Yom Kippur Asks “Answers” – Not Just “Afflictions”
A D’var Torah for Parashat Acharei Mot
By Rabbi David Markus
This week’s parashah (Acharei Mot) brings Torah’s first mention of Yom Kippur (#sorry), so each year this parashah starts me thinking about the High Holy Days (#notsorry).
Each year, I recall how three words in this parashah once drove me from Judaism. So each year, I renew my commitment to wrestle these words that challenge me.
This parashah’s three challenging words are: “afflict your souls.”
Torah “sets a law for all time that [on Yom Kippur] you will afflict your souls (t’anu et nafshoteikhem) and do no work” (Lev. 16:29). That day is to be a “complete shabbat (shabbat shabbaton) [on which] you will afflict your souls (v’initem et nafshoteikhem)” (Lev. 16:31). For Yom Kippur, one mention of “afflict” didn’t suffice: Torah had to say it twice.
From “afflict your souls” evolved Yom Kippur’s fasting, abstinence, and other rituals of humility and mourning (B.T. Yoma 73b). From Yom Kippur’s solemnity evolved the haunting medieval Unetaneh Tokef liturgy and its austere imagery of an omnipotent God meting out consequence for our actions. “Who shall live and who shall die?” – or, in Leonard Cohen’s 1974 song:
“And who by fire, who by water,
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
Who in your merry merry month of May,
Who by very slow decay,
And who shall I say is calling?”
Whether or not mere allegory, these “afflictive” notions chased a teenaged me from Judaism. I resonated with Yom Kippur’s awe, but not the joyless piety I saw reflected in Yom Kippur’s “afflictive” liturgies, sermons, rituals, and stone-cold synagogue faces. My Jewish upbringing was spiritual and philosophical, immersed in tradition – but Yom Kippur’s austerity and “affliction” still left me cold to Judaism. It was years before I returned.
Today I’m a pulpit rabbi and seminary teacher casting one eye to yesterday’s Judaism and another to tomorrow, and I continue to wrestle.
To be sure, I honor Yom Kippur’s “affliction” as a design feature that offers deep wisdom. Yom Kippur’s austerity can help us shed hubris, press us to face existential realities including our own mortality, and drive a felt urgency in lives often dulled by inertia. Yom Kippur’s sharpness is sacred fuel for its holy power to rivet, transform, and heal.
Yet I worry about the price of Yom Kippur “afflictive” austerity. People who regularly immerse in Jewish spirituality and Judaism’s diverse theological tapestry might pivot to and from Yom Kippur’s austerity without losing long-term balance – but how about everyone else? How about Jews who attend a synagogue mainly at the High Holy Days (if at all)? How many feel that Yom Kippur depicts a Judaism or Jewish God of austerity, without effective counterbalance the rest of the year? How many go cold, or don’t go at all, because that God isn’t their God?
I worry for the resulting impact on hearts and souls, and on the collective Jewish soul, and on the Jewish future.
But Yom Kippur didn’t start out austere. As this week’s parashah reminds, Torah’s Yom Kippur featured a halt to work, a shabbat shabbaton (Lev. 16:29-31). Isaiah taught us to “call shabbat a delight” (Isaiah 58:13-14) – the same Isaiah who railed against Yom Kippur fasts evoking more pietist dark appearance than liberating bright light (Isaiah 58:1-12).
Isaiah was onto something. In ancient days, “[t]here were no days more joyous for Israel than … Yom Kippur” (B.T. Ta’anit 26b). Why? On Yom Kippur, Jerusalem’s unmarried women dressed in borrowed white clothes – borrowed to conceal wealth inequality, white to evoke purity – and danced amidst the vineyards to entice mates. Yes, dancing and intimacy on Yom Kippur.
We learn that Yom Kippur need not be austere and mournful to be spiritually authentic: originally Yom Kippur couldn’t be austere and mournful to be spiritually authentic. We learn that Yom Kippur can arouse light, not dark; warmth, not cold; intimacy, not distance; life, not death.
