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Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayeilech / Yom Kippur: Igniting the holy sparks


There does not appear to be a lasting impact to change people's conduct and lifestyle from one Yom Kippur to the next. Rabbi Aaron fainted when he heard the word 'Hamelech'. It seems to be against all odds that the Jewish people still exist as a nation. The Torah warns that after the Jewish people transgressions, G'd will conceal His face. G'd promised that the Torah will never be forgotten from the offspring of the Jewish people. There is a great measure of mercy in G'd's concealment. Assimilation does not eliminate the intense hatred amongst the nations of the world against the Jewish people. No matter what transgressions and sins have been done, every single Jew can never lose the holy spark.

No lasting impact

On Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, Jews worldwide join in earnest prayer and fill the synagogues to capacity. Some Jews, who throughout the year show very little commitment to the Torah and its commandments, observe this day of fasting together with their more observant brothers and sisters. No doubt every mature individual who follows the laws of Yom Kippur and attends the synagogue expresses their connection with G'd and His nation. However, one would expect that this Day of Repentance and Forgiveness would have a strong and lasting impact that would continue to be noticeable after Yom Kippur. Unfortunately, in general, we do not see a major change in people's conduct and lifestyle from one Yom Kippur to the next. A person may eat matzah on Pesach, sit in a succah on Succos, and light the menorah on Hanukkah, because these are part of "Jewish tradition." But it is unlikely that someone would fast a whole day and immerse himself in serious prayer for the sake of a "nice tradition." Obviously, this person deep-down accepts that there is a G'd who has instructed us what to do and how to conduct ourselves. So what happens to this person the rest of the year?


There is a famous story about the great Rabbi Aaron of Karlin who stood in his place on Rosh Hashanah morning in front of his congregation. As the cantor intoned the morning service with the word "Hamelech" (the King, referring to G'd) Rabbi Aaron fainted. Later someone asked him what had happened. Rabbi Aaron answered that the word 'Hamelech' had reminded him of an incident related in the Talmud (Gittin 56a) where Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai presented himself to the Roman governor, Vespassian, and greeted him with the words: "Peace to you your majesty. Peace to you your majesty." To this Vespassian answered, in part, "You deserve to be executed … for if I am king, why have you not come till now (to show respect)?" Said Rabbi Aaron, on the Days of Awe, when we proclaim G'd as King of the universe, who knows if G'd does not say to us as well, "If I am King, why have you not come till now?" Even this great Rabbi felt that G'd may have a complaint against him and his devoted congregants for lacking awareness of G'd in their daily lives.

Against all odds

In all fairness we should ask a totally different question: How is it possible that, after almost 2000 years of exile, filled with persecution and pogroms, Jews worldwide still gather with a common goal, some only on Yom Kippur, but many on a daily basis. We have been dispersed among the nations of the world, expelled from one country to the next, and we have suffered untold hardships. It seems to be against all odds that we still exist as a nation, and even more unlikely that we still conduct ourselves according to the law of the Torah. Rabbi Yacov Emden marvels at this in his introduction to his Siddur where he writes that the biggest miracle in the history of the Jewish nation is the fact that we still exist. It is totally against all laws of nature that a nation continues to cling to their laws and traditions for hundreds and hundreds of years without having a land of their own. This is a bigger miracle than the exodus from Egypt or the revelation at Mount Sinai. Rabbi Emden concludes that the longer the exile, the bigger is the miracle. So what is the secret that has preserved the Jewish nation throughout this long and bitter exile?

G'd conceals His face

We are faced with two major questions. On one hand, how has the Jewish nation survived against all odds? On the other hand, why is it that the majority of Jews, despite the fact that they still identify themselves on Yom Kippur with G'd and His nation, do not live accordingly the rest of the year? We may find the answer to these two questions in this week's Torah portion. It says: (Devarim 31:16-21) "And G'd said to Moses … and this nation will rise and stray after the gods of the strangers of the Land …and they will forsake Me … and I will get angry on that day and I will forsake them …and I will surely conceal My face …and now write this song for yourselves and teach it to the children of Israel … and it shall be when many evils and distresses come upon them and this song shall speak up as a witness for it will not be forgotten from the offspring."

