The Kabbalah of Yom Kippur


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On Yom Kippur your core soul — your very essence — is laid bare. — Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi

On the holiest day of the year, the holiest part of your soul enters the holiest space in existence. — The Rebbe

How much of your potential has been actualized? As you may have guessed, this is a trick question. Because we must first know how much potential we have before determining the amount that has been tapped. The real question then is: Do you know how much potential you contain? How deep is your soul? Or in the words of Alice’s Wonderland: How far down does the rabbit hole go?

This is not a mere academic exercise; it is the key to solving many if not most of our challenges and struggles. How many of our problems are a result of us feeling hopeless and demoralized due to a wrong or underestimated assessment of our true potential? How many of our concerns would be resolved if we knew that we had the resources and strength to deal with them?

Think of it this way: When faced with a dilemma, how much of the challenge is the issue itself and how much is it our confidence in our ability to find a solution? Who is in a better position to handle a predicament: One with more potential (but less awareness of his latent power) or one with more confidence and conviction (but with less potent fire-power)? All this underscores the critical importance of getting to know how powerful you actually are as opposed to how powerful you think you are.

The Holiest Day of the Year

Now imagine that you have one day a year when you can meet yourself face to face. A day when core soul is bared and you can see who you really are — not just who you think you are.

Wouldn’t that be something?

Well, we are indeed given such a day. That day is called Yom Kippur. A day when we can travel into the innermot depths of our souls, and discover hitherto unknown recesses and dimensions that can empower you to achieve the seemingly impossible.

Yom Kippur opens up doors to the core of our inner souls, to our very essence, and how to channel those intimate powers into our daily lives and relationships.

The Kabbalists and Chassidic masters teach us that the soul as it were is comprised of five dimensions, one curled into the next:

1. The surface level of the soul is Nefesh – sensory life. The medical definition of biological life: a beating heart, a live brain, a breathing organism. In the language of he Kabbalistic sefirot — the functional lowest three sefirot, netzach, hod, yesod (neh”i).

2. Layer two is Ruach – emotional life. The higher middos, chesed, gevurah, tiferet (chaga”s).

3. Neshomo – intellectual life. Mochin, chochma, binah, daas (chabad).

These first three levels are immanentm, conscious and localized dimensions (kochos penimi’im). Then comes the transecendent, non-localized powers of keter (the crown abve the head):

4. Chaya – transcendent life. Arich (the lower domension of keter).

5. And finally Yechida – oneness – the pure essence of the soul. Atik (the higher dimension of keter). Yechida, oneness, is the pintele yid – the inner dot, the purest point of your most intimate self. The inner child of innocence. Your core.

Our most tangible experiences are on the outer layers of the soul; what our surface senses and basic consciousness can perceive. But our truest and most meaningful experiences are on the inner levels of the soul, the deepest of them all – on the yechida level.

However, the deepest recesses of the soul are shrouded within its outer layers, which in turn are encased in the hard crust of the physical body and material universe.

Thus, we have three daily prayers (shacharit, mincha and maariv) corresponding to the first three conscious soul-dimensions (nefesh, ruach, nehsomo, nara”n) which we can access in our daily life routines.

On Shabbat and holidays we add a fourth prayer (musaf), reflecting the transcendent chaya dimension accessible on these material-labor-free days.

And once a year, achas ba’shono (lit. once a year), all the layers are stripped and we experience the fifth dimension — hence the fifth neilah prayer at rthe conclusion of Yom Kippur — “achas,” the oneness and unity of the innermost dimension of the soul, the holy of holies – yechida sheb’nefesh.

Like the high priest who entered the holy of holies only on the holiest day of the year, on Yom Kippur, the holiest part of each soul enters the holiest space in existence, and can access the innermost core of its being.

This is the story of our lives. We are born pure and innocent children. Children who dream enchanted dreams, believe that everything is possible and expect the most. Vulnerable children – unpolluted and uncorrupted. Then life’s challenges being to seep into our experiences. We slowly (some faster than others) learn about deceit, duplicity, disappointments and unrealized expectations. As the years roll on the outer layers of our soul and the body’s shell harden, innocence lost and expectations lowered. As we experience harsher realities many of our dreams and idealism wanes, until many of us come to a point of silent resignation, distracting ourselves with outer stimulation, anything that will relieve our existential loneliness. Some develop sharper tools like cynicism or worse.

As much as we crave intimacy which resonates deep within us, the sad fact is that sensory stimulation consumes our daily lives, obfuscating our innocent essence, to the point that our inner life is most often left wanting if not plain starving.

So is there hope? Can we reach our inner yechida?

