that is called the Tachlis HaTeshuvah – the Apex of Returning. A moment on the calendar whose very essence is suffused with a force that returns all souls to the Divine.

The Passuk says, “Ki BaYom HaZeh YiChaper Aleichem L’Taher Eschem MiKol Chatoseichem” – For on this day He shall bring atonement upon you, to purify you of all of your sins. The Rambam (and this is found in earlier sources as well) learns from this verse that there is something intrinsic about this day that atones. There is an energy that is hardwired into this date - the tenth of Tishrei - that washes away sins. As he says himself, “V’Atzmo Shel Yom HaKipurim Michaper” – The essence of the day generates forgiveness.

This would be simple enough, but neither the Passuk, nor the Rambam stop there. “Ki BaYom HaZeh YiChaper Aleichem L’Taher Eschem MiKol Chatoseichem.” We already said what this means, but the Passuk throws in three last words: ‘Lifnei Hashem Tit’haru’, ‘In front Hashem shall you be purified.’ What is this addition? We were just told that there is an energy infused into the day, what is added by Lifnei Hashem Tit’haru?

Furthermore, the Rambam doesn’t simply say that V’Atzmo Shel Yom HaKipurim Michaper. It’s true that the day purifies, but it only does so LaShavim – to those who are doing Teshuvah. Once you are already in the zone, only then can Yom Kipur cleanse the soul. So what is it? Is it the day, or is it me?

Another question: Since the beginning of Chodesh Elul we end our Davening with L’David Hashem Ori V’Yishi. King David says that God is his light and salvation. Subsequently we realize that God is our light and salvation. Elul and Tishrei are a time of repentance and judgment. We’d then expect to add verses that deal with repentance to our prayers. But the problem is that ‘L’David’ seemingly makes no mention of Teshuvah. It speaks solely of Emunah and Bitachon – faith and trust in Hashem. “Hashem is my strength, whom shall I dread?” “Though a war will rise up against me, it is in Him that I shall trust.” “On a day of evil He shall protect me in His sanctum.” My fear and enemies would have consumed me, Lulei He’Emanti L’Ros B’Tuv Hashem, had I not believed that I would see the goodness of God.

Not one word about Teshuvah! What’s going on? If we are going to add Tehilim to our prayers, at least let’s make is appropriate! Let’s make it fit the season!

A third question. The Rambam, when detailing how to do Teshuva gives a Girsa, a base-text that serves as a model. This styling includes all the necessary components for a valid Teshuvah. Chatasi, Avisi, U’Pashati Lifanecha V’Asisi Kach V’Kach. God, I sinned on all sorts of levels; on purpose, by accident, due to a lack of self-education. I did x, y and z. I’m not happy about it. I wish I didn’t do it. I’m not going to do it again.

Our rough translation left out one word. Chatasi Avisi U’Pashati Lifanecha – I sinned an all sorts of levels in front of you. This is an odd addition. It’s seemingly not needed. The line would make perfect sense without it. And if that’s the case, then why include it? And in the non-obligatory additional paragraph in Shmona Esrei, we include this ‘Lifanecha’ – what does it add? Why does my Teshuvah need to include Lifanecha?

Furthermore, in the blessing in Shmona Esrei that is supposed to inspire is to do Teshuvah, we say V’Hachazireinu B’Teshuvah Sheleima L’Fanecha, Baruch Atah Hashem HaRotzeh B’Teshuvah. …And return us in a full repentance before You. Blessed are you Hashem who desires Teshuvah. Once again, the line would make perfect sense without the added ‘Lifanecha’. What is it coming to do?

And if we want to know what’s really going on with Lifanecha then we need a more exact translation of what the word means. While it is used as ‘In front of You’ or ‘Before You’, it literally means ‘Towards Your Face.’ Plugging this definition into everything that we asked, what is this obsession with God’s face as it relates to Teshuvah?

The Kotzker Rebbe once said that every sin carries with it a semblance of heresy and idol-worship. Why is this so? Because the only way that I could cognizantly reject the Divine Will would be if I didn’t believe in Reward and Punishment or if I conveniently forgot about the omnipresence of Hashem. Either way; doing a sin requires some form of denying the existence of God, because if I really believed that He was Mamesh there, if I knew that He was right next to me then of course I wouldn’t do it. Shivisi Hashem L’Negdi Tamid.

