The Human Divinity

There are different ways to approach a Jew’s duty on Yom Kippur.

The halachic obligations of the day, most notably the fast, separate us from many of the physical essentials of human existence, giving us a semblance of malachim.

Many take additional steps to emphasize this point. In most communities, married men wear a kittel. Some individuals stand for the entire davening. People try to avoid any mundane conversations, some even refraining from speaking altogether. Others have a custom not to sleep Yom Kippur night. There are several piyutim in the liturgy that stress this point as well, comparing the Jewish People’s avodah on Yom Kippur to that of the heavenly angels, as we ask that Hashem should judge us in our present elevated state, temporary though it may be.

There is another way. Many shuls have a break in the tefillos when people take time to check on their families at home or clear their mind from the intensity of the day with friendly conversations. In some communities, most notably among many Polish Chassidim, a kittel is not worn either, further limiting one’s resemblance to a purely spiritual being.

What is the intention of this “relaxed” approach to the day referred to as Yom Hakadosh?

Yom Kippur is a day of reconciliation between Hashem and Klal Yisrael. To that end, we do our utmost to actually behave the way that we strive to the whole year.

A man cannot be a malach for a whole year, only for a day. However, one can do his best to raise his daily life to a higher standard. We can daven with a simple, but consistent, focus on the meaning of our tefillos. One can sleep like a Yid, to have strength for the coming day’s avodah. This can even justify friendly conversations — free of lashon hara, machlokes or leitzanus.

There is an additional purpose to this approach. Every malach is charged with a mission that is entirely unique to him. A malach works with complete independence.

Klal Yisrael functions as a body. The body has many limbs and organs, each with its own function, but, ultimately, all the parts are interconnected. While every Jew has his own task, the mission of the Jewish People is one. Our fundamental nature is one of interconnection.

This being the case, the allowance, or even encouragement, of social interaction on Yom Kippur serves as an exercise in bringing to life the essence of Klal Yisrael. To focus solely on one’s likeness to a malach is not only unrealistic, but denies the basic duty of man: to be able to relate to his fellow man.

As such, asking forgiveness and repairing ill-will before Yom Kippur is much more than a necessary step in the teshuvah process, but a way of putting into action one’s relationship with his fellow Jew.

In this approach, the five earthly actions that we refrain from serve not as an angelic costume, rather as a reminder of the real Divinity that is in every one of us, the neshamah, which is a Jew’s essence.

The Maharal of Prague says that one is required to sell all he owns to buy shoes, because they serve as a separation between him and the ground, which is the ultimate representation of physicality.

During the year, shoes are needed to keep man from being pulled down entirely into the physical world. On Yom Kippur, we can sanctify even the most mundane acts. Not only is a Jew not at risk of falling down into earthliness, he pulls the ground up to him. As such, shoes would only be in the way. So too, the eating on Erev Yom Kippur becomes a part of our avodah. We are able to eat in the way that malachim would.

At Minchah on Yom Kippur, we read the Torah portion that deals with forbidden relationships. This seems out of place on a day of such awesome holiness. However, as Neilah draws near, we must remind ourselves that we are only human beings. We ask Hashem to consider our fragile human state as He seals our judgment for the year.

Hashem’s response, so to speak, can be seen in the words included in the brachah that we make in each of the day’s Shemoneh Esrei: “Who forgives our sins year after year,” acknowledging that we sinned last year and asked for forgiveness, are doing the same this year, and will be back again next year for the same exercise. This is not,  chas v’shalom, an act of sinning with intention to do teshuvah later, only an admission of our humanity. n