Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Yom Kippur 5759
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
To fast for a day is not what makes Yom Kippur difficult for us. Fasting gets easier with age. The real challenge of Yom Kippur is to do without the distractions to which we are addicted. Ours is a society that abhors silence. We jog with earphones, run with music, fly with movies and even entertain company with the television droning in the background.
In contrast, Yom Kippur asks us to take refuge in the silence of our inner selves. As the cacophony of distractions wanes, we begin to feel the yearnings of our repressed souls: "Like a hind crying for water, my soul cries for You, O God; my soul thirsts for God, the living God; O when will I come to appear before God (Psalm 42:2-3)!" We are more than our appetites and belongings, our ambitions and achievements. We also bear within us a touch of transcendence that has the power to sustain and ennoble us.
In 1949 Abraham Joshua Heschel delivered a Hebrew address to an assembly of Orthodox day school principals entitled "Pikuah Neshama (To Save a Soul)." It is an early and exquisite distillation of his understanding of Judaism. The title, pointedly modeled on the traditional halakhic phrase pikuah nefesh (to save a life), vibrates with resonance. The latter refers to the principle that in moments of mortal danger all the Sabbath's restrictions are to be set aside. Human life is the supreme value. Heschel's arresting parallel is meant to convey that the supreme purpose of Judaism is to cultivate the inner life. Our souls also need attention. "...the life of a Jew requires focus and direction, and cannot be carried out offhandedly (Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, ed. by Susannah Heschel, p. 55)."
Without inwardness our lives are stripped of true nobility. "What is the meaning of nobility?" Heschel asks. "A person possessing nobility is one whose hidden wealth surpasses his outward wealth, whose hidden treasures exceed his obvious treasures, whose inner depth surpasses by far that which he reveals. Refinement is found only where inwardness is greater than outward appearance. The hidden is greater than the obvious, depth greater than breadth. Nobility is the redeemed quality which rises within the soul when it exchanges the transient for the permanent, the useful for the valuable (p. 56)."
The intensity of Heschel's piety is surely in order for us on Yom Kippur when we reach for eternity, not via the roar of a spaceship but the reverberations of our souls. It is the speck of divinity which resides at the core of our being and strives to be restored to its ultimate source, the Source of All Being. In the 11th century, the gifted Spanish Jewish poet and philosopher Solomon Ibn Gabirol, who died at age 37, called God in a striking formulation "the Soul of All Souls (neshama lineshama)." The linkage is indelible and inextricable. The universal human quest for God is rooted in that spiritual patrimony. And the purity of our soul derives from its origin, a conviction which we affirm each morning at the beginning of our prayers. In a remarkable flight of religious imagination, the rabbinic authors of the Siddur set forth the six stages of the trajectory of the human soul. "The soul which You, my God, have given me is pure. You created it, You formed it, You breathed it into me; You keep body and soul together. One day You will take my soul from me, to restore it to me in life eternal (Siddur Sim Shalom pp. 9-11)."
The sequence of six successive verbs in the Hebrew (preserved by Rabbi Jules Harlow in translation) captures the unbroken relationship between the soul and God. The soul embarks on its earthly journey by being separated from God and then endowed with individuality. Thereafter God inspirits it into one of us at birth, giving rise to a singular expression of human life. The process is repeated daily. At night the soul returns to its divine soulmate, to be mercifully restored to us again in the morning, and hence the occasion for this thanksgiving prayer. Death, which is traditionally defined by the cessation of breathing, marks the final departure of our soul in its earth-bound form. But the rupture is not permanent. In the life-to-come, as our souls are reabsorbed by God's all-encompassing Being, they are reattached to a semblance of our bodies for eternity.
The power of this conception of human life is that it makes us part of something infinitely greater than ourselves. For a fleeting moment we become the vessel of a spark of pure spirit, like a light bulb turned on with the flick of a switch. The electricity which flows through the circuit existed before the light went on and will not vanish after it goes out. The bulb is no more than one tiny fragment of a vast system of industrial energy.
Every one of us carries a deposit of ultimate worth. To save our soul, not in the sense of eternal salvation but spiritual nourishment, is the prerequisite for saving the life of another human being. Oblivious to the affinity between the human and the divine in each of us, we would not lift a finger to improve the welfare of our neighbors, near or far. May the insight that comes from the observance of Yom Kippur inspire us to reach for loftier standards of piety and ethical behavior in the year to come.
A good finish and an easy fast,