Few matters are more difficult to understand than the nature and purpose of Yom Kippur. What is it that this awesome day wants to tell us? What does it want to accomplish?
There is basically only one answer: the realization that life is undeserved and therefore easily able to turn into a great embarrassment.
When thinking about our lives, we have to realize that we cannot make any claim on life, for we have not done anything to deserve it before we were born. It is not a reward for earlier good deeds or for any other previous accomplishment. It is a gift, completely undeserved.
However, we handle our lives as if we do! We treat our lives as if it is deserved and as the obvious possession to which we are all entitled. But this is a huge falsification of reality.
This is not just true of life itself but also of all our many faculties and talents. We consider it obvious that we can enjoy food, drink, music, become artists, are able to read, get married, have children and receive love. But this is a huge lie.
We even have the chutzpah, the impertinence, to believe that when things are not going well, we have the right to complain that it is not fair, since we are sure that we have a right to live our lives in an optimal way.
But on what basis ?
We do not realize that none of these great human faculties are deserved. They are just unearned gifts. All we can do is to develop them. Or, God forbid, to destroy them!
The same is true of Yom Kippur. What did we do to deserve a day where we can find forgiveness for our many misdeeds? That man could be forgiven for all his misdeeds is totally unwarranted. It makes little sense to be forgiven for deeds, many of which we can no longer repair or nullify. Many have done unrepairable damage. The fact that there is one day in the year that we will be forgiven for them is completely absurd. And that day is called Yom Kippur.
It is exactly here that we are confronted with a deep feeling of shame. And if that is not the case: what kind of life are we living? How can one live with the knowledge that nothing, really absolutely nothing is deserved? How can one enjoy anything in the full knowledge that we are not at all entitled to it?
Would it not be more sensible to hide in a corner when one fully grasps the fact that a life lived without any claim on it lacks both dignity and value? An ultimate embarrassment.
Nothing is more painful for man than this and yet most of us do not feel any of this pain. Instead we are disturbed, upset and even annoyed when the slightest disturbance in our live takes place.
There is only one remedy to this: to realize that we are just the managers and overseers of our life and not its owners. And management is a difficult and complex art!
There needs to be a response to a life which is totally undeserved. How can I govern my life in such a way that it does not put me to shame and is at least softened and a little less painful?
Should I not think: now that I realize that life itself is a gift, I should at least put that gift to more than just good use.
After all: gifts obligate. They are given for a purpose. They somehow deprive us of our mistaken belief that we can do whatever we want. The more we receive the more we become obligated to respond adequately. For Judaism this means there is a need to listen to the ultimate Giver and live by His directions.
It is most important to realize that gifts are only a delight to us as long as we can recompense them and show our appreciation by living a life which lives up to this gift.
But if we do not, they ultimately become the source of much pain, since they leave us with an inner emptiness which can even become a trauma and turn into our greatest enemy. Much unhappiness in the life of human beings is rooted in this problem. The feeling that life has become empty and meaningless is common. Millions of people try to compensate this by amassing more material goods, food, drink and sex, only to realize that not one of them is able to bring them inner fulfillment unless they reflect that there is deep meaning and purpose to all these treasures.
Many of us wait too long to recognize the dangers involved. Sometimes our indifference to the gifts we have been given results in our being cut off from the value of life. “A man whose leg has been cut off does not value the present of shoes” a great Chinese philosopher once said.
This is the call of the hour on Yom Kippur. A full day is given to us to realize a simple matter which is so difficult to admit. Life is only great as long as it is lived in the realization that it is undeserved yet could be earned through a dignified response.
How great would life be when every person, the business man, the lawyer, the laborer, the professor and, the priest, the rabbi would rise from their bed with this keen awareness. Life would look radically different. And much more joyful.
Or as Micha ( 3:4 ) said: “Who does not tremble at the roaring of the Lion in the forest?”
May we all merit hearing the roar.
Gemar Chatima Tova!
This publication was made possible with the support of the Louis and Dina van de Kamp Foundation, August 2020.