Yom Kippur : Closing the Doors Behind You

Succoth : Seclusion with God



My main operating metaphor in the whole movement from Tisha b’Av to Shmini Atzeret is the idea of relationship with Hashem.


On Tisha b’Av we see Hashem as the Lover way across the field, so we start out with very strong feelings of mourning, and feelings of responsibility for destroying the Temple, for as the Talmud teaches, whoever did not rebuild the Temple in his time it is as if he destroyed it.


Gradually through Elul, we move across the field, with the operating metaphor being mechila/forgiveness coming from the story of the concubine of Givah. The feeling of obligation and reciprocity that is in the word mechila is also in the word shalom, which has the connotation of paying. Similarly, the word Mitzvah/commandment is attached to the word Chiyuv/obligation – a word that is used both with regard to Mitzvot and for financial debt. It strikes me as very provocative to use the same word – Chiyuv/obligation for owing money and owing an obligation for a Mitzvah. There is a real connotation of debt.


In the period of Elul, the idea of improving oneself to be close is very removed from a perfectionism that says, “I want to be good, because people will look up to me, and I will be better in the eyes of other people.” This is a whole different motivation for self-improvement – this is self-improvement in order to be close. All the self-improvement is so that we can get to love.


Self-improvement becomes a whole different thing when, because I want to be close to you, I am prepared to throw some luggage overboard. Particularly during this week – the week before the wedding (the Gemara in Ta’anith calls Yom Kippur the ‘day of our wedding) – we concentrate and focus on longing to be close. As part of the framework of obligation we purposefully hold ourselves back from being close.


Yom Kippur is literally the chuppa/wedding canopy, and so although the week leading up to this is obviously the most intense, we are also intentionally changing gears. We come to the chuppa trying to offload as much luggage as possible, because if we don’t rid ourselves of our dysfunction, the relationship will not work.


In the context of the Lover and the Judge, in which Hashem is King on Rosh Hashannah and Judge on Yom Kippur, the Judge remains separate and apart during this period.


This is the way the Esh Kodesh portrays Hashem in his drash on Rosh Hashannah, 1940.

He tells the parable (from Imrei Elimelech) of the prince who was “exiled from the king’s presence and sent to live among vulgar people who maltreated him, making him suffer…” In tremendous pain, the prince cries, “Please, Father, have mercy on me, save me!” This is obviously the cry of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, and it is also an image and a metaphor for longing and distance.


On Yom Kippur, however, there is a key shifting of gears. Just as we have to shift between Chessed and Gevruah, we must shift from left brain to right brain, but people stuck in an either/or paradigm do not shift. In their structure, God is either the Judge or the Lover. In the dialectic structure, however, there must be two equal and opposite sides to our repertoire, and, as we pointed out in the last chapter, this cannot only be confined to thought. The dialectic can’t only be thought. It has to be literally as if we were playing a role on a stage. We can play the role of Gevurah – the Torah even talks about pretending to be angry as a tool to fight off desire – that anger can be used as a tool to solve problems. To use anger in this functional way, you have to play a role. Flexibility means increasing our roles.


Most books we read either appeal to our right brain – like a book of poetry or literature that is metaphoric and polemic – or, like a book on maths or law, they appeal to our orderly and logical left brain functions. Only in Torah are we required to shift gears and change roles mamash in the middle of a page.


Torah/Israel is the bridge between East and West both geographically and in this sense of requiring the use of both sides of the brain. Whereas non-theism (eastern spirituality) gets totally into the self – even calling the ultimate reality Perusha­/the Great Self, Theism (Christianity) apprehends God as the Other. Torah is both Theism and non-Theism. Torah tells us to meditate and connect with our neshamah/soul, and also to relate to God in a relational way, as the ‘Intimate Other’. We have to be able to do both simultaneously.


Having only one role leads to rigidity. If we get locked in the role dictated by obligation, the big danger is guilt. The Torah delineates guilt as the main weapon of the Satan, because through guilt we become locked in responsibility, and end up just feeling stuck. If we get stuck in the preparations we can avoid engaging altogether. At a certain point, you have to trust the spontaneity of your dialogue.


With the apples and the honey, everything starts to change, and to soften, and finally, on Yom Kippur, under the chuppa, there is a transformation.


Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach used to say that the first eating – the eating of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge - was very bitter, because Adam and Hava did not eat together. They ate alone, each going of with their own fantasy. The problem with fantasies is that they are sterile, and they don’t talk back. Adam and Hava retreated into a cycle of guilt, shame, blame and divorce.


