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Before Hashem You Shall Be Purified: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik on the Days of Awe
Revised edition
Edited by Arnold Lustiger
Forthcoming from OU Press

The following is an excerpt:

Before Whom Are You Purified and Who Purifies You?”

Rabbi Akiva said: Fortunate are you, O Israel! Before whom are you purified and who purifies you? Your Father in Heaven, as it is stated: “And I will sprinkle on you purifying waters and you shall be cleansed,” and it states: “Hashem is the hope [mikveh] of Israel”: just as a mikveh purifies the impure, so does the Holy One Blessed be He purify Israel (Yoma 8:9).

Rabbi Akiva implies that there are two types of purification from sin: one involving sprinkling (haza’ah), and a second involving immersion (tevilah) in a mikveh.

Haza’ah requires the involvement of a second person to perform the sprinkling: “And a pure man shall sprinkle upon the impure” (Numbers 19:19). One cannot perform the sprinkling ritual on himself. In tevilah, unlike haza’ah, there is no second party involvement. The entire initiative rests with the individual who desires purification.

Parallel to these two types of purification are two types of teshuvah. There are individuals who, through their own initiative, decide that they no longer wish to be sinners. This is the type of teshuvah that is operative throughout the year. But there is yet another type of teshuvah in which God Himself helps the person to repent, as stated in the Amidah of Ne’ilah: “You offer a hand to sinners, and Your right hand is outstretched to receive those who repent.” Fallen man finds an outstretched hand to help him. Hashem plays an active role and person­ally accompanies man to the gates of repentance.

Teshuvah and vidui are effective all year round, because Hashem “waits for the wicked, and desires his becoming righteous.” The objective of every public fast day throughout the year is to inspire teshuvah. Similarly, on Erev Yom Kippur, Hashem is the “Mikveh of Israel,” and He waits patiently for our teshuvah. In contrast, on Yom Kippur itself, with the power of the day of Yom Kippur to effect purity, Hashem takes the sinner by the hand, as it were, and leads him to Him. “And I will sprinkle on you purifying waters and you shall be cleansed.”

Yom Kippur is distinct from the nine days prior to it. On Yom Kippur, God comes closest to man. The closer His approach, the greater the teshuvah obligation, as the prophet states: “Call Him when He is close” (Isaiah 55:6). On Yom Kippur, Hashem calls man by name, mirroring the very first Yom Kippur when Hashem Himself waited for Moses on Mount Sinai: “And Hashem descended in a cloud and stood with him there . . .” (Exodus 34:5).

“This path to God is not a highway but rather a narrow, winding, and challenging road, reflecting the nature of teshuvah throughout the year.

On Yom Kippur, Hashem knocks on the door of every Jew. It therefore becomes incumbent on us to practice the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests—the guest being God Himself. Hashem yearns to be close to His people on Yom Kippur.

In this light, we may discern a new reason for the choice of the Haftarah read on Yom Kippur. The Haftarah of the four fasts contains the exhortation of Isaiah: “Seek Hashem when He is to be found, call Him when He is close. . . .” (Isaiah 55:6). In contrast, the Haftarah for Yom Kippur is taken from another chapter in Isaiah that includes the passage: “Build up, build up a road, prepare the way [solu solu panu derech], remove all obstacles from the path of My people” (Isaiah 57:14). Although both chapters are relevant to Yom Kippur, it would initially appear that the first selection is more appropriate. After all, Maimonides explicitly identifies the former verse as referring to the Ten Days of Repentance (Hilchot Teshuvah 2:5).

When the Jew must “seek God when He can be found,” the initiative for the search rests entirely with man. The next verse in Isaiah contains the phrase, “let him return to God”; return is up to man. This path to God is not a highway but rather a narrow, winding, and challenging road, reflecting the nature of teshuvah throughout the year. On Yom Kippur, in contrast, God comes forward to meet man. Hashem facilitates the way for Israel’s return: He takes us by the hand and shows us how to do teshuvah. He removes all obstacles and transforms an otherwise tortuous road into a straight highway: panu derech. In a spiritually desolate world we can easily become disoriented, losing our sense of reality. We are remote from repen­tance both intellectually and emotionally. In this wilderness Hashem appears, to show us the road home. Suddenly, the normally arduous teshuvah process presents no hardship at all. We hear His whisper: solu solu panu derech.

This article was featured in the Fall 2020 issue of Jewish Action.
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