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Yom Kippur: The Day of Repaving

Yom Kippur 5780

October 10, 2019

If you’ve left the house during the last seven months, you’ve probably had to detour around road paving. If you’ve been out and about with small children, there’s a good chance you stopped for a while to watch the paving crews at work, and if you’re like me you’ve probably secretly enjoyed the opportunity to watch for yourself. It’s a fascinating process, and remarkably satisfying to watch as they break up the old surface; scrape away at the road until it’s even; cover with new asphalt; smooth out the surface; and let it cure until the new road is ready for use.

If you’re wondering what this has to do with Yom Kippur, the mechanics of paving turn out to be essential to understanding the character of the day. The word כפרה [kapparah], which we translate as “atonement” and which gives us the name for the day, Yom Kippur, originally indicated the process of covering something; the more familiar use of “atonement” came later.[1] Even more fascinating: the verb כפר, in its initial context, referred to covering something with asphalt in order to waterproof it; thus while Noah is building the ark God tells him, וְכָפַרְתָּ אותה מבַּיִת וּמחוץ בָּכֹּפֶר, “cover it inside and out with pitch.”[2] The use of this word for atonement teaches us that the things we have already done, for better or for worse, cannot be undone – only covered over by new deeds.

Here’s the thing about repaving a road: you need to stop traffic, or nothing gets done – and so Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the day of repaving, is called שבת שבתון: a total Shabbat, a total rest.[3] Maimonides underlines the necessity of stopping everything on Yom Kippur when he titles his halakhic discussion Shevitat Assor, “The Resting on the Tenth Day.” While our resting from מלאכה, productive labor, is expected – it is a key facet of Shabbat and most other holidays – Maimonides articulates a second, parallel mitzvah for Yom Kippur specifically: resting from eating and drinking.[4] For Maimonides these “rests” are parallel and complementary; we fast not as self-punishment but as a means to stop our ongoing lives, just for the day.[5] In that way Yom Kippur stands apart from all other fast days, days of mourning when our abstaining from food is an act of ascetic denial.

כפרה [kapparah], whether in its original meaning of covering and sealing or in its contemporary sense of atonement, leaves behind a fresh surface – a clean slate.[6] This is the day on which we stop traffic – literally stopping the flow of nutrients into our bodies ­– scrape away the broken, potholed surface that has taken over our lives, and lay down an even, level path. Our will to change, our courage to face serious questions about how we have chosen to live and the consequences for our lives and the people around us, power the machinery of teshuvah that break through our hardened shells and prepare us to accept a fresh coating.[7] Our past remains, under the surface; without our determination to live differently, the same old potholes will quickly emerge. Still, while כפרה can’t change what was, it nevertheless offers us a clear way forward, an opportunity to rebuild on a strong foundation.

So many of our metaphors for Yom Kippur are about cleansing; but lately I feel more like a teenager’s bedroom floor on laundry day. I’m finding it hard to forgive this year – hard to forgive others and hard to forgive myself. I know in my head this is the time for letting go, but my heart just isn’t there. I don’t feel all that ready for Yom Kippur, for what today asks of us. I know I won’t feel this way forever, but right now it’s making it hard for me to face Yom Kippur. Still, Yom Kippur has come – ready or not. I know I’m not the only one who has been caught off guard by Yom Kippur, and I suspect I’m not the only one struggling through it today.

Today we read the story of someone else who was just not ready. The haftarah for Yom Kippur Mincha begins, “The word of Adonai came to Jonah son of Amittai: Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim judgment upon it; for their wickedness has come before Me.”[8] And then Jonah was like, “Yeah, I can’t deal with that right now.” He heads for the port and finds a ship bound for Tarshish – a port on the Atlantic coast of Spain, the far end of the known world at the time – and hops on board. The Bible tells us, ויתן שכרה, “He paid its fare,”[9] using the feminine form to refer to the boat rather than the masculine form, which would refer to the fare for Jonah’s passage, suggesting that Jonah bought out the whole boat in order to induce it to sail faster.[10] According to the Talmud, in ancient times the total cost for such a journey would have been four thousand gold dinars – a present-day value of over $20 million![11] Jonah wasn’t just unwilling to follow God’s direction – he spent a literal fortune trying to get out from under his mission.

