Saturday, September 26, 2009

Moshe, Yonah and Us on Yom Kippur (Derashah, Kol Nidrei 5770)

I was asked to speak before maariv on Yom Kippur night; here's what I expect to say:

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein has commented that Yom Kippur night is the hardest time to speak. People are somewhat bloated from their pre-taanis meals, somewhat concerned about how smoothly the fast will go, somewhat worried about how well the חתימה will go, somewhat nervous about how long the speech will go, glancing at their watches, fidgeting with their machzorim.

My father quotes Rav Soloveitchik as having made the same observation; Maariv on Yom Kippur is hardly the time for a long and serious derashah. So I will just make one point about the Yom Kippur experience and where it can take us, based on a gemara at the beginning of Yoma.

So I will just make one point about the Yom Kippur experience and where it can take us, based on a gemara at the beginning of Yoma.

The first mishnah in Yoma mentions that the Kohen Gadol separates from his family, and, indeed, from most of the world, living in a special room on Har haBayis for seven days, leading up to Yom Kippur.

R’ Yochanan and Reish Lakish debate the source for this separation – why does the Kohen Gadol go into seclusion, in this ultimate waiting room? What’s the point of having him cool his heels?

• R’ Yochanan explains that it’s based on the מילואים, the seven-day period when Aharon haKohen was trained in the avodah of the mishkan.

• Reish Lakish explains that the quarantine is based on the ענן, the six days when Moshe Rabbeinu remained in a cloud, before entering HaShem’s presence to receive the Torah on Har Sinai.

As Rav Soloveitchik explained it, R’ Yochanan’s concept is that a week of separation provides opportunities for training, as a practical matter. This makes sense; the Kohen Gadol needs to undergo training, too, for Yom Kippur.

But Reish Lakish’s comparison is less obvious. Reish Lakish equates attending Har Sinai with entering the Beis haMikdash, arguing that Moshe waited before entering HaShem’s presence, and so each Kohen Gadol must endure a Moshe-style experience and be separated from the nation before the Yom Kippur appointment with HaShem in the kodesh kodashim… But why? Where is the benefit?

First, let’s understand why Moshe needed that period of quarantine. Avos d’Rabbi Nasan, the midrashic expansion of Pirkei Avos, explains: “משה נתקדש בענן וקבל תורה מסיני שנאמר וישכון כבוד ה' על הר סיני - למשה לטהרו... א"ל רבי מתיא בן חרש ר' לא אמרו אלא לאיים עליו כדי שיקבל עליו דברי תורה באימה ביראה ברתת ובזיע. Moshe was sanctified in a cloud and received the Torah from Sinai, as it is written, ‘And the glory of HaShem rested on Har Sinai’ – it was for Moshe, to purify him. And Rabbi Masya ben Charash declared: This was specifically to intimidate Moshe, so that he would receive the Torah with fear, with awe, with trembling and shaking!”

Moshe waits in a cloud, for six days, in order to feel הכנעה, a particular mixture of respect and humility.

This הכנעה is a state which is necessary, in some measure, for all relationships.

• Children need humility in order to appreciate what their parents and others do for them.
• Parents need humility in order not to demand their due from their children.
• Spouses need humility in order to listen to each other.
• Siblings need humility in order not to stand on their rights.
• And students need humility, as do teachers, in order that they learn from each other and appreciate each other.

הכנעה is Esther waiting, in trepidation, for Achashverosh.
הכנעה is Yosef's brothers nervously waiting for the viceroy.
הכנעה is Noach anxiously waiting for word that the Flood is over.
הכנעה is a Jew on Yom Kippur davening not in fear, but with respect, with awe, standing before her Creator.

Certainly, for that greatest relationship, standing before Gd, הכנעה is a requirement - and so this intimidating experience is a prerequisite for Moshe's ascent to receive the Torah.

And as Avot d’Rabbi Natan continues, achieving this state of הכנעה is what made Moshe worthy of transmitting Torah to the kohanim, of creating the שמן המשחה, of passing Torah to Yehoshua, and so on. All that makes us the Jewish people – the Torah, the mitzvot, the Kohanim and their service in the Beit haMikdash – all of it traces to Moshe and his intimidating period in that cloud.