One Midrash says that the fruit they ate was an apple, and so when we eat the apple on Rosh Hashannah, all the bitterness flows out, including the first murder. Reb Shlomo says dipping the apple in the honey is the beginning of the process of hamtakat hadinim/sweetening of judgments. This is when we begin the process of switching from experiencing God as Judge to experiencing Him as Lover.


A wedding is an exact re-enactment of this. During the preparation time, you’re thinking, “I need to make myself better”, as if my future wife is judging me at that moment. I believe that whatever dysfunctions I bring into the marriage will get in the way, and stop the relationship from being as good as it could be.


There must be a tremendous shift under the Chuppa. If you are standing there and still thinking about all the responsibilities and the accounting and self-criticism, then you can’t be present with the other person. If you are sitting with another person, while constantly engaged in the inner dialogue of self-accounting, you are not really there at all. There is no spontaneous connection.


This is the challenge of Yom Kippur. According to the marriage metaphor, the cheder hayichud – the room where the bride and groom are secluded – is the Succah. On Yom Kippur, when the gates close behind you, you move into the Succah, just like a couple, straight after their Chuppah.


Up until now, the whole wedding has been utterly public, caught up in making a good celebration and trying to please people. Now, all of a sudden, the couple goes off alone in total privacy.


All young couples complain that their weddings are all about catering to the guests, but in a Jewish wedding you have this time alone. It’s an incredible thing. We’re talking about you two, alone. Not you two as part of a community, nor are we talking about you two as an expression of your family and its expectations. All these are things that weddings get caught up in.


This time alone is tikkun etz hada’at­ – the fixing of the eating of the Tree of Knowledge.

It is the dipping of the apple in the honey. Reb Shlomo said the honey is important, because the honey is like life. If you know how to get honey, just like if you know how to live life, it is very, very sweet.


When you go into the cheder hayichud, you have to totally switch gears. When you close the doors of Ne’ila, you have a totally equal and opposite obligation to feel forgiven. You have to step into the other role.


I’ve asked many people this week, what is easier, to feel totally responsible, or to feel totally forgiven?

Everyone agreed that to feel totally forgiven is much harder.


How can you obligate someone to feel forgiven?


The obligation is in the fact that I can consciously change roles. As we learned with reference to sleep and embracing the Tree of Death, we can expand our flexibility in the repertoire of choice.


As much as I felt responsible before Yom Kippur, I can feel equally and oppositely forgiven and nurtured after Yom Kippur.


In this context, the Tree of Knowledge fits in with the idea of reciprocity between the beginning and the end of the line that we spoke of in the last chapter. As well as being a sexual seduction, Chava’s going off with her fantasy – the snake – is also a seduction of insularity. The whole image of the dialogue between Chava and the snake is one of control. The snake tells Chava, you can be as wise as God, if you will just eat the fruit.


Knowledge is our main tool utilized in trying to control and create an insular, safe reality. It protects us from exposure to the ezer k’negdo – helpful opposition.

The academic ivory tower is a good example of this, which is why the intellectuals must lead the way breaking free of it, because it is the Tree of Knowledge that creates the insularity.


Through sending you into the Succah, the Torah is actually trying to regress you back to the moment of nursing – to that total feeling of protection and grace. All your emunah – faith really evolves out of that moment in your life. It is a real re-parenting moment.


We need this, because if you don’t rebuild the trust, you’re not moving anywhere.


Responsibility, obligation and critique alone are not enough. They are missing a critical ingredient. You have to have the trust. This is an obligation, a mitzvah. You don’t have a choice. It doesn’t matter how you feel. Even if you still feel under the weight of all your sins, nevertheless, you must consciously rebuild this trust, by moving into the grace, and into the simcha/joy. Without that conscious movement, the Torah tells us that no change will take place.


The training and obligation dictate that even when your emotions or your habit take you in some other direction you nevertheless consciously fulfil your obligation. Our ability to move into this role is our ‘counter-habit’.


The metaphor continues all the way to Simchat Torah, when you consummate the marriage by literally dancing the energy into the ground.


The goal is successful intimacy, and all these stages are steps on the way.


On Tisha b’Av we see our lover across the field. On Rosh Hashanna we are ‘back to back’ and during the ten days of tshuva we gradually turn. On Succoth we embrace, and on Simchat Torah we consummate.


The whole idea of comparing the Succah to breast-feeding takes us back to the moment of maximum nurturing and trust.


This is beautifully expressed in a verse from Parshat HaAzinu, which is read on Shabbat Shuva (the Shabbat that falls between Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur).


