This Tuesday evening, the nation of Israel will enter a twenty-five-hour period of intense holiness.
Yom Kippur, in English, the “Day of Atonement,” is the culmination of a period of intense introspection and repentance that begins in the Hebrew month of Elul, about one and half months before Yom Kippur. This time is spent pouring out our hearts before God in repentance for the sins committed in the past year. This motif is intensified on Yom Kippur with extended prayer services and fasting.
Despite the difficulty in fasting from food and water for twenty-five hours and the overwhelming length of prayers, Yom Kippur is considered by the Jewish sages to be a joyous day in which the sins of God’s people are forgiven. They even go so far as to say, “No day is more joyous for Israel then Yom Kippur.” The fasting and prayer also bring us to the level of the angels who stand before God’s throne praising him constantly never eating or drinking.
When we stand before God on Yom Kippur and pour our hearts out in prayer, we stand, so to speak, with the angels in their service of God. Being as such, to prepare for the intense holiness of the day it is customary for men to immerse themselves in a ritual pool called a mikvah. The continuously swirling waters of the mikvah symbolize a type of rebirth and spiritual rejuvenation and a sign of repentance from sins. The Gospels teach that immersions are a sign of forgiveness of sins: “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4).
After Mikvah the nation stands in a state of purity before God; the first prayer to open the day is Kol Nidre (“All Vows”). During this prayer we ask God to forgive us from any frivolous vows we made during the past year. How many times have we flippantly let meaningless words fall from our mouths? “Oh, I swear to God I’ll never eat another apple!” “Honestly, swear to God if I ever have to say this again” “I promise never to do that again!” All these expressions are considered vows, and every time we fail to uphold our vows we are reaffirming how meaningless our words are and how much we are dependent on God’s forgiveness. After this we begin a day of prayers woven together by brilliant, God-fearing men. We move from prayer to prayer, ascending higher and higher into the presence of God. With each step closer to him, more and more of our sins are forgiven. God turns to us in his overwhelming compassion and forgives.
During the nighttime prayers for Yom Kippur, a beautiful prayer called The Song of Unity is sung in a call-and-response format between the prayer leader and the congregation. Praying this prayer gives me a sense of God’s overwhelming awesome nature. It is meant to arouse our hearts to consider how awesome it is that a God who is so lofty and holy would care to forgive us for our sins. Not just forgive us, but love us and desire an intimate relationship with us. Here are a few lines from this prayer as a sample of its beauty:
Cantor: All that was from the beginning and all that will be in the end.
Congregation: All of the creatures, and all of their deeds, all of their words and thoughts.
Cantor: From beginning to end you know all, and not one of them will be forgotten, for you are with them.
Congregation: You created them, and by your will they are arranged, you alone know their place and their ways.
Cantor: Indeed, there is nothing hidden from you, before you all is established.
Congregation: There is no darkness and no fleeing our hiding [from you] nowhere to flee or to hide.
Cantor: All honor and goodness are from your hand, for your will is to perform compassion.
Congregation: There is no understanding of your greatness and no end to your understanding.
Cantor: There is nothing apart from your existence. Life and being are naught without you.
Congregation: And before all, you were all. And with the emergence of all, you fill all.
Cantor: The streams of water will not drown you, and the mighty wind will not overturn you.
Congregation: No impurity or filth will soil you, consuming fire—no fire—will burn you.
We also confirm God’s forgiveness and mercy multiple times by reminding ourselves of his overwhelming compassion and love in his forgiveness:
God, King, he sits upon a throne of compassion conducting himself with piety. Forgiving the sins of his people…abundant in mercy for sinners and forgiveness for transgressors. You are righteous with all flesh and spirit, you do not repay them according to their wickedness.
These prayers and the structure of the service are small examples of why this day is considered one of the most joyous days. And while our tummies may be rumbling and our heads pounding with that classic end-of-the-fast-head-ache, our souls are rejoicing in the love and forgiveness shown, in great abundance, by the Creator of all beings.
May we all rejoice in the forgiveness and mercy of our loving God. May we as disciples of Yeshua grow deeper in our relationship with him, understanding the forgiveness of God that is in him.
May you have a very meaningful and happy Yom Kippur.