Decades ago, Rabbi Jack Reimer explained Yom Kippur for me this way. It's not saying: I'm sorry I was bad and I won't do it again. That's only a Sunday school, superficial expression of something much deeper and spiritually far more important.
Look at it this way, he suggested: For twenty-four hours you wear white, you don't eat, you don't drink, you don't sleep (much), you don't have sex, and (less well-known) you don't perfume, anoint, or deodorize yourself either. Reimer says, just look around the room on Yom Kippur afternoon, say around four o'clock, at a bunch of Jews who have been observing the above laws and customs and you realize you're looking at a room full of people who are dressed up like their own corpses!
They're rehearsing their own deaths! Atonement, shmatonment! Yom Kippur is a day of death-the death of the old year, the death of the old sins, and the death of the old ego. But it is not morbid. Indeed, it is predicated on the hope (and a prayer) that a new year and, above all, a new ego will be born the exact moment that final t'kiah g'dolah shofar blast is sounded. It is a day of death- so that there can be new life. You want that a better and purified you should emerge from the encrusted shell that a year of sinful acting has made you ? There's only one way: The old you has to go! Your "something"must become "Nothing."
The Chasidic master Rabbi Yehiel Michal of Zlochov teaches the same lesson. He cites a sermon by his master, Rabbi Dov Baer of Mezhirech, first taught in 1777 (Yosher Divrei Emet , Meshullam Feibush of Zabrazh [Jerusalem, 1974], p. 14); a translation of the complete text appears in my The Way into Jewish Mystical Tradition [Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2000], pp. 18-20).
In order to appreciate the nuance and the tongue-in-cheek humor of this homily, we must revisit and redefine two very common Hebrew words. The first word, yesh, means "somethingness" or simply "isness," but according to the kabbalists, it refers to virtually all reality. Yesh is anything (not just material) that has a beginning, an end, a location, a border, geographic coordinates, a definition. It is every thing (and every non-thing) in the world. Yesh is not bad. Indeed, it's only problematic if you think that's all there is. That brings us to the second word, ayin.
Ayin means "Nothingness"(but not non-being). Ayin, in contradistinction to yesh , is the absence of any definition, boundary, location, beginning, or end. It is therefore another name for eternity. Indeed, you can't accurately say as much about it as I've already said. Ayin is the font of all being, the substrate of creation. It is the ocean, and we (and everything else in creation) are the waves.
Ayin is close to what kabbalists mean by God (whom they call the Ayn Sof -the One without End). This means, of course, that there are two kinds of nothing. The common, everyday kind (nothing with a lowercase "n") means nothing as in zip, gornicht, or bupkis (which means small goat droppings). The other Nothing (with an uppercase "N"), the kabbalistic kind, means "more than everything,""all of being,""Eternity."
Rabbi Yehiel Michal explains that the holy ones of old would "yearn to make themselves one"(Hebrew: d'veikut ;Latin: unio mystica ) with the Holy One by likening themselves to Nothingness ( Ayin ). They understood that, were it not for the power of the Creator who continuously creates and sustains them each moment, they would be nothing (lowercase "n"), just as they were before the Creation. For indeed, there is nothing in the world except for God.
"Indeed," he says, "it is the opposite of what everyone thinks. They all assume that when they do not merge with their Creator but instead cleave to the things and matters of this world, they amount to something [yesh ] in their own eyes.
"They imagine they are important. But how,"he asks, "could anyone who might not wake up the next morning be all that important?" (On her way out of the testimonial banquet in her honor, she got run over by a truck!) As we read about the gourd tree in Jonah 4:10 (in the haftarah for Yom Kippur afternoon), "One night it's here, the next it's gone!" Or, as we read in Psalm 144:4, "their days pass away like a shadow"-even while they're alive, it's all a show of vanity. (Sure sounds like Yom Kippur to me.)
"In this way,"says Rabbi Yehiel Michal (making a linguistic joke), "if they think they're something , then they're nothing. On the other hand, if, because of their fusion with the Creator, cleaving with all their power, they think of themselves as Nothing, then they are very great indeed.
"They are like the branch of a tree that realizes it is part of one organic unity with its root. And the root, of course, is the One without End-the Ayn Sof, the One of Nothing. So, if the branch is one with the root and the root is the One of Nothing, then the branch too ceases to exist as an independent thing; it is Nothing.
"It is like a single drop of water fallen into the sea. It has returned to its source. It is one with the ocean. Now it's no longer possible to identify it as an independent thing in any way whatsoever."
It was made known to King David as a young man that he would die on Shabbat; he just didn't know which one. So what do you think was King David's favorite ceremony? You guessed it: Havdalah ! It meant he was good for another week! The sound of the shofar at N'ilah is the same for us. It means we have endured our own death, transformation, and rebirth. We're good for another year. Tzom kal, "Have an easy fast."
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner is the Emanu-El Scholar at Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco. He is the author of several books on Jewish spirituality published by Jewish Lights Publishing in Woodstock, VT, and the novel, Kabbalah: A Love Story (New York: Morgan Road Books, 2006).