Reish Lakish argues that this is what the Kohen Gadol must experience before Yom Kippur, in order to approach HaShem on behalf of the nation with אימה, with יראה, with רתת, with זיע, with fear and trembling, with הכנעה, to meet HaShem on a latter-day Har Sinai, in the Kodesh Kodashim.

R’ Pinchas ben Yair said פרישות מביאה לידי קדושה, separation leads to sanctity – and so it did for those kohanim gedolim.

So we’ve answered our questions about Moshe and the Kohen Gadol - but we are missing something, I am missing something, approaching Yom Kippur. Granted we will not stand on Har Sinai. Granted we will not enter the kodesh kodashim. But will we not stand before HaShem today, to plead our case? On Rosh haShanah we were tried in absentia, but is Yom Kippur not our day in court, our day to clamber atop Har Sinai and, at נעילת שערים, declare ה' הוא האלקים, declare that HaShem is our Gd and that we are HaShem’s people? Do we not need to achieve קדושה?

So where is our הכנעה experience? Where is our anan, where is our perishah, where is our hafrashas shivah yamim? Is it the cheshbon hanefesh of half-remembered flaws and successes we composed during the month of elul? Is it the rushed slichos we mumbled for a week and a half in the early hours of the morning? Is it the embarrassed apologies we made to relatives and friends in hurried phone calls and minutes stolen before and after minyan on erev Yom Kippur? Where is our anan?

Tomorrow, Gd-willing, those who are able to stay during the break will learn Sefer Yonah with me. We’ll learn about a man, a נביא, who wanted nothing more than to draw close to HaShem, and who ran away from the HaShem he could not understand, in search of the HaShem he thought he understood.

Yonah did succeed in drawing close to HaShem, after a three-day period of perishah, his seclusion in the דג.

But what about us? Where is our ענן?

Our ענן is Yom Kippur itself. אבות דרבי נתן describes Moshe in the cloud, not eating, not drinking, just contemplating a meeting with HaShem. Yom Kippur is our day when we neither eat nor drink, our day when we tremble and contemplate a special audience before our Creator, a reunion with the בורא עולם.

Moshe had six days. The kohen gadol had a week. Yonah had three days. And we, starting tonight, have just one day.

Perhaps their isolation was longer because their ultimate exposure to HaShem was more intense. Perhaps their isolation was longer because they could do more with the opportunity; we struggle to maintain intensity for even one day. But whatever the reason, all we have is this one day plucked out of time, from כי הנה כחומר tonight until we encounter HaShem at נעילת שערים tomorrow night and declare ה' הוא האלקים.
This is our opportunity for bona fide הכנעה and a cleansing process akin to Moshe’s and akin to the Kohen Gadol’s, and it must suffice for our preparations for קדושה, so that we meet HaShem with true humility.

But one last note: Our exposure to HaShem doesn’t end at ה' הוא האלקים, just as Yonah’s closeness to HaShem is not supposed to end with his emergence from the דג, and just as Moshe’s closeness to HaShem does not end at Sinai. The moment of intense exposure to HaShem ends – but the repercussions continue.

Yonah’s moment of closeness to HaShem is meant to power his return to Nineveh and his on-going career as a נביא ה'.

Moshe’s moment of closeness to HaShem powers the next thirty-eight years, and the transmission of Torah to בני ישראל and to all subsequent generations.

And for us, our moment of closeness to HaShem, our ה' הוא האלקים, powers our entire year. It is a spark of lightning charged with unimaginable wattage. It is a burst, an intense surge of power – and it can drive us far, far into our own future.

It all begins with tonight’s הכנעה through perishah, our separation from this world, from eating and drinking and physical pleasures, for just one day… and where it will lead, Gd knows right now, and we will learn over time.

Let’s take advantage, and so earn a גמר חתימה טובה.

1. It's a simple point, which could use greater expansion in terms of community vs isolation in Tanach and Halachah, but as I said at the outset - Kol Nidrei and Maariv on Yom Kippur night are not the time.

2. The Yoma discussion is on 3b, and the Rav's analysis is the first shiur in שיעורי הגרי"ד: עבודת יום הכיפורים.

3. The question of when the cloud-isolation took place, in relation to the עשרת הדברות, depends on the resolution of the 6/7 Sivan debate on Shabbat 88.

4. Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair is in the last mishnah in the 9th perek in Sotah.

5. Yes, the pun on Back to the Future is intended.