Yom Kippur 5775 (2014)
"Shabbat Shabbaton La-nu"
Rabbi Mark Kinzer / Congregation Zera Avraham
In our normal Shabbat Kiddush we say, Ki hu yom techilah le-mikraey kodesh—“for it is the first among the holy assemblies.” Though it occurs weekly, Jewish tradition regards Shabbat as of greater holiness than Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot, and Rosh Hashanah. This greater holiness is reflected in the halakhic rules which govern these special days. Thus, we are not permitted to cook on Shabbat, but we are permitted to cook on the holidays.
The one exception to the unrivalled precedence of Shabbat is Yom Kippur. This is the only holiday in the Jewish calendar that exceeds Shabbat in holiness. On Shabbat we only refrain from cooking. On Yom Kippur we even refrain from eating!
When Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat, as it does this year, we encounter the greatest holiness possible in the calendar of olam hazeh, the present age. Having just crossed the boundary into this exalted time zone, it is worth reflecting on the significance of the day that is before us.
Someone asked the pious Rabbi Tzvi ha-Kohen of Rymanov [a 19th century Hasidic master]: Wherein lies the superiority of Yom Kippur, that it is called a Shabbat Shabbaton (“a Shabbat of Sabbaths”)? Does the book of Exodus (35:2) not also call the Sabbath a Shabbat Shabbaton la-Shem (“Sabbath of Sabbaths to Hashem”)?
The Rabbi replied: I see that you do not read the parashah with care. Indeed, of the Sabbath it is written Shabbat Shabbaton la-Shem, but of Yom Kippur it is written, Shabbat Shabbaton hu la-chem—“A Sabbath of Sabbaths unto you” (Lev 23:32). For on Yom Kippur we draw the holiness of the superior realm down nearer to us. (Agnon 188-89)
According to Rabbi Tzvi Ha-Kohen, the holiness of Shabbat belongs only to Hashem, though he graciously permits Israel to enter its domain one day each week. Its holiness is properly the holiness of the heavenly courts and of the world to come. However, on Yom Kippur Hashem lowers himself to come to Israel, granting them his holy presence as a gift. On this day the holiness of the heavenly courts descends to become Israel’s earthly abode.
When Yom Kippur coincides with Shabbat, we partake of a day whose holiness is that of both heaven and earth. It is both a Shabbat Shabbaton la-Shem, and a Shabbat Shabbaton la-chem – or, to make it more personal, a Shabbat Shabbaton la-nu (that is, for us).
The unique holiness of Yom Kippur is not merely a theological abstraction, a doctrinal truth to which Jews pay lip service. Rabbi Tzvi ha-Kohen spoke of what he knew from experience, and that reality has been encountered by Jews throughout the ages, and also by each of us here today. Despite the discomfort of fasting, the challenge of spending long hours on our feet in synagogue, and the repetitive beating of our breasts and reciting of our sins, I have heard many of you speak of your love for this day. It is a love I wholeheartedly share.
We do not love this day because we enjoy fasting, standing, beating our breasts, and confessing our sins. We love this day because in it we experience the presence of Hashem and his holiness. Like Rabbi Tzvi, we realize that this is a Shabbat Shabbaton la-nu.
A Conservative Rabbi recently spoke of his congregants’ experience of Yom Kippur. He first noted that the theology of the Machzor clashes with the worldview of most 21st century Conservative Jews. Few modern Jews outside the orthodox world now believe in a personal God who inscribes names in a heavenly book for a year of blessing or doom. Despite this theological disconnect, he said, those who attend Yom Kippur services regularly succumb to the spell cast by the traditional rites and prayers. They find themselves moved by a transcendent presence that is inexplicable, at least according to their rationalist system of beliefs.
Why do so many Jews experience the reality of a personal God on Yom Kippur, even when they no longer believe that such a God exists? Why do we experience that reality so powerfully on this day ourselves? I think that Rabbi Tzvi Ha-Kohen was right—on this day “the Holy One draws down from heaven nearer to Israel.” If this is true on every Yom Kippur, kal va-chomer, how much more is it the case when Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat.
