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Yom Kippur 5778 Self-Definition

October 10, 2017


There are certain questions that are bound to bring about anxiety.  We know the question is coming, and it is almost never asked with ill intent.  But still, we can drive ourselves crazy thinking about how we will answer the question, and then spend the next hour analyzing the answer we gave.

To give one example:  when I was the Rabbi at Brandeis I would walk on egg shells every time I ran into a senior during the second semester.  Social norms require me to ask what their plans are for next year.  But I also knew that for so many seniors whose plans were up in the air as they awaited responses from grad schools or job applications, this innocent question could bring on a full-blown anxiety attack.

Recently, I’ve acquired my own anxiety-inducing question:  “What do you do?”

As many of you know, I recently completed an MBA and during the week I work as a financial analyst.  My friends are still surprised to hear me say that I went to business school or that I have anything to do with a position with the name “financial” in the title.  People that I work with do not know what to do make of it when I tell them that I am a Rabbi.   And in the office building where I work, which is occupied 100% by Orthodox Jews, I am fairly certain that I am the only one in the building with the Semicha.  I am also the least frum person in the building.  At least in Baltimore, such a statement makes sense.

Indeed, we all face dilemmas when it comes to defining ourselves and who we are.

Yom Kippur davening offers a few models how to answer the question of how we define ourselves.

  1. Yonah – עברי אנכי

We will recall the story of Yonah:

  • Yonah is told by Hashem to go and prophesy to the city of Ninveh that if they do not improve their ways, Hashem will destroy them and their city
  • Instead of going on Hashem’s mission, Yonah runs away on a ship headed to a far-off land.
  • Hashem brings a storm.  All the sailors on the boat pray to their gods to no avail.  While this is happening Yonah is sleeping.  They wake him up and he tells them that he is to blame for the storm because he has run away from Hashem.
  • Yonah is thrown overboard and swallowed by a giant whale.  Yonah prays to Hashem and is freed from the whale
  • He goes to Ninveh and delivers Hashem’s message.  The people repent.

In his encounter with the sailors when he explains that he is to blame because he has run away from Hashem, Yonah uses an interesting term.   וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵיהֶם עִבְרִי אָנֹכִי  I am a Hebrew (Ivri)

The term עברי/Ivri   is first used in the Torah in relation to Avraham.  And R. Yehudah offers a fascinating explanation of this phrase

בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשת לך לך פרשה מב:ח
רבי יהודה אומר כל העולם כולו מעבר אחד והוא מעבר אחד,

R. Yehudah – all the world was on one side and he stood alone on the other.

To be an ivri means to stand in opposition to the world around you.

Rabbi Sacks writes in the introduction to the Koren YK Machzor:

To be a Jew is not to go with the flow, to be like everyone else, to follow the path of least resistance, to worship the conventional wisdom of the age.  To the contrary, to be a Jew is to have the courage to live in a way that is not the way of everyone.  Each time we eat, drink, pray or go to work, we are conscious of the demands our faith makes on us, to live God’s will and be one of His ambassadors to the world.  Judaism always has been, perhaps always will be, counter-cultural…The sages said that Abraham was called haIvri because all the world was on one side and Abraham on the other.  To be a Jew is to swim against the current, challenging the idols of the age whatever the idol, whatever the age.

On Yom Kippur, as we reflect on our religious and spiritual lives, we are reminded what it means to be a Jew, an עברי.    We must be prepared to answer, “What do we stand for?”  “Wat unpopular positions do I take?”  What unpooular position am I prepared to take?”

2. Nadav and Avihu

The Torah reading for Yom Kippur comes from Parshat Achararei Mot, which opens with mentioning the death of Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu.

ויקרא טז:א
וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה אַחֲרֵ֣י מ֔וֹת שְׁנֵ֖י בְּנֵ֣י אַהֲרֹ֑ן בְּקָרְבָתָ֥ם לִפְנֵי־יְהוָ֖ה וַיָּמֻֽתוּ׃

The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the LORD.

