"If only Yom Kippur's influence on us would last until we
walk out of shul on motzei Yom Kippur!" This
saying, this clear-cut diagnosis, by Maran HaRav Yisroel of
Salant ztvk'l, the founder of the mussar
movement, about the extent to which Yom Kippur changes our
daily behavior, seems to indicate that its influence is
Although surely distressing, this saying does present us with
the right prospective. Actually, anyone who studies
mussar clearly sees how that activity acts like a
mirror to reflect all of our minor and major faults, focuses
an intense beam of light on all we do, and distances us from
the unrealistic ideas that we tend to cling to, from the
illusions that warp our view of ourselves and others.
How should we study mussar? The answer to this can be
illustrated with a moshol:
During the dreadful European Holocaust, a certain Jew who
wanted to escape a bitter fate decided that the best way to
do so was to appear as a full- fledged Christian. He sat near
the entrance of the local church together with the non-Jews.
Afterwards he began to fear that someone might expose him, so
he reasoned that his best bet was to go to work as the
priest's helper. Surely, he reasoned, no one would think that
a Jew was the priest's helper.
That particular priest had a plot of land on which he grew
various vegetables. The Jew's job, among others, was to bring
the produce to the city's marketplace and to sell it for the
highest price. One day when traveling to the marketplace with
the wagon loaded to overflowing with various vegetables, the
Jew noticed a group of hapless Jewish slave workers being led
by their Nazi oppressors. A brilliant idea flashed through
his head. He jumped on to his wagon and began pelting the
slave workers with everything he could get his hands on. He
threw tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, and any other vegetables
he could find in the wagon.
At first the unfortunate Jews stared angrily to see who was
so cruelly hurling vegetables at them. However, it did not
take long for these Jews to figure out what to do. It was no
time to be insulted; those vegetables were invaluable for
their survival and that of their families. The Jews
immediately began gathering the vegetables as quickly as
An intelligent ben Torah will only initially be
dismayed when caustic mussar rebukes that shake the
most refined chords of a person's heart are hurled at him.
These astute individuals quickly come to their senses and
grasp that these reprimands are truly the most precious items
of all. Mussar sustains the nefesh and acts as
a salve for the neshomo. A yerei shomayim
grasps these invaluable treasures firmly and stores them for
use at the correct time.
Maran R' Yisroel of Salant intended to sharpen the awareness
of what is our real spiritual situation on motzei Yom
Kippur. Just a few minutes ago we cried out from the depths
of our heart, "Seal all the children of Your covenant for a
good life." Seven times we proclaimed wholeheartedly, "Hashem
is the Elokim!" blew the shofar, and reached the
summit of the spiritual.
Yom Kippur is the climax of the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah
and Ne'ilah is the climax of Yom Kippur (Mishnah
Berurah 623:3). For ten days, two hundred and forty
hours, we have prepared ourselves for Ne'ilah. After
reaching its zenith we conclude with Kaddish and
immediately afterward start ma'ariv by saying,
"Vehu rachum yechapeir ovon -- He, the merciful One,
is forgiving of iniquity."
What iniquity are we referring to? Did Hashem not forgive us
on Yom Kippur for our aveiros? Would it not have been
more fitting to say "Vehu rachum" on the night of
Kol Nidrei, when we are beginning to ask for
forgiveness and atonement?
Imagination clouds our spiritual senses and misleads a person
into thinking that on motzei Yom Kippur he has reached
his highest possible level of ruchniyus. Thinking that
way is a grave mistake, and R' Yisroel helps us penetrate
this dense cloud of falsehood. This particular mistake is
rooted in our renewed connection with gashmiyus on
motzei Yom Kippur. At that time, after having fasted
for an entire day, we imagine we have reached the most
sublime level we are capable of.
The truth is that on the night of Yom Kippur, although we ate
a full meal at the seuda hamafsekes, we are ready to
start our exhausting avoda of Yom Kippur and to pour
our hearts in tefillah to the Creator. We realize that
our entire fate is being weighed; we are determined to make
only virtuous things our goals; we focus our senses on
kodesh; we are occupied only with what is sacred, with
the purest of thoughts: we are then on the highest level of
doing our Creator's will.
On motzei Yom Kippur we head toward chullin,
regular profane life, and towards breaking our fast. The
sword has been removed from our neck and we again return to
our trough, to our small village. We should not deceive
ourselves. This is the reality of life. It is time to say,
"Vehu rachum yechapeir ovon."
Our original question has become intensified. What purpose is
there in afflicting ourselves during Yom Kippur when its
effects are minimal and our imagination once again rules over
Before we attempt to disperse the foggy
obscurities that we have discerned just now, let us broaden
our knowledge by examining what our Sages have taught us so
we can arrive at the truth of the matter.
The Torah specifies our obligation to afflict ourselves on
Yom Kippur: "You shall afflict your souls" (Vayikro
23:27). Although the meaning of these words seems obvious,
their real meaning is far from simple.
We are unaware of what "afflicting our souls" actually is.
The gemora (Yoma 74b) considers several types
of affliction -- such as sitting under the scorching hot sun
or outside during a chilly cold night -- and finally proves
that the posuk refers to afflicting ourselves through
This is surely amazing. Why didn't the Torah just tell us not
to eat on Yom Kippur?
Furthermore, we must understand what exactly afflicting a
soul is and how it is done.