“God alone placed them; there was no strange nation with Him.” (Deuteronomy 32:12-14)

This speaks of the love affair between God and the Jewish people. This is the love spoken of in the Book of Jeremiah – “the love your youth…when you followed Me into the desert”. (Jeremiah 2:2)


This expresses the amazing power of the concept of going into this room alone with God. This is a critical moment in the Yomtov process. It’s a bit like a bankruptcy. We get rid of our excess luggage, in the name of having a fresh start.


Through Elul and Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur, we remember, just so that we can go into the intimacy of the Succah, and forget.


The image of this fresh start is the Birkat Levana/Blessing over the New Moon, which we say after the conclusion of Yom Kippur. The moon is the image of hitchadshut/self-renewal. This is the image of starting over again, with a clean slate, which is such a vital thing in human consciousness.


This is the battle with Amalek. The remembering can’t be for the sake of holding on. There are people who remember a grudge or a bitter moment, and that’s it. They don’t let go, and become stuck. We must remember only in order to let go.


People tend to go through a whole series of emotions during this time of judgment. There is a real sense of loss. We want to hold onto our grudges, because there is an investment in holding on to bitterness and heartbreak, in that if we let go of it, we will have to engage, and be spontaneous. This makes the coming together, when it is successful, all the more sweet. Rabbi Shloime Twerski’s favorite Sukkot song was a song from the Six Day War - the story of a paratrooper’s last embrace of his mother, before returning to the front, to do battle.


The world is the battle with Amalek, and before we go back out there, we go into the Succah and experience this time of grace and love, and vulnerability.  The Succah expresses this vulnerability beautifully. Not only can you not have a roof, you can’t have anything mekabel tuma – meaning anything that can become ­tame through contact. This means that you can’t have anything that symbolizes or expresses control. You can’t have anything that is the result of a human process. Feeling forgiven, and great, and present is hard work; being close is a moment of vulnerability, and the roof of the Succah poignantly expresses this.


In the verse from HaAzinu, quoted above, the word budud/alone, also means “breast’.

The passage from HaAzinu continues:  “He carried them over the earth’s highest places, to feast on the crops of the field. He let them suckle honey from the bedrock, oil from the flinty cliff. [They had] the cheese of cattle, milk of sheep, fat of lambs, rams of the Bashan, and luscious fat wheat. They drank the blood of grapes for wine.” (Ibid 13-14).


The Ben Ish Chai has a beautiful Torah on this. He begins by quoting the Gemara (Shabbat 30b): In the future, bread loaves and wine bottles and clothing will grow on trees in Eretz Israel. On this, the Ben Ish Chai says:


Now, a person must burden himself with ploughing and planting and watering and harvesting and threshing and grinding and baking, merely in order to produce a single loaf. In the future, however, the Land of Israel will grow whole loaves, for people to pick and eat.

Now, a person exhausts himself, just to obtain clothing. Whether this clothing is of flax or of silk, a number of different labors are required before the finished garment is ready for use. In the future, however, the Land will grow ready-woven garments for people to pick and wear. Now, the production of wine necessitates a long arduous process. In the future, there will be a grape the size of a barrel, which a person can place in the corner of his house, attach at tap to it, and drink as much wine as he wants. Thus, the pleasure of the future will be similar to the pleasure experienced by an infant. The milk an infant drinks from his mother’s breasts (dudim) contains the taste and the power of all the food the mother has eaten. The infant receives all of this benefit without having to work hard for it. Every time he wants to nurse, his mother places her teat in his mouth, and feeds him milk. All the food his mother has eaten is condensed into this milk, as it says in the verse, ‘Hashem b’dad yanachenu’ – ‘God placed them on the breast’. Do not read budud/alone, read b’dud /on the breast (by changing the vowel sound under the letter beit). In this reading, the letter beit means “on” and the essence of the word is dud/breast, indicating the pleasure that comes from the breast. At the same time, ‘there was no strange nation with Him”, for it will be as it is written (Zeharia 13:2) ‘the ruach/spirit of tumah will be removed from the earth.’

The word b’dud is also hinted at in the Oral Torah, for this word (dud) has the numerical equivalent of eight – as it is spelled dalet dalet, with each dalet having the numerical equivalent of four). Kosher and pasul (non kosher), tameh and tahor, chayev (obligatory) and zachai (not obligatory), assur (forbidden) and mutar (permitted) – these are eight, comprised of four and four. This is why it is called dud – for dud ­– dalet, dalet­ – means ‘two doors’. One dalet is from the name of God Shaddai and one dalet is from the name of God Adonai. Both of these names became blemished by the sin brought by the snake to Chava. On the verse (Genesis 3:13) “the snake seduced me”/hanachash hishiani, the Mekubalim say the word hishiani/seduced me is really two words, shi, which is Shaddai without the dalet, and ani, which is Adonai without the dalet, as it is written (Proverbs 8:34) “the diligent are knocking on the doors every day”.