This may be difficult for Conservative Jews to explain to themselves, but it is not difficult for us. As Messianic Jews, we believe that the heavenly Wisdom of God, the Living Torah, descended to earth and lived as a humble Jew named Yeshua HaNotzri. On Yom Kippur we remember that descent which began with his birth in Beit-Lechem and which culminated in his suffering and death in Jerusalem. In that act we discern his decision to be Israel’s scapegoat, sent into the wilderness to bear away our sinful deeds. On Yom Kippur we also remember his ascent from the tomb to the heavenly sanctuary, to appear before the Most High on our behalf. In that act we behold the Kohen Gadol according to the order of Melchizedek who is also the goat whose atoning blood is brought into the holy of holies. Finally, on Yom Kippur we remember another descent which followed Yeshua’s ascent—namely, the descent of the Holy Spirit received and imparted by the risen Mashiach.
On Yom Kippur our remembering of these movements of descent and ascent is more than an intellectual or ritual exercise; in remembering them, we actually experience them anew—as do our fellow Jews who lack the theological equipment to explain what is happening to them.
When the Holy One draws down from heaven nearer to Israel, and we enter the Shabbat Shabbaton la-nu, we naturally desire to confess our sins. The holiness, purity, and covenant love of Hashem reminds us of all that we are not and should be. Yet, the fact that he condescends to be with us in such an intimate way convinces us that we need not fear that he will turn away from us. Thus, his gracious descent on Yom Kippur brings us both sadness and joy—but it is a sadness wrapped in joy, a sadness which only intensifies our joy.
When the Holy One draws down from heaven nearer to Israel, and we enter the Shabbat Shabbaton la-nu, we are also emboldened to present before him our requests. We ask not only for forgiveness for our past offenses, but also for strength to live a life more pleasing to Hashem. We beseech Heaven for the spiritual renewal of Israel and the Body of Messiah. We cry out for the healing and redemption of a wounded world. Just as the presence of the Torah in our midst leads us to sneak in a few requests to Hashem even on Shabbat, the day of ascent, kal va chomer, how much more is this the case when the Holy One, Blessed be He, himself descends to be with us on this Shabbat Shabbaton lanu.
This is why Yom Kippur differs from Shabbat. On Shabbat we leave behind our failings, sins, and troubles, and the broken bleeding fragments of the weekday world. On Shabbat we enter into that menuchah, that rest, which is a preview and foretaste of the life of olam haba. In that way we ascend to partake of the holiness and contentment of the heavenly realm. It is a Shabbat Shabbaton la-Shem. But on Yom Kippur we actively call to mind our failings, sins, and troubles, and the groans of a creation subjected to futility, but now we see them in the radiance of Hashem’s merciful presence, and the fact that he dwells with us in the midst of our brokenness makes our joy all the greater. In that way we experience anew the divine descent, which was enacted for all time in the atoning life, death, and resurrection of Yeshua, and the outpouring of his Spirit. This is truly a Shabbat Shabbaton la-nu, a Sabbaths of Sabbaths for us.
But today we get to partake of them both, Shabbat and Yom Kippur! And in the clash of their up and down movements, Yom Kippur takes precedence. On this Shabbat—and only this Shabbat—we must afflict ourselves with fasting. On this Shabbat—and only this Shabbat—we must beat our breasts. On this Shabbat—and only this Shabbat—we must confess our sins.
Yet Shabbat also adds its special splendor to Yom Kippur. After all, the Shabbat angels are here to guide and guard us! Such a doubly-holy Shabbat Shabbaton reminds us that Hashem’s descent and our ascent go together, and ultimately, with the coming of the New Yerushalayim, the two will be indistinguishable, for in that day Heaven and Earth will be married and become as one.
In the day that lies before us may we—and Kol Yisrael—open our hearts to this Shabbat Shabbaton la-nu which is also a Shabbat Shabbaton la-Shem, that our lives may be transformed by the holy presence of the Holy One.