The answer is yes — on Yom Kippur. But it is not a simple process.

Entering the souls’ holy of holies is not a light matter. We don’t enter there at will and without great care. Being the purest place in your heart and the most intimate dimension of the soul, yechida (the holy of holies) is extremely sensitive. Every subtle move, even the slightest quiver, has a dramatic impact on that most tender of places in our psyches. Observe a newborn child’s’ ultra sensitivity to touch and surroundings. [This is why abuse that touches our intimacy, especially as young children, has such devastating consequences]. By means of analogy: A strand of hair on your sleeve is harmless, but in your eye it is highly irritating. Our outer organs are protected from bacteria, but exposing our internal organs requires a highly sterilized environment. The subtler and purer the place, the greater the care necessary to preserve its pristine character.

But one day a year we are given the power to enter our holy of holies. And we enter with great care: We fast and suspend, as much as possible, our immersion in the material world. We spend the day in prayer and clothed in white – all to set the proper ambiance to enter the holiest place in our souls.

That one day is Yom Kippur – the day of the fifth dimension, when we celebrate yechida: The one and only day in the year when each of us has the power to access our innocence. On this day you can become like the High Priest and enter your own holy of holies.

On Yom Kippur you return to your child, to your innocence, to your purest place. But this time, the innocence and exuberance of the child comes joined with the seasoning and experience of an adult. [One of the most awesome sights is to witness the fusion of adulthood and childhood. Observe an elder who still maintains the twinkle – the spunk, enthusiasm and possibilities – of youth].

And therein lays the power of Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur tells us that your intimate innocence is never lost. Perhaps concealed. Maybe deeply concealed. Your child may be hiding. After your child has been hurt and disappointed, after he or she has seen how cruel people can be – your child goes into hiding. What emerges is an adult with a metal sheet of armor, an extensive and complex battery of defense mechanisms, protecting the vulnerable child from the pains of the world. Sometimes the child is so well concealed that the “mature adult” cannot even see his own child within.

But then we are given a day like Yom Kippur, when we are able to open the doors, and peer inside. And as we do – the child within is given the power, permission and strength to peer out back to us.

Can you see your child, your core, your yechida?

Even the most cynical among (and within) us has a pure side. Even the most jaded has a moment of truth. Yom Kippur teaches us the most vital message of hope: Never give up on your self – on your inner, pure self. No matter how challenging your life has become, no matter how worn down you are, despite your bitter disappointments, losses and wounds – your inner yechida always remains intact.

Even if you give up on everything, never give up on that pure child that lies embedded within you. That child – the holiest part of your heart and soul – may be your last vestige of your greatest potential, and the last refuge of hope.

If nothing else – one day a year hold on to what is most dear. Give your child, your soul, a chance to speak to you.

Cherish your child. Protect her. Nurture her tenderness. Above all, be kind to her. After all, she is you – the best of you.

* * *

On a very basic level this awareness can change your every interaction, the way you look at others and the way you look at yourself.

Indeed, this Yom Kippur/Yechida outlook has transformed my life and my work. On a personal note allow me to share one of the most important lessons I have taken from the single holiest day of the year: To get beyond your own perceptions, expunge all judgment, and see the majesty in every soul’s journey.

I meet many people. A number of them come to me for personal advice and counseling. I have learned that one thing above all allows one the confidence to offer help — and to always have a positive outlook. And that is: to always look beyond the surface and see the beautiful soul in each person. Even before you begin speaking and interacting, seek out the pure and innocent dimension in the individual sitting before you, and make it your mission to do everything in your power to help that person recognize and access that force in his life.

This is how I was trained by my Rebbe — our Rebbe — to travel beneath the outer shrouds and seek out the inner core of each individual we encounter.

Imagine what our lives would be like were we to look at each other in this fashion — seeking out the best within every soul we meet; recignizing the best within our own souls.

With such an attitude imagine what the world would be like…

To learn more, watch How Deep is Your Soul: Yom Kippur Workshop

Transform your High Holiday experience starting with Elul through Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah with best-selling 60 Days: A Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays.

Learn more about Yom Kippur.






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9 years ago

The two messages that I shared with my friends this yom tov very much dovetail with yours.
The word teshuva, return, begets the question, to what? As you so well said,
one returns to that unvarnished, authentic, pure self that one is born as. Concomitantly we begin the process with Yom Hazikoron. Which in turn begets the question, what is it we are to remember? The answer is very close to the first. We need to locate and evoke that genuine purity that we were born with which remains with us permanently. If not, then what is there to return to and remember?

Robin Bu
4 years ago

So beautiful and moving. Thank you so much, Rabbi Jacobson.

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