Why does the Torah introduce the description of the Yom Kippur service with the deaths of Nadav and Avihu?  This is an especially troubling question when we consider that the story of their death has already been recorded with great detail in chapter 10.  So why repeat it now?

I always understood it as follows:
The Torah introduces the laws of Yom Kippur with the deaths of Nadav and Avihu to show the impact of this tragedy on Aharon. Because Aharon was so deeply affected by his sons’ deaths, he heard and internalized the details as well as the overall purpose of Yom Kippur differently.  Aharon must serve as the representative of the entire Jewish people on Yom Kippur as he seeks atonement for all sins that they have committed.  His capacity to empathize and identify with the sins and shortcomings of others was radically enhanced after he was forced to reconcile with the sin and shortcomings of his own sons.  Aharon is much better able to facilitate the teshuvah of others after he has come to terms with this tragic event in his own life and the breach it must have formed in his relationship with God.

Part of our self-definition must include the capacity to empathize with others.  Empathy means to identify with someone else – to expand the definition of the self.  This is certainly addressed by the inclusion of Nadav and Avihu in the YK Torah reading.

I came across another explanation for the inclusion of Nadav and Avihu in the Yom Kippur Torah reading in the Ba’er Heitev commentary to the Shulchan Aruch.

באר היטב או”ח תרכ”א:א
אחרי מות. והמצטער על מיתת בני אהרן ומוריד דמעות עליהם בי”כ מוחלין עונותיו ובניו אין מתים בחייו זוהר והאר”י ז”ל.

One who is saddened over the deaths of Aharon’s sons and cries for them on YK, his sins are forgiven and his children will not die during his life.

This seems a bit extreme.  How can a person have so much emotion and empathy for something that happened thousands of years ago?

R. Chaim Shmuelevitzz” l, who was Rosh Yeshiva of the Mirrer Yeshiva during its sojourn in Shanghai and again in Jerusalem, answers with a Gemara from Chulin 71a.

חולין עא.
חבל על בן עזאי שלא שימש את רבי ישמעאל

He then said to me these very words: Alas for Ben ‘Azzai, that he did not attend upon R. Ishmael.

Rashi expounds:

חבל על בן עזאי – הפסד וחבלה היא בעולם תלמיד ותיק כמותי אני בן עזאי שלא שמשתי את ר’ ישמעאל.

It is a great loss to the world that an established student such as myself, Ben Azzai, did not serve R. Yishmael.

Rabbi Shmuelevitz writes:

ואף זהו הטעם להצטער על מיתת שני בני אררן שעולם כולו נחבל ונפסד בחסרונם, ורישומו של הפסד וחבלה זו שבעולם ניכר אף לאחר אלפי שנים, כי הפסד וחבלה כזה הוא חסרון אשר לא יוכל להמנות, ועל חסרון זה יש לבכות מרה ולהצטער עד מאד, והבכיה על זה היא תקון גדול לכפרת עונות ולהצלת בניו.

This is the reason to be disturbed by the death of the sons of Aharon.  The entire world has lost out by their demise, and the impact of this loss is recognized and felt even after thousands of years.  Such a loss cannot be measured.  For this loss, one should cry and be extremely distressed.

We read of the death of Nadav and Avihu to teach of lost opportunity; what could have been had they lived.  How their teachings and leadership may have impacted the world.  Their inclusion in the Torah reading of Yom Kippur emphasizes the deep sense of loss felt over missed opportunities.

I heard an interview with Amy Summerville, a professor of psychology who runs the Regret Lab at Miami University in Ohio.  — She must be very busy this time of the year.   A distinction is made between regrets of commission – when you regret having done something and wish you hadn’t – vs. regrets of omission, where you regret NOT having done something.   (

Research shows that in the short term people are more likely to have regrets of commission:

SUMMERVILLE:… And what those researchers argued is that we regret things we did a lot more in the moment. So if you say something really stupid in a job interview, you’re going to walk out and have that hand-to-the-forehead feeling of, oh, why did I say that? That was such a terrible thing to have said in that moment.

