The Weight of Sin (Yom Kippur 2020)

Rav Elisha Friedman

Rav Elisha Friedman

Over the past few years we’ve been blessed with a surge of new families joining our community. Many of these families move to the Harrisburg area to join KI. The past few years, then, have brought, not only new faces, but also plenty of moving trucks, boxes and requests to help unload. Those who have been involved with our growth efforts have had ample opportunity to move furniture and boxes all over town, and look forward to even more moving in the coming year! 

Every time I help with a move I am struck by the dynamic of a move. One takes a heavy box or piece of furniture and moves it to where it belongs. During the move it is uncomfortable, often exceedingly so. If one were to have to carry or hold the object for more than a few minutes, even ten or twenty minutes, it would be unbearable. But the theory of a move is that a few seconds of lifting and moving will culminate soon, and the person will enjoy the object being in the right place for years to come. 

One moves a bed, which can be heavy and difficult to maneuver up stairs, knowing that after a few minutes of shlepping they will enjoy many future times of resting up on that same bed. Same goes for the dresser which will hold their clothes and other needed objects. The couch and rocking chairs are heavy, but they will provide comfortable seating when they get placed down. And so on it goes, every object must be lifted and placed in the right spot in order to enjoy it in the future. The blessing of a house is not just the shelter and protection it provides, but also that it holds up those objects which would be too burdensome for us to hold.

Yom Kippur serves a similar function in our spiritual lives. It is a home, a refuge, to place down those burdens we cannot bear to hold for much longer. We go through the year carrying baggage, of sin, of error, of undesired character traits, and to go on much longer would be crushing. Yom Kippur arrives with its promise of a fresh start, of forgiveness and release from those unwanted dynamics which have held us back. We think a lot about, and rightfully so, our role in repenting on Yom Kippur, but there is a complementary aspect of the day: that God offers His forgiveness in abundance on this day. We are not asked only to repent and better ourselves in a vacuum, but rather in answer to His promise to forgive on this day. 

But unlike a physical burden, our spiritual burdens are different. Often we do not even realize we are being crushed by the weight of sin. We can go months, even years, decades or lifetimes, without realizing a character flaw or past decision is holding us back. When we carry physical burdens, we cannot wait to put them down. But our spiritual burdens can feel as if they are manageable, we even forget about them. 

This leads to a second difference. The moment of placing down a physical object is pleasurable, we feel the immediate burden lifted. But removing a spiritual burden can feel itself like a difficult process. We may realize the end will bring good things, but removing the weight can feel tiresome and difficult. It is for this reason that the actual day of Yom Kippur is so physically challenging. 

Here is how the Torah phrases the command to fast on Yom Kippur, or “afflict yourself” as the Torah says: 

וְהָיְתָ֥ה לָכֶ֖ם לְחֻקַּ֣ת עוֹלָ֑ם בַּחֹ֣דֶשׁ הַ֠שְּׁבִיעִי בֶּֽעָשׂ֨וֹר לַחֹ֜דֶשׁ תְּעַנּ֣וּ אֶת־נַפְשֹֽׁתֵיכֶ֗ם וְכָל־מְלָאכָה֙ לֹ֣א תַעֲשׂ֔וּ הָֽאֶזְרָ֔ח וְהַגֵּ֖ר הַגָּ֥ר בְּתוֹכְכֶֽם׃. כִּֽי־בַיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּ֛ה יְכַפֵּ֥ר עֲלֵיכֶ֖ם לְטַהֵ֣ר אֶתְכֶ֑ם מִכֹּל֙ חַטֹּ֣אתֵיכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֥י ד` תִּטְהָֽרוּ׃

And this shall be to you a law for all time: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict yourself; and you shall do no manner of work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you. For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before the Lord.

Change is hard, the Torah is teaching. We cannot hope to be freed and cleansed without effort on our part, and fasting and afflicting ourselves for one day of the year is a good place to start.  

In our prayers on Yom Kippur, though, this day is placed in another light:

וּמֵאַהֲבָתְךָ ד` אֱלֹקינוּ שֶׁאָהַֽבְתָּ אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל עַמֶּֽךָ. וּמֵחֶמְלָתְךָ מַלְכֵּֽנוּ שֶׁחָמַֽלְתָּ עַל בְּנֵי בְרִיתֶֽךָ נָתַֽתָּ לָּֽנוּ ד` אֱלֹקינוּ אֶת יוֹם צוֹם הַכִּפֻּרִים הַזֶּה. לִמְחִילַת חֵטְא וְלִסְלִיחַת עָו‍ֹן וּלְכַפָּֽרַת פָּֽשַׁע:

It was because You, Lord our God, loved thy people Israel and because You, our King, showed mercy to the people of thy covenant, that You, Lord our God, granted us this Day of Atonement for pardon of sin, forgiveness of iniquity and atonement of transgression. 

The Yom Kippur liturgy movingly portrays this day not as one of affliction, but of God’s overwhelming love and concern for us. We fast, but that is just one small part of the day’s theme, the bigger one being God’s sincere desire to forgive us and cleanse us. 

At the heart of the Yom Kippur theory is the notion that spiritual sin does need to be cleansed, that it does weigh us down, and that like a physical burden, we must be rid of it. We may not feel it as strongly, but Yom Kippur insists that it is there, affecting our choices and decision-making in the present. We may not even want to go through the hassle of freeing ourselves, feeling it’s more effort than it’s worth. It’s easier to live with our mistakes and failings than to try to correct them. But Yom Kippur insists that’s not the case.  

Like carrying physical objects, which can be unpleasant in the moment, but joyous when we finally lay down the burden, so too Yom Kippur insists is the situation with our soul. It’s more burdensome to continue carrying the weight we’ve accumulated. We can be free, if we’re willing to invest the effort. 

Very often one appreciates something in the absence of it. Blessings we enjoy are harder to appreciate than those we are missing or waiting for. The former we take for granted, the latter we pine for. Imagine a year lacking in Yom Kippur, one which continues in endless monotony. We may appreciate not having to fast, not having to spend the long hours in the synagogue. But what will be with all the spiritual weight we carry with us? Could we really continue endlessly dragging along the weight of our past mistakes?

The work of Yom Kippur can be grueling, tiring and certainly involves discomfort. But we are encouraged to keep our focus on the gains, the opportunity this day represents. Humans make mistakes and sin, that we can accept, but we need not, and must not, accept that we will live forever with the weight of those mistakes holding us down. And therein lies the awesome power of Yom Kippur.