The prophet Amos states, “The lion has roared - who will not fear” (Amos 3:8). The rabbis teach us that the letters which spell lion (aryeh) - Alef, Resh, Yod, and Heh – refer to Ellul, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Hoshana Rabba. As we enter into the mouth of the lion, Yom Kippur, we must discuss the teshuva of Yom Kippur.
The Yom Kippur prayers begin with Kal Nidrei. Everyone makes an effort to attend the Kal Nidrei Service, and holding the Sefer Torah for Kal Nidrei is one of the greatest honors. Even the tune is solemn. What makes the prayer so special? After all, in essence, Kal Nidrei is merely a prayer, asking for forgiveness for not fulfilling our vows and oaths. Why do we open the Yom Kippur service with this prayer? While swearing falsely is certainly a great sin, why is specifically this sin the focus of the beginning of Yom Kippur?
On the one hand, from a historical perspective, this may relate to the Jews of Medieval Spain, who were forced to publicly accept Christianity during the Inquisition. These Jews become known as the Marannos. The Marannos would gather each year, in hiding, to ask forgiveness for the vow they made to accept Christianity. They sang this prayer in a solemn, even morbid tune. They asked God to be absolved for their vow to Christianity. However, we didn’t vow to Christianity, and nowadays, we do not swear or take vows, certainly not in God’s name. So why is this prayer still the beginning of our Yom Kippur prayers?
The Talmud (Nida 30b) teaches about life in the womb. The gemara describes how as birth approaches, each child is made to take an oath that he will “be righteous, and be never wicked.” The angel then warns the child that he should “always bear in mind that the Holy One, blessed be He, is pure, that his ministers are pure and that the soul which He gave you is pure; if you preserve it in purity, well and good, but if not, I will take it away from you.”
As Yom Kippur approaches, we review the previous year, and we realize that we did not live up to the oath we took as we entered this world. Therefore, we pray to God that we should be absolved of that oath, the oath which every Jew took. We even take a Sefer Torah, upon which the oath was taken, as we ask God forgiveness for using the Torah as the object of our false oath. We pray to God that we should be forgiven for that oath, and God says, “vesalahti lidvarecha”- and “I have forgiven you.”
The prayers of Yom Kippur have so much meaning and depth. In one prayer, we describe God as “goleh amukot” – “God reveals the depths.” The Talmud teaches that “af al pi shehata yisrael hu”- a person cannot abdicate his Judaism. Even the worst of the Jews, in the depth of their souls, is a spark of holiness. Eventually, if that spark is cultivated, it can ignite, and the person can do teshuva. Although we don’t always see this, God is “goleh amukot”- he sees the depths of our souls and shows the prosecuting angels how every Jew is good.
We see this idea in a famous Rambam. The Rambam (Hilchot Gerushin 2:20) teaches that if a person who bet din ruled must divorce his wife refuses to give her a get (a writ of divorce), even though a get must be given out of his free will, “kofin oto ad sheyomar rose ani”- he can be forced until he agrees. The Rambam explains sine “he wants to be part of the Jewish people, and he wants to perform all the misvot and eschew all the transgressions; it is only his evil inclination that presses him; therefore, when he is beaten until his [evil] inclination has been weakened, and he consents [to the divorce], he is considered to have performed the divorce willfully.” In other words, deep down he wants to do the proper thing, and at times, he may not even realize this.
The gemara (Avoda Zara 17a) relates that a fellow named Elazar ben Durdai had a specific weakness: he had sexual relations with every zona (prostitute) in the world. Once, he heard that there was a prostitute in a faraway place. He crossed seven rivers and brought a full purse of dinarim, and came to this woman. As he was about to sin with her, God decided that it was time to send Elazar ben Durdai a message. The Talmud relates that the prostitute passed gas, and then she said to Elazar ben Durdai: Just like this gas will never return to its place, so too Elazar ben Durdai will never return to God. He went outside, put his head between his knees, and cried so intensely that he died. He literally died of teshuva. A heavenly voice declared, “R. Eleazar ben Durdia is ready for the world-to-come.”
There are many lessons to be learned from this episode. The Maharal offered an explanation based upon Elazar ben Durdai’s name – “God (E-l) helps (azar) Elazar when he was at the bottom of the barrel (durdai).” When he was in the worst place, rock-bottom, God helped him.
This story comes to teach is that even when we are in the worst place, God is a “goleh amukot,” and knows that deep down we are good.