No, this isn’t the Yom Kippur most moderns know. But in today’s “choosing to be chosen” ethic, amidst rapid socio-political and spiritual shift, fear and austerity don’t work spiritually as perhaps they once did. We need Yom Kippur’s light and joy to balance Yom Kippur’s solemnity. We need love’s positivity to balance what some experience in fear-based religion as inner aridity or even spiritual shutdown – going through motions, or not going at all.
This week’s parashah hints at another way. This path leaps from the Hebrew of Leviticus 16 that first mentions Yom Kippur, if we dare to see with different eyes and risk what’s familiar.
This path leads directly through Torah’s three challenging words, “afflict your souls.” In both of Torah’s two repeats of this Yom Kippur calling, the unvocalized Hebrew for “you will afflict” also can be read as “you will answer”: תענו in Lev. 16:29, and ועניתם in Lev. 16:31. Only unwritten vowels distinguish “answer” from “afflict” (ta’anu / t’anu, va’anitem / v’initem).
What if instead of “afflict,” this week’s parashah reads that on Yom Kippur “you will answer with your souls”? What if Yom Kippur inspires our agency to speak directly to God and change our lives, lifted by a living and light-filled love, rather than pressing us to rehearse death amidst fear and darkness? What if Yom Kippur asks us to delight and dance, not suffer?
If so, then this parashah’s debut of Yom Kippur makes sense in a new way. Yom Kippur is a shabbat shabbaton because Yom Kippur is a day to answer with our souls, without worldly distraction. Yom Kippur calls us to answer for and with our whole lives – to answer God, to answer our family and community, to answer the planet, to answer ourselves. How will we heed this resounding call of innermost spirit? How will we live in response?
Those familiar Yom Kippur questions, still resonant and right, now can arise from our agency rather than suffering and fear. Re-visioned in terms of answers rather than afflictions, this Yom Kippur can culminate a process of questioning begun at Rosh Hashanah, or earlier at Selihot – or, mapping individual spirituality onto collective Jewish history, a process begun seven weeks before Rosh Hashanah at Tisha b’Av, or three weeks before Tisha b’Av at 17 Tammuz.
If so, then teshuvah also makes sense in a new way. Teshuvah becomes not just “repentance” or “return,” our High Holy Day journey of spiritual meaning, but also an answer: classically, a teshuvahoffers an “answer” to a halakhic question. To Yom Kippur’s call to answer with and for our souls, we can offer our own teshuvah, our answer to the core spiritual question of our lives that Yom Kippur puts to us all.
If so, then Sukkot also makes sense in a new way. The harvest festival can celebrate not only the agricultural bounty of the harvest season but also the spiritual bounty that is our “answer” to Yom Kippur’s question. We take our “answer” outside to the sukkah, literally to dwell out in the world, to begin representing that we must live our answer in the world during the year ahead.
Perhaps this “answer” approach is to Yom Kippur’s “affliction” what “love” (אהבה / ahavah) is to “awe” or “fear” (both יראה / yir’ah) in Kabbalah. Like a bird needs both wings to fly, like prayers and spiritual journeys rise on both love and awe, so too the Yom Kippur journey needs both the empowerment of our agency and the poignancy of consequence beyond ourselves. Maybe our Yom Kippur can fly highest by harnessing both its “answer” impulse and its “affliction” impulse, both love and awe (re-cast from “fear”), the self both actualized and transcended into Source.
Three little words, and a whole world of questions – and a soul full of answers – await us all.
Rabbi David Evan Markus (AJR Adjunct Faculty – Rabbinics) is co-rabbi of Temple Beth El of City Island (New York, NY) and Founding Builder of Bayit: Your Jewish Home, a spiritual innovation start-up for all ages and stages. Rabbi Markus also serves as Faculty in Spiritual Direction and past Board Co-Chair for ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. By day, Rabbi Markus presides as Judicial Referee in New York Supreme Court, 9th Judicial District, as part of a parallel career in government service.