As we approach Yom Kippur tomorrow night, I wanted to relate an extraordinary teaching given by the Rosh Yeshiva of Shapell’s Darche Noam. It was a comprehensive lesson that I’m going to try to get out concisely and in my own words. Any inspirations, epiphanies, or clarity that you may gain from this post, you should owe to Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky. Any confusion, notions that you don’t find to be true, or other dissatisfactions you can credit to me.
As a child, I always believed the purpose for fasting on Yom Kippur was to feel bad. Either as penance from the sins we were atoning for, or to put us in touch with the suffering of the world. When I fell into the observant world (see last week’s Rosh Hashana post) I was told the idea was to nullify our bodily desires and strive to be like the angels who do not eat or drink. That never “jived” with me. Do angels (which Judaism does not believe are winged dead people with halos) have hunger pangs and dry mouth? Do they get caffeine headaches midday? Do angels need to take naps after mincha? This whole nullifying the body things seemed absurd. But Rabbi Karlinsky’s talk gave me some much-needed understanding.
The 2nd Half of Kingship
From Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur, we refer to Hashem as King. Obviously, Judaism views Hashem as King all year-round. But during this time, we’re able to feel it. And there are two particular aspects we specifically acknowledge. 1) As judge on Rosh Hashana. 2) As pardoner of sins on Yom Kippur. But on Yom Kippur this 2nd role of pardoner has more to it than we might realize. The Maharal says in order for Hashem to be that pardoner, on Yom Kippur Hashem makes it so the Yetzer Hara has no influence over us.
Marc and I have talked about the Yetzer Hara (aka the evil inclination, aka the little devil on your shoulder) a bit on this blog. But a new understanding I learned is that the Yetzer Hara is all the forces that control you, but that are not you. Things like social pressures, deep-seated family dynamics, your ego, your anger, your insecurities, etc. All of these forces are things that have tremendous influence, but are not in fact, the real you. On Yom Kippur, Hashem removes their power. But in order for that to take effect, you have to detach from the needs of the body. And not just food. Bathing, dressing nicely, shaving. Basically you’re not trying to impress anyone on Yom Kippur. Instead we have to elevate to a place where sin does not exist.
Now you might think that because these outside influences have so much power over us, we might not be culpable for the sins that we’ve committed. If they’re so powerful, how can I really be judged for my actions? That however, couldn’t further from truth. The Yetzer Hara certainly makes things difficult, but they are influencing, not driving. Attaining this independence from the Yetzer Hara only allows us to better hear ourselves clearly. From that, we are able to honestly admit and take responsibility for the things we did wrong. Because if we don’t take accept the responsibility for what we did, then how can we possibly change?
The Real You
With no outside forces and with the responsibility accepted, you’re in full control. You are free to actually decide what you want. But what does it take to know what you want? Hopefully over Rosh Hashana you were able to come to some understanding of that. If not, there is a self-reflection exercise that can help.
Take some time to reflect on what you think you want. Money, love, physical indulgence, popularity, etc. Once you’ve identified it, then ask yourself why you want it. Why you really want it. You’ll come to realize that you don’t really want that first thing, you just want it as a means to get to some second thing. “I want a good job, so I can have stability.” But then you ask yourself, why you want that second thing. And most likely you’ll find you want that because you really want some third thing. “I want stability so I can raise a family.” Keep going deeper and deeper until you get to a want that you can’t find another want behind it. When you get to that want, that’s what you really want. That’s the real you. What you want defines who you are.
Bringing It All Together
With what you want finally clear, along with the freedom of the forces on the body, and a silent Yetzer Hara, you can make the real choice. Which king do you want to serve in life? The illusions of the Yetzer Hara that don’t really take you to what you want? Or Hakadosh Baruchu, who can actually give you what you want? Just to be clear, this is not a rhetorical question. This is a real decision you have to make. It’s only with this consideration that we can authentically ask for forgiveness and do teshuva.
Fasting is about stripping away everything that is apart from you in order to get to your core. Yes, you might get a headache, and if you get drowsy, it’s okay to take a break or even a nap. But if you are able to muscle through it, it is an essential step to get you to the clarity and to have a tremendous break through to be living a year of life. This year!
May you have an easy and meaningful fast.