Yom Kippur Boldness: Stealing from the angels in the holiest of prayers during Yom Kippur. Rabbi Chaya Rowen Baker concludes that the midrashic explanation of this brave act adds a sense of courage to the holy day’s prayers.
The prayers with which we bring in Yom Kippur, our day of repent and atonement, evoke a sense of boldness. Of course the prayers of the entire day are designed also to evoke humility, such as – אבינו מלכנו, חננו ועננו, hear our plea and pardon us, because we lack the deeds to redeem us… or the different confessions attributing to ourselves sins in all areas of life, from aleph to tav (A-Z).
But we can also find boldness, particularly in the opening prayers of the day.
Even before the holiday actually begins, before sunset, we say:
“על דעת המקום – On behalf of the Makom (God)
And on behalf of the kahal – the public present.
בישיבה של מעלה – in convocation of the heavenly court,
and convocation of the earthly court,
We declare it permissible
to pray with the sinners”
How dare we determine things “On behalf of the entire public”? and “On behalf of God?!” On what authority do we declare how it is permissible to pray?
Then we go on to nullify our vows in an obscure text, which does not meet the halachic requirements of nullifying actual specific vows – AND we nullify them in advance! Mentioning among others the vows that we have not yet even made!
And further – in Maariv for Yom Kippur – we ceremoniously say out loud in full voice – just this once in the entire year – that which on every other occasion – 3 or 4 times daily – we say in a whisper: “ברוך שם כבודו לעולם ועד”, recited right after the verse שמע ישראל in our daily prayers.
Midrash Devarim Rabbah explains that this sentence, “ברוך שם כבודו לעולם ועד”, is the words with which the angels were praising God when Moses was receiving the Torah. Moses heard these words of praise, thought it was a great phrase, and taught it to Israel to use in their prayers. The Midrash compares Israel to someone who stole a jewel and gave it to his wife and told her to wear the jewel only inside the house, so that no one would see that she is wearing stolen jewelry. This is the Midrash’s explanation for why we whisper this sentence of praise — because it was stolen from the angels.
On Yom Kippur we say it out loud, because we are like angels on Yom Kippur. Now it is true that many of the Yom Kippur customs are there to invoke that feeling – the avoidance of bodily pleasures and even basic human needs, white clothing and the Ashkenazi kittel, resembling shrouds… but to say that on this day we are as audacious as to declare our theft from the angels adds to the sense that the Yom Kippur prayers are to evoke not only humility, guilt, and awe – but also courage, boldness, and a sense of competence.
Introspection is hard work. Improving ourselves is hard work. Asking for forgiveness is awkward and difficult and when we do it sincerely, and not out of obligation, it requires us to put aside our counterpart’s guilt, which is so easy to hang on to when we have a conflict, and take responsibility. And it’s daunting and burdensome and requires a lot of strength.
The rituals of Yom Kippur are there to lift us up to this work. To ponder that which we did wrong and maybe didn’t do and maybe we did and don’t think we did or didn’t want to admit… and also to inspire in us the courage and the sense of ability required for this job.
I wish all of us the necessary combination of humility and courage, to make the most of these days.
גמר חתימה טובה from Schechter
Rabbi Chaya Rowen Baker, Dean, The Schechter Rabbinical Seminary.
Ordained in 2007 by the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, Rabbi Rowen Baker has served, since her ordination, as the rabbi of Kehillat Ramot-Zion in French Hill, Jerusalem. Ramot Zion, a flagship Masorti congregation, is home to many Israelis in search of a meaningful connection to Jewish tradition in a rapidly changing world. For the past eight years, she has served as Coordinator of Practical Rabbinics at SRS.
Much of Rabbi Rowen Baker’s work is done outside the synagogue space, with those not accustomed to synagogue life, so as to make accessible a vibrant Jewish approach and practice which is part of all walks of life. In 2015 she was the first Masorti rabbi – and the first ever female rabbi – to be invited to teach Torah at the Israeli President’s residence.
Rabbi Rowen Baker holds an MA with Distinction in Talmud and Jewish Thought from The Schechter Institute, and a BA in Jewish History and Archeology from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is a fellow at the Honey Foundation for Israel and a member of the Rabbinical Assembly Executive Council.
Rabbi Rowen Baker lives in French Hill, Jerusalem with her husband Etai, their four children and their dog Hummus.