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Study Texts for Yom Kippur Morning

Posted on September 22, 2017 by Rabbi Jonah Zinn

Repentance and forgiveness have deep roots in the Jewish literary tradition. Studying these sacred texts deepens our understanding of the essence of Yom Kippur and helps facilitate our own process of teshuva. Mishkan Hanefesh provides a range of texts for such study as part of the Yom Kippur morning service. These texts are arranged chronologically, beginning with the Bible and continuing with the Mishnah, Talmud and Midrash, Middle Ages and Modern Era, often utilizing additional commentary to further illuminate the text. Individually, each is an invitation for personal reflection and growth. Collectively, they offer the opportunity to understand how Jewish tradition approaches this sacred occasion and what it could mean for each of us. I have selected texts from each section as a taste of the rich gift this collection provides.

Bible: Numbers 14:13,17-20

Moses said to Adonai… “And now, I pray, let my God’s forbearance be great, as You have declared, saying, ‘Adonai is slow to anger and abounding in kindness; forgiving iniquity and transgression; yet not remitting all punishment, but visiting the iniquity of fathers upon children, upon the third and fourth generations.’ As you have been faithful to this people ever since Egypt, please forgive their failings now, in keeping with Your boundless love.” And Adonai responded, “I pardon, as you have asked.”

Mishnah: Taanit 2:1

What is the procedure for the public fast-days? They would bring the ark to the city square and place wood ash upon the heads of the chief rabbi and chief justice, and all the people placed ash upon their own heads. Then a respected member of the community would address the people with words of admonition: “Friends, it is not said of the people of Nineveh that God saw their sackcloth and their fasting; but rather that ‘God saw their deeds, and that they had turned back their evil ways’ (Jonah 3:10). And it the prophets it says, ‘Tear your hearts, and not your garments’ (Joel 2:13).

Talmud & Midrash: B’rachot 10a

There were some ruffians in the neighborhood of Rabbi Meri who caused him a great deal of trouble. So Rabbi Meir prayed that they would die. His wife, Berurya, asked him: “What is your view [of the scriptural basis for this prayer]? It is because of the verse, ‘may sins disappear’ Does the verse say sinners? No it says sins! Moreover, look at the end of the verse, where it says ‘and the wicked will be no more.’ This means because their sins will cease, they will be wicked people no more. Rather, pray for them that they should repent and be wicked no more.” Rabbi Meir did pray for them, and they repented.

Middle Ages: Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 5.1,3

Free will is granted to all people. If we desire to turn to the path of good and righteousness, the choice is ours. Should we desire to turn to the path of evil and be wicked, the choice is ours… There is no one who compels us, sentences us, or leads us toward either of their two paths. Rather, all persons, at their own initiative and decision, turn to the path they desire.

Modern Era: Rabbi Rachel Adler (b. 1943)

Sin, in the context of relationship, is not a transgression of an abstract norm but an injury toward an Other rendered vulnerable by his/her trust. T’shuvah is turning again to face the Other, not to annul what has occurred, but to sew up the wounds and determine how to go on.  Relationships bear scars because they have memory. As memories accumulate, they carry consequences that bind us. They retell how we have come to be related in the way we are, but they also point us toward what we must become, what we must recreate, what we must repay. Without memory, there can be no covenants.

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