In the future, there will be a tikun and a completion, and then this dud/breast will be given to Israel, in the sense that Israel will be provided for, as described above. And so “there will be no strange nation with Him”.

Dud/breast is hinted at in the Succah, as Gematria Succah is 91, which is the sum of Havaya – 26, and Adonai – 65. Each of these two names is four letters, also representing dud/breast (which is four and four).

Only Israel will rejoice in the shadow of the Succah, for Succah is the secret of the surrounding light (ohr hamakif) from which only Israel can nurse. The nations of the world have no access to this. This is why it is written “There was no nation with Him”. No superficial force (klipa) can nurse from this place.  In this we find the secret of the verse (Genesis 3:1) ‘the snake was arum/naked and deceptive’. And this is why it is our custom to place tree branches on the Succah – because  ilan/tree is also Gematria 91. For this reason, tree branches are the preferred covering for the Succah. Here (in Bagdad) our custom is to cover the Succah with the branches of the palm tree, as it is written (Psalms 92:13) ‘The righteous will bloom like a date-palm; they thrive like a cedar in Lebanon”.



In this commentary, the Ben Ish Chai plays with the word dud in the most graceful, beautiful way, confirming its meaning from many different directions, and showing us how literal is this image of the breast. This literal image evokes the obligation to feel forgiven, in a most profound way. The whole underlying feeling is unified in the idea of grace and protection.


Reb Shlomo Carlebach used to say that one of the greatest talents of the Jewish people is their ability to bless each other. In his book L’Ma’an Achai V’Reyai – Torahs and Stories of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, R. Carlebach uses this idea of bracha/blessing to connect the simanim/symbolic foods eaten on the night of Rosh Hashannah with the simanim/signs given by Rachel to Leah, when Leah, pretending to be Rachel, married Jacob (Genesis 29:22-23).


The word siman means something that is used instead of a word, and so it represents the approach to closeness we have been discussing in this chapter. Part of being close to a person is learning to read their simanim. The Gemara says that the places where a cohen/priest was anointed with anointing oil were learned from the simanim given by Rachel to Leah.


This was an incredible act on Rachel’s part. She was giving up her own vision of having her own husband – the cottage, the white picket fence – the whole thing. In handing over the simanim, she included her sister in her vision.


Reb Shlomo has a beautiful Torah on this. He says:

On the night of Rosh Hashannah, we give Hashem simanim, and we also pass simanim between ourselves. This indicates how much we love one another, and how much we want for all of us to live.

Imagine, you are on the subway, and suddenly, on the other side of the tracks, you see a beautiful woman. In the depths of your soul, you know that this is your beshert/soul mate. It seems as if you have known her all your life. Before you even speak to each other, you exchange simanim/signs, and through these, you know when the wedding really begins. It doesn’t begin under the chuppah, when I say to the bride ‘you are sanctified to me’. It begins way before this. It begins with the signs that pass between you. The Gemara states explicitly that if I want to know how much I love someone, I need to examine the degree to which he understands my simanim.

During the year, our words and our actions were not so good, but at Rosh Hashannah, I say to Hashem, ‘my simanim/signs were always good, because these non-verbal signs express how much I really want to be a Jew, and how much I really want to be a better person.’

You know, when the Mashiach comes, we will blow the Shofar, and everyone in the world will run to greet him. The siman/sign of the Mashiach will be that everyone will understand each others’ signs. This is what will bring peace to the world. Deep in my heart, it’s clear to me that if we all understood each other’s signs, there would be no more hate in the world.

The first night of Rosh Hashannah pertains to Leah, and the second night to our mother Rachel.

Do you know how Leah became one of the mothers of Israel?

Our mother Rachel passed her the simanim.

Therefore, on the two nights of Rosh Hashannah, we pass simanim between each other.

Rachel gave Leah the siman that her son would become the saviour of all Israel, and Leah told Rachel that she would be eternally grateful, and in exchange gave Rachel a siman that the Meshiach son of Joseph would come from her.

On Rosh Hashannah, there are no words, and also in the shofar there are no words, because these things are deeper than words.

Our holy sages teach that words and letters are part of the creation of the world. Before creation, there were no words.

You know, my friends, when you love someone a lot, you pass signs between you, for signs are deeper than words.

On Rosh Hashannah, our relationship with each other is like it was before the creation of the world. Everything is communicated only with signs. The blowing of the shofar is a sign between us and Hashem.

You know, a father teaches his son words, but the mother teaches only (preverbal) signs. No one understands the signs of a child like the child’s mother.  



Parsha Index