With the Day of Atonement upon us, many are scrambling to complete a spiritual accounting to get that cleanest of clean slates. But in the midst of all the Yom Tovim and Shabbos, actually going through the work, the self reflection, the focus, and time… teshuvah may be important, but not an urgent priority. Plus the day of Yom Kippur delivers atonement itself, right? I mean, what are we spending almost the whole day in synagogue for?
But, if we authentically engage in the process known as teshuvah, far more transpires than healed relationships and a chance to be sealed in God’s Book of Life. I’m going to go a bit esoteric with this post, so I apologize for not being as grounded or practical as I usually am. But if you’ll bear with me, you might just understand some extraordinary secrets behind one of the greatest gifts God has given us.
Anatomy of the Soul
Judaism holds that there are three main aspects of the soul (technically five, but we’re not going to go there.) First there is the Nefesh. Everything living has a Nefesh, it is the soul of physical life. Next there is the Ruach soul which corresponds to our aspect of speech. Finally there is the Neshama, the intellectual and holiest soul of the three.
Another idea you may have heard of is the Sefiras. There are 10 character traits (7 physical traits, 3 elevated traits) that we can always work on to perfect ourselves and our growth. I’ll list them and superficially translate them, but refer to the diagram below for more nuanced translations. The physical traits are Chessed or kindness, Gevurah or self control, Tiferes or beauty/balance, Netzach or endurance, Hod or splendor, Yesod or foundation, and finally Malchus or mastery (note the chart below says Shechinah, just ignore that for now). At the top are the 3 Sefiros traits, with Keter or will at the top, then Binah which is understanding, and Chochma or wisdom/inspiration.
I know it’s a lot to throw out and you don’t need to understand it all for my final point. I’m just introducing the concept. According to Jewish Mysticism (I’m sourcing from the Nefesh Ha-Chayim) this Sefira map is like a building block. So they’re not just character traits a person can work on, but elements inherent in our design. I personally think it looks a lot like a spiritual DNA strand. The point is that each of our souls (Nefesh, Ruach, and Neshama) have their own set of 10 Sefiros that make up that soul.
The Nefesh Ha-Chayim also says that not only do our souls each have a set of Sefiros, but that the three souls connect to each other like a chain. If you look at the figure above, each soul connects like a ladder higher and higher. Notice the point where they connect. The highest sphere on the lower strand (Keter) overlaps with the lowest sphere on the higher strand (Malchus). In my Photoshopping of the image, I did a poor job representing the overlap, but the idea is that Keter/will of your lower soul is the connection point with Malchus/mastery of the higher soul.
What does any of this have to do with Teshuvah and Yom Kippur?????
There are many possible consequences for a transgression, both in a physical sense and in a spiritual one. Some transgressions may require monetary restitution, others (like murder) may require the death penalty. One of the spiritual consequences of some sins is known as kares or being cut off spiritually from God. This is rather appropriate as the true essence of a sin isn’t that it makes us horrible people, but instead that sins create a barrier between us and God. We can see effects like this in our personal relationships. Betraying the trusts of a friend or significant other is going to radically change the nature of the relationship. Such a change is similar with God, but a lot easier to repair and here’s why.
When we transgress via action, that would be through using our Nefesh or physical soul, we create a barrier or break between our Nefesh and our Ruach. Some people express despair in that they feel their prayers aren’t being heard. If Ruach is our vehicle for divine speech and there’s a break in that system due to transgressions, that could be a reason why.
However, you might think this break would happen between the Malchus of a Ruach and the Keter of a Neshama. But that’s not actually the case. The Malchus of one level is inextricably connected to the Keter below it. They’re one in the same. Which means a person is never completely cut off from their divine speech, no matter how much they sin with their actions.
This is where teshuvah comes in. The final action of teshuvah is a vocal confession we call Viduy. When you go to services and you’re saying a litany of phrases like “Al cheit shechatanu” or in English, “For the sin we have committed against you…”, the Yom Kippur service is designed to articulate almost every possible sin you could do, ensuring that you accomplish Viduy in every way you need. It’s a catch-all.
Most other days, such lip service may not do a whole lot to repair the corrosion of the soul. But on Yom Kippur, the spiritual nature of the day, combined with the fasting, and the time served (it is called a service after all) we are pretty much given a free pass for showing up. However, the more personal your teshuvah is, the more lasting this soldering of the souls is likely to be.
Bringing it Down to Earth
This process is great for physical transgressions. But what if you did transgressions of Ruach involving speech? Can you sever yourself from your Neshama? This is the reason Lashon Hara (wicked speech) is so bad. Not only does it effectively damage your spiritual vocal cords, it is much harder to do teshuvah for! For this a higher level of teshuvah is needed. Two consolations: 1) Yom Kippur does help tremendously. 2) Most of us probably already fit into this category and are to some extent cut off from the spiritual thought of a connected Neshama. To be fully connected to your Neshama is a spiritual enlightenment most of us will be lucky to grasp for mere seconds in our whole lifetime.
Another thing to note is that Malchus means kingship and Keter means crown. This is another way we understand that Malchus and Keter are inherently connected. Remember above in the first image, the Sefira of Malchus was labeled as Shechinah. The word Shechinah refers to God’s presence that we feel on earth. But if Keter also means our will, that means when we decide to recognize God as King, it aligns your will with His and restores His Shechinah in our lives.
So what does that mean? Let’s say you walk out onto the street and see some schmuck has knocked over all the trash cans on the block. Most of us would get mad, curse the unknown name of this coward, then begrudgingly pick up our own trash can and be done. But if you decided to recognize that God runs the world, you might have a different reaction. Maybe you decide to pick up your neighbor’s trash can. Then the trash can across the street. Then maybe your neighbors see it and it’s like you’ve just done a miracle. You would have restored God’s presence to your street.
When we align our will with Hashem’s it allows us to be objective, compassionate, and see any situation as an opportunity for growth. Any corrections in our behaviors we decide to take from that is all that teshuvah is. The vocalization of Viduy just makes us conscious of it. Taking it from the abstract thought (Neshama) into clarified speech (Ruach) so that it can ultimately result in physical action (Nefesh). That brings the Shechinah to the lowest malchus, our physical world, which affects everyone. The truest Kingship.