But in the long run, we tend to have things that are kind of incomplete goals stick around in our memory as kind of a mental to-do list, basically. And that – as a result, our inactions wind up getting kind of added to that mental to-do list.

While I’m sure we all have regrets of both kinds, we cannot let those regrets define who we are.  It is okay to be remorseful for things that we wish we could have done differently or for things we wish we had done, but we cannot allow ourselves to be defined by those regrets. 

3. Acting Godly

For the past two weeks, with the recitation of Selichot, and most certainly for the next 25 hours, our tefilot have revolved around the י”ג מדות רחמים– 13 Attributes of Mercy.  The source for this is a statement by R. Yochanan in Rosh Hashanah 17b:

ראש השנה יז:
ויעבור ה’ על פניו ויקרא א”ר יוחנן אלמלא מקרא כתוב אי אפשר לאומרו מלמד שנתעטף הקב”ה כשליח צבור והראה לו למשה סדר תפלה אמר לו כל זמן שישראל חוטאין יעשו לפני כסדר הזה ואני מוחל להם

The verse states: “And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed” (Exodus 34:6). Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Were it not explicitly written in the verse, it would be impossible to say this, as it would be insulting to God’s honor. The verse teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, wrapped Himself in a prayer shawl like a prayer leader and showed Moses the structure of the order of the prayer. He said to him: Whenever the Jewish people sin, let them act before Me in accordance with this order. Let the prayer leader wrap himself in a prayer shawl and publicly recite the thirteen attributes of mercy, and I will forgive them.

There is an interesting debate among the commentators:  Is R. Yochanan simply saying that we must say these words and somehow, they will achieve forgiveness?  Or, does he mean to say that not only must we recite the words of the יג מדות but we must ACT on them.  יעשו לפני (“They should ACT before Me”)– which brings us to the famous idea of imatio Dei – we must emulate God.  מה הוא רחום… Just as He is Merciful, so you should be merciful…

Whichever side is right, they both agree on a fundamental fact.  In our tefilot of Yom Kippur and the entire Yamim Noraim season we are being called upon to emulate God.

It is especially hard when we are immersed in Teshuvah, which is often accompanied by deep feelings of regret and remorse, to remember that we are created בצלם אלקים  (in God’s image).  Part of our self-definition has to be that as beings created in God’s image, we must be Godly in all that we do.

4. Kol Nidrei

Finally, we come to the prayer that we just recited – to usher in Yom Kippur – Kol Nidre.  Kol Nidre is perhaps the most “famous” prayer we have, but also one of the most controversial.

Many objections are raised on technical grounds and conceptual grounds.  It remains unclear if the intention of the prayer is to nullify vows that were made LAST year, or if we are nullifying vows that we will make in the COMING year – different versions of the prayer exist.

The legal/halachic mechanism that allows for התרת נדרים, the nullification of vows, is the notion of חרטה, regret. The vow-takers adduce that there were circumstances beyond their cognizance at the time the vow was taken that now have led them to reconsider the vows.

Kol Nidrei, then, is a reminder to ourselves and a declaration to our community that we will not allow ourselves to be victims of circumstance.  We will not let the world around us define who or what we are.  We don’t let the image of ourselves that we once held close to hold us hostage to whatever preconceived notions we hold.

There will always be questions in our lives that bring about anxiety.  Yom Kippur forces us to reflect on the essential question of who we are, what defines us and how we define ourselves.

  • We are created in God’s image and we are called upon to act Godly, even when engaged in an intense process of teshuva that could lead us to feel down on ourselves.
  • We must be prepared to act as an Ivri, and to know what we stand for and which unpopular opinions we hold.
  • Part of our self-definition is to empathize with others; to see ourselves in the other
  • We refuse to allow regrets of what might have been define who we are.
  • And finally, we make the strong statement that we will not allow our preconceived notions of who or what we SHOULD be prevent us from becoming who we CAN be.


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