The Ksav VeKabboloh writes that "afflicting the soul"
alludes to purging impurities that emerge from the
nefesh: sinful, unworthy thoughts that cause
chato'im and spiritual diseases (see Yoma 74b
and the Tosafos Yeshonim, ibid.). When it comes to
afflicting our bodies through fasting, we are lenient if
mortal danger arrives; but we are never lenient in cases
where unworthy thoughts of arayos are involved
(Sanhedrin 75a). The Torah hints to us when it writes
"you shall afflict your souls" that we should distance
ourselves from unworthy physical desires. This is a
prerequisite to any form of teshuvah and coming nearer
Our chachomim explain at length that it
is easy for a person to afflict his body by refraining from
eating, since the stomach is not an organ that controls
irresistible desires and lusts.
On the other hand, what a person sees with his eyes is the
greatest stimulant for sin. Man's eyes wander on all sides.
The natural process prompting man to sin is quite clear: the
heart and the eyes are like the body's spies and act as
middlemen for the aveiros. "The eyes see, the heart
craves, and the body carries out the aveiros" (Rashi,
Bamidbar 15:39). Many statements of Chazal's run in
the same vein: it is more difficult to "starve" the eyes than
the stomach, but this starving is a must, an essential
requirement for any spiritual achievement.
"Starving" the ears from hearing anything improper is many
times more valuable than starving the stomach. "Starving" the
mouth from talking what is forbidden is invaluable. We
imagine that by our starving the stomach, through our
fasting, we atone for our aveiros.
Our avoda of Yom Kippur is actually a process of
severing ourselves from the Satan. In gematria the
word hasoton (hey 5, shin 300,
tes 9, nun 50) has the numerical value of three
hundred and sixty four, but a solar year is one day more:
three hundred and sixty five days. On one day in the year the
Soton has no control over us and that is on Yom Kippur
(Yoma 20a). Maran HaRav Dessler zt'l explains
that in reality there is a yetzer hora on Yom Kippur,
but it is the yetzer hora that man has acquired for
himself during the whole year. It is his "private"
Man's thoughts are of paramount importance. These thoughts
are his highest spiritual point of success or failure.
"Hirhurim of aveiros are more devastating than
aveiros" (Yoma 29a). Although abstract thought
does not use tangible tools, these thoughts come directly
from the nefesh.
Thoughts on Yom Kippur night stem from man's power of
kedusha and likewise have a direct effect on
kedusha. The stomach that is loaded with food does not
determine a person's spiritual level that night. Rather,
imagination based on our spiritual state dresses itself with
On motzei Yom Kippur imagination drapes itself over
the physical--the vapors wafting from coffee, the sweet piece
of cake waiting at home.
A person's imagination begins working on Yom Kippur
afternoon, when his stomach, which is accustomed to eating at
a certain hour, starts complaining. Man's imagination rules
his thoughts. This sublime imagination, which should be used
for limitless spiritual goals, instead begins to calculate
the hours left until the end of the fast. What has happened
is that the head serves the stomach.
How will staring longingly at his watch every half an hour,
or even every hour, help a person? asks the Yesod
VeShoresh HoAvodah. Will the time pass any sooner because
of his impatience? Is our imagination not taking control over
On the contrary, writes the tzaddik, a person should
delight in every moment he has. Although this is self-
evident, a thing whose truth is not doubted, only a select
few really internalize it. With those precious moments on Yom
Kippur man can attain additional heights in ruchniyus,
change his future, overcome his tendency to sink into
illusions, and repel yet another lowly physical desire.
Everything depends on the longings for ruchniyus that
he entertains on that sacred day, Yom Kippur.
HaRav E. E. Dessler z'l writes that by increasing this
desire for spiritual achievement on Yom Kippur a person
acquires eternal wealth for his nefesh. This is our
main goal on Yom Kippur: taking advantage of the day on which
one's imagination does not function as strongly as usual and
on which one can release himself from its strong hold.
The wonderful experience of severing oneself
from earthly desires, peering beyond the reach of
imagination, gazing down from a spiritual height and
surveying earthly reality from the summit of clinging to
HaKodosh Boruch Hu, must leave more or less of an
impression on man. Naturally, how much a person changes
because of this depends upon himself. According to the degree
that he feels the Satan's power neutralized on this day, how
much he distances himself from his previous tainted habits,
can he continue to advance in avodas Hashem.
How wonderful is the world of chassidim and
tzaddikim! These true yirei Hashem, those who
cling to Hashem and sense how He conducts the world, those
who see Hashem's hand at every step and guide their acts
according to this sublime revelation, those who are careful
not to do anything that comes even near to an aveira
because of their fear of Hashem's majesty, which is revealed
throughout their life, live prosperously.
May it be that we shall be a head and not a
tail." We do not know the full essence of this
tefillah, this request tendered to Hashem, the
siman of this yehi rotzon. According to the
above, however, we can understand it as follows: The head
must lead the tail and not the opposite. The head and the
tail of an animal are perched at the same level. The beast's
stomach and intestines are on a straight line with its head,
teaching us that they are the same. No difference exists
between an animal's head, stomach, intestines, and tail.
A human being, however, stands on his two legs. His head is
above and all other organs are underneath. A person's head,
his thoughts and powers of reasoning, must activate the
stomach and intestines according to the needs of the head:
the Divine part of man.
Yom Kippur is a day when the Divine rules over the physical,
the ruchani over the gashmi; and from this day
each person will, according to his capability, draw spiritual
nourishment for accomplishments for the coming year.