The language of the story further underscores Jonah’s frenzy: three times in the span of two verses it tells us וַיֵּרֶד, “he went down:” he goes down to the port, then down into the boat, and finally, during the worst of the storm, goes down into the hold of the ship.[12] Down in the hold, while the sailors desperately try every nautical technique and pagan ritual to save the ship, Jonah lies down and goes to sleep – וַיֵּרָדַם, a word that invokes again the sound of וַיֵּרֶד.[13]

Ironically, Jonah’s redemption comes via one final descent. The ship’s captain finds Jonah in the hold and, understandably incredulous, asks Jonah how he could possibly sleep while everyone else is praying to their respective gods in panic; thus it emerges that Jonah, far from praying to God for deliverance, is doing his best to get away from God altogether. Jonah presses the sailors to throw him overboard, appeasing God and saving themselves, and after one last desperate attempt to avoid throwing Jonah to certain death they reluctantly go along with his request. God summons a gigantic fish to swallow Jonah whole and the rest, so to speak, is history.

Except that Jonah’s story is not the only place on Yom Kippur that repeatedly invokes the word וַיֵּרֶד, “went down.” The same phrase shows up each time we recite the penitential selihot prayers: וַיֵּרֶד ה׳ בענן ויתיצב עמו שם, “God went down in a cloud and stood with him” – Moses – “there.”[14] These words quote directly from the story of the Golden Calf, the moment of Israel’s worst betrayal; they come as God meets Moses on Mount Sinai to give a second set of tablets, a replacement of the ones shattered by Israel’s infidelity. It is the very archetype of forgiveness: God’s reconciliation with the Jewish people after the worst imaginable breach. In that moment, God declares the 13 Divine Attributes – ה׳ ה׳ א-ל רחום וחנון, ארך אפים ורב-חסד ואמת, נוצר חסד לאלפים, נושא עון ופשע וחטאה, ונקה, “Adonai, Adonai, God, merciful and compassionate, patient, abounding in love and faithfulness, assuring love for thousands of generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and granting pardon.”[15] “Were it not written in scripture it would be impossible to say,” the Talmud tells us, “The Holy Blessed One, wrapped in a tallit like a prayer leader, showing Moses the sequence of prayer.”[16] These are the words that God tells Moses will inspire divine pardon whenever Israel has sinned.

Not every descent is a desertion; sometimes we go down to get close. In one of my favorite pictures of my father, of blessed memory, he is sitting with Odelia, nine months old, on the floor of our apartment in Los Angeles. Every time I see that picture I think of what a blessing it has been for my children to know my parents as people who would come down, into their world, their perspective, and know them through their experiences. More often than not, that movement was expressed figuratively, emotionally, rather than physically; I love that in the picture you can actually see my father’s emotional posture toward his grandchild. Tying this downward movement to the broader framework of teshuvah, Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg reflects, “If we wish to be close to other people we have to come down, or come back, from whatever distance separates us and ‘stand there with them’ together.”[17] A door can offer entry as well as exit; every ladder goes down as well as up. As hard as our relationships can be – and some can be very, very challenging – we have many opportunities to choose which way we will go – in or out, away or toward, up or down.

Jonah, too, begins to find his way through a process of covering. Cast overboard, Jonah sinks below the waves – covering – and is swallowed by a giant fish, sent by God to shelter him under the water for three days. In the book’s final scene, Jonah is covered again; as he sits on the outskirts of Nineveh, savagely disappointed that the city’s teshuvah means he will not get to see its destruction, God shades him under cover of kikayon, some sort of vine. In the first instance, we witness Jonah’s transformation through the prayer that he offers in the fish’s belly. After trying so desperately to outrun God, Jonah surrenders to the call and takes on the mission God has appointed for him. The second story is not so clear. Having covered Jonah with the kikayon, God then causes it to wither – leaving Jonah in the hot sun ­– in an attempt to help Jonah understand God’s mercy for the people of Nineveh, and indeed for all Creation. This time, however, we don’t know what happens to Jonah; we’re left with an open question, literally – Jonah is one of only two Biblical books to end with a question rather than a direct statement.[18]

