Yom Kippur is a day of serenity, fasting, prayer, contemplation, forgiveness and meditation. It derives its unique holiness from being all of these things. It is truly the “one day of the year” that the prayer services of the day mark it as being. But there is another dimension to this holiest of days. It is a day of freedom. In First Temple times, when the yovel/jubilee year arrived, the day of Yom Kippur that year marked the day of emancipation for slaves. The shofar sound of Yom Kippur was their call to leave their masters and become independent and productive people on their own. We are not privileged today with a Temple or with a yovel/jubilee year but the message of personal freedom still lies inextricably embedded in the holiness of Yom Kippur. We are all people who yearn for personal freedom. And yet we are all chained to different forms of coercion, some self-inflicted and others over which we have no apparent control. Yom Kippur therefore allows at least one day of freedom. A day when the cell phone does not exist, when the marketplace is shut down, when nothing physical can be accomplished, when we are left alone with ourselves and inhale the air of spirit and eternity. On Yom Kippur we do not concern ourselves with the immediate tomorrow but rather on the eternal tomorrow. For one day at least the near-sighted become far-sighted, freed from the bonds of everyday life that so constrict our behavior and thoughts. What a gift such a day is!
Repentance is one aspect of personal freedom. Judaism teaches that repentance creates a new person, so to speak. There is nothing more difficult in life than remaking oneself. We are troubled by what our families or our former friends will say about this new self that we project. It is difficult to adjust to a new person, even if the new person is the person itself. Therefore Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin of Salant stated that the loudest noise heard in the universe is that of a habit being broken. Physical addictions are terribly dangerous and difficult in the extreme to overcome. Such an addiction is a brutal form of slavery, especially since most such addictions are self-inflicted. But mental and spiritual addictions are just as dangerous and brutal. People are very reluctant to alter preconceived notions and their behavior patterns. The Talmud shrewdly states that after a time slaves become passive and seemingly satisfied with their role in life and comfortable in the lack of accountability and responsibility that this state of being engenders. Personal freedom always comes with a price to be paid for it. The price is the willingness of a person to remake oneself no matter what others in society will think about it. Yom Kippur allows one to begin this process of self-emancipation and to state openly to God and to ourselves that we are determined to become a new, different and better person. Yom Kippur can erase our old addictions and free us for great new accomplishments in life.
The great rebbe of Kotzk, Rabbi Menachem Mendel (Halperin) Morgenstern said: “There are really no fast days in the Jewish calendar year. On Tisha Be’av we are so overcome with mourning over the destruction of our Temples that we have no appetite for food – who can eat? On Yom Kippur we are in such an exalted state of spirituality that we have no necessity to eat!” Freed from our physical necessities for the day we are transformed into the new person that looks inside oneself for meaning and fulfillment. Dressed in white and without jeweled adornments, we are freed from fashion and conformity. Moses was told that on holy ground one must shed one’s shoes. It is a sign of humility and connection to the earth at one and the same time. Moses became a new person at that encounter with the burning bush, no longer the simple shepherd tending the flocks of his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, but rather the great prophet and leader that has no equal in human history and society. We also shed our expensive and comfortable leather shoes on Yom Kippur, for that is part of our declaration that we also wish to become a new person, attached to the holy earth and committed to a new spirit of greatness and responsibility that we pray will permeate us. On Yom Kippur, at least for a day, we become free at last.
Berel Wein is an American-born Orthodox rabbi, scholar, lecturer, and writer. He is regarded as an expert on Jewish history and has popularized the subject through more than 1,000 audio tapes, a four-volume book series, newspaper articles and international lectures. Throughout his career, he has retained personal and ideological ties to both Modern Orthodox and Haredi Judaism, and is respected within both movements.