Based on this, the underlying power of Teshuvah would need to be a return to the awareness that God is an all-encompassing reality. He totally surrounds me. He is with me and watches me every second. He is standing right next to me and pumping me with life even in the moment that I go against His Will! Once we understand that a sin stems from ignoring God, we learn that rectifying that misgiving is not simply not doing it again, it’s not just fixing the bad trait, rather the essence of Teshuvah is primarily based on bringing HaKadosh Baruch Hu back into my life and staring Him face to Face.

Teshuvah doesn’t just mean admitting that I did something wrong. It’s not just saying Chatasi, Avisi U’Pashati. It’s not just fixing the problem by requesting V’HaChazireinu B’Teshuvah Sheleimah. That’s nice, but that’s not Teshuvah. Teshuvah is Chatasi, Avisi U’Pashati Lifanecha. It’s V’HaChazireinu B’Teshuvah Sheleimah Lifanecha! It’s only Teshuvah if it’s based on a return to an awareness of the Divine.

The Kedushah and Taharah attained via Teshuvah comes as a result of an encounter. It manifests itself on the heels of a connection. The realization of God as a real and meaningful part of my life opens up avenues of connection that were previously closed.

Now we understand why L’David is the perfect passage of Tehilim to add to our prayers. In order to fully tap in to a window in time that presents itself as an opportunity for Teshuvah we need a constant reminder of what Teshuvah is really all about. No series of verses says it better. Passuk after Passuk drive home the message: Hashem is real. He surrounds me and fills my life. When I’m with Him, it’ll all be okay. As the Passuk in ‘L’David says, ‘Es Panecha Avakesh’ - ‘I seek your Face.’ I seek to have that intimate connection with you. From the other side of the street you can still feel a connection with a person with whom you make eye-contact. Es Panecha Avakesh, a longing to attain a life infused with Shivisi Hashem L’Negdi Tamid is the basis of all Teshuvah.

Thus the Rambam makes perfect sense as well. There is a waterfall of Taharah coming into the world on the day of Yom Kipur. But if you are not amongst the Shavim, if you don’t turn around and get under the water then it can’t cleanse you.

A Parable: In the room in which I’m currently sitting there is Chinese folk music blaring. Why can’t I hear it? The radiowaves are there, I’m just not tuned into the proper station. So too on Yom Kipur. On this day an energy fills the world. The station to tune in to is called ‘Lifanecha’.

Lastly, the Pasuk that we started with now dances with clarity: “Ki BaYom HaZeh YiChaper Aleichem L’Taher Eschem MiKol Chatoseichem.” For on this day He shall bring atonement upon you, to purify you of all of your sins. ‘Lifnei Hashem Tit’haru’ In front Hashem shall you be purified. Or, perhaps more accurately, ‘Towards Hashem’s Face shall you be purified.’ Because if it’s not Lifnei Hashem then it can’t be Tit’haru.

This is Mamesh such a big job. This is an Avodas HaChayim, this is a job that will take us our whole lives. Time and time again we may catch ourselves and see how we’ve been caught off guard. This is the bottom line – what it all comes down to. Es Panecha Avakesh. Ah! Face-to-face with the Creator. This is Yom Kipur. Lifnei Hashem Tit’haru.

HaKadosh Baruch Hu should give us a Bracha that we should be able to tap into our inner wellsprings of motivation and inspiration. We should associate with the place within ourselves that is crying out – ES PANECHA AVAKESH! Auch a mindset, if we can be meritorious enough to carry it into the year, will no doubt bring us to a life of Simcha and Sheleimus, moving closer to HaKadosh Baruch Hu and ultimately the Geulah Sheleimah!


  1. Shalom Tzvi
    Just wanted to say todah rabah for your blog and wonderful insights into the parashot ha-shavua which you were publishing! I used to re-tell these for last 2 years at shabbos table, and really missing new updates; you have unique talent to make the most profound concepts accessible for everyone. Thanks and shabbat shalom! Eugene Wolfson

    1. just wanted to let you know that we have switched things up a bit and shifted to