A Time of Purity
Reflections for Yom Kippur 5782
According to the text of Leviticus 16:30 there is a day on the Hebrew calendar on which God helps the members of the people of Israel to reach a state of purity. It is the tenth day of the year, which is known as the Day of Atonement. In Exodus 23:3 we are told that Shabbat, the seventh day of the week, is for God, and in Leviticus 16:31, using a similar expression, we are told that Yom Kippur is for humanity (see exegesis from Hezekiah ben Manoah, Chizkuni, ad locum). On Shabbat the Jew honors God through rest, prayer and reflection. On the Day of Atonement it is God who helps the individual to find forgiveness and, through it, purity.
But what is purity in a human person? Mishnah Sotah 9:15 teaches that commitment to the fulfillment of the commandments leads to the cleansing of one’s being and that this, when cared for, leads to purity, which in turn leads to holiness. Maimonides (Yad, Hilkhot Shemitah veYovel 13:13) affirms that every human being who detaches themselves from material desires and behaves correctly can achieve sanctity. Therefore, it is clear that the behavior adopted by each person can lead them to the purity that it is the basis for becoming holy.
Purity is usually found in the deep love of parents for their children, in two persons who are in love, in the teacher-student relationship, and in the sincere friendship of two people who meet along their paths of life.
The Talmud (b. Taanit 26b) tells that at the end of Yom Kippur, after an existential experience of purity had been reached, it was customary in the Judea of two thousand years ago for youngsters to go out to dance in the vineyards. The girls exchanged their dresses, so as not to embarrass someone who did not have a nice one. They were dressed all in white, the color that symbolizes purity, so that their spiritual virtues would be appreciated more than any others.
There are teachers who have the virtue of transmitting knowledge clearly and methodically, impressing knowledge on the minds of their students. But there are others who, in addition to teaching with care and dedication, know how to ignite the passion for knowledge, both in the curricular subjects as well as in the knowledge of life. They later serve as models for their former students as adults. These teachers have the ability to make their disciples aware of the dimension of purity that they can achieve in their lives.
Friendship in its deepest sense is that which allows one to share meals, study and open one's heart to be heard by the other and, in turn, pay attention to the feelings of the partner (Sifre, Nitzavim 305).
At the moment, humanity is going through a very deep crisis. Not only does the scourge of the coronavirus plague people, but there is also an absence of the kind of leaders who know how to inspire the values of solidarity and mutual responsibility that are needed to overcome the crisis.
Callousness, violence, and wickedness are widespread. It seems that we caught in a vicious circle from which we cannot escape, where acts of nobility that stimulate integrity in human behavior are rare.
Yom Kippur is the moment of recollection of the human person within himself or herself, in the presence of God, seeking divine help. Each one must look within and encounter whatever guilt might exist, just as David did after sinning (Psalm 51). That is the way to discover the pure heart with which God created us and to find the correct spirit with which the Holy One renews our being (51:12). The challenge of this day is to purify ourselves before God.
In Jeremiah 14:8, the prophet assures the people of Israel that God, in whom the people place their hope (Mikveh Israel), will redeem them in times of trouble. But the same word (Mikveh) is also used in the biblical lexicon to designate the place where the waters meet (Exodus 7:19), which is used to perform ablutions for the purpose of purification (Leviticus 11:36). Rabbi Akiva (m. Yoma 8: 9) interpreted the verse in Jeremiah in a broad sense: God is the hope of Israel and the one who purifies them, as Ezekiel said (36:25): “I will pour pure waters upon you. and you will be purified”. Here we have a great lesson from a great teacher: the beginning of the path of purity is that of hope.
G´mar Chatimah Tovah!