Shaya Cohen -


The Yom Kippur Readings

By Minchah on Yom Kippur, we are on another plane of existence. In the afternoon we have already prayed for most of the day, as well as the night before. The physical world around is a mere distraction; we are at our most angelic, with aveiros out of sight and out of mind.

So with all this, how do we explain our sages’ choice of both the Torah reading, and the Haftorah? The former is explicitly the laws having to do with forbidden sexual relations, and the latter is a story of a man who suffered for choosing to run away from his destiny.

While there are countless excellent explanations of why we read these sections on Yom Kippur, I’d like to offer one that explains the combination of these readings.

On Yom Kippur, we are no longer thinking of sinning. We are totally committed to doing mitzvos, to embracing our relationship with Hashem. The 613 mitzvos are not in doubt: by mincha of Yom Kippur, we have already repented our sins and omissions, and pledged to correct them.

But the specific commandments dealing with sexual relations are special. Sex is at the same time the most basic act (since all animals procreate), while it can also be among the holiest of all. Above all, sex represents our human potential for creation, or briya. When we have passed on from this world, our offspring are our legacy. And if all goes well, they represent the continuation of our hopes and dreams to improve the world in the service of Hashem.

The Book of Yonah is also special, but in a complementary way. Yonah, by refusing to go to Nineveh, was not violating any of the 613 mitzvos. And since we do not believe any new mitzvos can be handed down from G-d to mankind after Sinai (not even through prophecy), he was not technically violating a commandment by Hashem at all. The word for prophecy does not even appear in Sefer Yonah, so if Yonah was instructed by Hashem to go to Nineveh, that instruction was something he could have intuited by himself, just as ideas can come to us during prayer. So Yonah was not rejecting an explicit command from G-d.

Each and every one of us has a job to do in the world, has a role that we must play, what some might call “destiny”, though I prefer to call it our meta-mitzvah. The meta-mitzvah is unique, reflecting the uniqueness of each of our neshamas, and the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Some of us are meant to be doctors, some lawyers, some artists. And, at least for one person, we know that his meta-mitzvah was to go to Nineveh, and tell the people there to repent. But Yonah chose to reject his destiny. He knew in his heart that he was meant to go to Nineveh, but he allowed himself to rationalize it. He ran away, both from the mta-mitzvah, and from his relationship to Hashem.

The meta-mitzvah is also a form of briya. It is our creative contribution to this world, the way in which – above and beyond the 613 mitzvos – we make the world a better place, and leave a legacy behind us. It is also, just like sexual union, a path toward a higher relationship with our creator. If we choose forbidden sexual unions, we have chosen to reject a relationship with G-d, and we are thus excised from our nation. And if we run away from our meta-mitzvah, then we are, like Yonah on the ship, denying our potential to improve the world. If we deny our destiny, then at the same time we reject a special relationship with G-d.

By Mincha of Yom Kippur we have made our peace with fellow man, and we have made our peace with G-d. United in prayer, we have also formed a union, as Yeshurun, with all our fellow Jews. Late in the afternoon of Yom Kippur is when we begin to prepare to exit the national cocoon, and assert our individuality. At this time we have to recognize that it is not enough that we do mitzvos and meekly serve Hashem. We must consciously decide that we are going to bend our will towards serving the creator, by focusing all of our individual energies on our unique and holy potential to make the world a better place. The time is for us to decide to harness our creative powers at both ends of the spectrum – the sexual powers of the body, as well as the mental powers of the soul – in our individually unique and beautiful service to Hashem.

G’mar Tov.

Comments are welcome!

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