Yom Kippur caught me before I was ready. Even now, here in this room, I still don’t feel ready. But here we are. And as uncomfortable as I feel this year, I take solace in an image the late Rabbi Alan Lew offers for the process of כפרה. Exploring the idea of כפרה, atonement, as a process of covering over our old ways with new commitments, Rabbi Lew imagines כפרה as a kind of bandage that soothes our hurt as it covers over our deficiencies.[19] I think about how my kids want a band-aid or ice pack for an injury, even when there is no medical need. I imagine that what they seek – even if they aren’t consciously aware – is some tangible acknowledgment that their pain is real. They want to know that someone notices their struggle and will care for them.

So it is on this day of repaving, Yom Kippur: we bring our disappointment, our suffering, our worry to our Divine Parent; and in return we are bandaged, lovingly wrapped up, washed clean and restored. On this day, as we attempt to be like angels in striving upward, God descends just as on that day when God came down to Moses. We draw closer together – closer to God, and also closer to one another. It’s why we need to be here, together, why introspection and reflection are only part of the picture. As God covers us with כפרה we can see clearly how our lives intertwine with others around us. Before we were like Jonah, turning away, on the run. Now, having stopped literally everything, we are invited to come back, to take on a fresh start – to cover ourselves and let God cover us with a smooth new surface.

In the end, maybe nothing really gets worked out today. Maybe, like Jonah, we’re also left with a question – no answer yet. Even when Yom Kippur brings clarity, it’s still too soon to know how much energy we will really put into following our new path, or whether it heads where we think it will. For today, we simply stop – stop working, stop eating and drinking, as much as possible let our daily lives recede. Divine Parent, open our hearts to accept this moment for what it offers, a chance to clear away the rubble of past mistakes and start over. Bandage our souls with your כפרה, the covering that lets us begin again. כפרה may not fix all our woes, but it can smooth the way forward. כפרה is a fresh start, but a limited one; it offers us only an opportunity for change and growth. Whether we take advantage of that opportunity is a question left for each of us to answer.

[1] Alan Lew, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation (Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 2003), 215; on the shifts in the meaning of כפר, see Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, A Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew (Jerusalem: Beit Ben Yehuda, 1948-1959), 5:2499n.1.

[2] Gen. 6:14.

[3] Lev. 16:31.

[4] Maimonides, Hilkhot Shevitat Assor 1.4.

[5] Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner, Pahad Yitzhak, Yom Kippur 1.2.11.

[6] Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, La-Torah u’le-Mo’adim, Yom Kippur #5.

[7] Lew, This is Real, 240, 245.

[8] Jonah 1:1-2.

[9] Jonah 1:3.

[10] Nedarim 38a, Uriel Simon, JPS Bible Commentary (Lincoln, NE: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1999), Jonah 1:3. Note that the subsequent verses mention several sailors but no other passengers, supporting the midrashic claim that Jonah paid the entire fare.

[11] One gold dinar weighed 106.25 grams, slightly more than $5,000 at current prices.

[12] Jonah 1:3, 5.

[13] While the two words are etymologically distinct (ירד and רדם), the alliteration seems intentional.

[14] Ex. 34:7.

[15] Ex. 34:6-7; translation from Mahzor Lev Shalem, 336.

[16] Rosh HaShanah 17b.

[17] Jonathan Wittenberg, The Eternal Journey: Meditations on the Jewish Year (New York: Aviv Press, 2004), 63.

[18] The other book is Eikhah (Lamentations). The Jewish Publication Society translation (followed by Mahzor Lev Shalem), however, elects to translate these verses as rhetorical statements, perhaps to avoid the complication of ending a book with an unresolved question.

[19] Lew, This is Real, 243.