Never be forgotten

The Jerusalem Talmud (Sanhedrin 10:2) explains that this song refers to the entire Torah and states: "There was no more difficult time in the world than the time when G'd said to Moses: 'And I certainly will conceal My face.' But nevertheless I [the Jewish nation] anticipate Him as He promised: 'for it [the Torah] will never be forgotten from the offspring.'" G'd's warning to Moses that the sins of the Jewish nation would cause G'd's anger to flare up, was fulfilled at the time of the destruction of the Temples. As we say in the Mussaf prayer on every Yom Tov: "And because of our sins we have been exiled from our land …" Despite G'd's constant caring for our welfare, He warned us that if we sinned and forsook Him, He would respond by hiding His face from us. In other words, G'd would make it appear that He was not taking an interest in our welfare. Obviously, this only means that we cannot see G'd and the way that He conducts the affairs of the world. It does not mean that there was ever one instant that G'd ceased to watch over us.

G'd's great mercy

G'd's concealment is not just a punishment, but involves a great measure of mercy as well. Rabbi Moshe of Triani (Beit Elokim Gate of Teshuva chapter 2) compares this to a person who transgresses the law of his country. He explains that someone living in close proximity with the king sees the king on a daily basis. Therefore, his transgression is much greater than someone who lives far away from the king's palace and has never seen the king in his lifetime. When G'd saw how the Jews conducted themselves and transgressed the commandments, in His great mercy he concealed Himself. Had He continued to reveal Himself, their sins would be magnified and the punishment would be much stricter. By concealing His face, meaning concealing the way He conducts the affairs of the world in general and the Jews in particular, the transgressions of the Jewish nation became much less severe, and the punishment not so harsh.

Assimilation totally wrong

On one hand, our exile has been full of pain and suffering. But at the same time, G'd has kept His promise that He will watch over us and He will never let us forget our raison d'?tre, the Torah. Many Jews have not been educated to understand why G'd has hidden Himself and has let the Jews suffer throughout our exile. They have been influenced by their gentile neighbours who claim that G'd has forsaken us (G'd forbid) and therefore have adopted a lifestyle of assimilation that they thought would eliminate the gentiles' hatred against us. Time and again this philosophy has proven itself to be totally wrong. The Nazis did not distinguish in any way whether a Jew lived a life of Torah observance or had totally assimilated into the gentile community. Similarly, despite the efforts of its leadership to secularize their country, it becomes more and more apparent that the State of Israel is treated with intense hatred amongst the nations of the world.

Holy spark

Deep down every Jew is connected with G'd. As we say in our daily morning prayers: "My G'd the soul that you have placed within me is pure." Every single Jew can get up in the morning and make this statement. Whatever transgressions and sins we have done, we can never lose this holy spark within us. This is G'd's promise to us that He will never let us forget who we are and whatever we do we can never sever the bond between Him and us. On Yom Kippur, when G'd is ready to forgive our sins, this spark within us is ignited and draws us to the synagogues, to identify with our Creator and Master.

G'd's promise

Looking back over the past fifty years, the Jewish nation has rebuilt themselves from the ashes of the Holocaust, not only in a physical way, but even more so in a spiritual way. Only the promise of G'd that the Torah will never be forgotten by us can explain how this renaissance has taken place. It is incredible how just a few Torah scholars survived and managed to build up a host of Torah institutions in Israel and all over the world. The Steipler Gaon reminds us that this promise was given to us as a nation and it is up to each individual to attach ourselves to the Torah in order for us to utilise and benefit from this promise. This effort must be made not only Yom Kippur but throughout the year so that the spark that is ignited every year on Yom Kippur has the potential to grow and burn in all of its glory. Only in this way can we ensure that our children and grandchildren also will overcome the temptations of assimilation and intermarriage, and will pass our proud heritage from Sinai to future generations.

Wishing you and your loved ones a Gemar Chatima Tova!

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel