Make Yom Kippur a day of friendship; He’ll make it a day of forgiveness
Tucked away in the small print following the Avodah portion of the Yom Kippur Mussaf are perhaps the most significant words of the entire day, words that contain our mandate for how to approach the Yom Hakadosh: “Al kein b’rachamecha harabim — with Your great mercy, You have given us… a day when it is forbidden to eat and drink… a day of instituting love and friendship, a day of forsaking jealousy and competition, a day when You will pardon all of our iniquities.”
Now that we can no longer achieve closeness to Hashem through sacrifices and the avodah in the Beis Hamikdash, we need to achieve atonement on our own. Indeed, the Rambam writes that since we no longer have the se’ir hamishtaleiach to atone for us, we are left to our own devices. This is hardly an ideal situation.
By way of analogy, imagine trying to push a heavy object with the help of a strong, burly friend — who suddenly departs at some point along the way. After the friend leaves, you would not say that the job is easier now that you don’t have to coordinate your efforts with a partner. Similarly, in bygone times, the Kohein Gadol and korbanos helped us achieve kapparah, but now we are on our own.
Although our job has become almost overwhelming, this paragraph in the machzor offers us a strategy toward attaining atonement.
At first glance, the machzor’s words, “a day of instituting love and friendship, a day of forsaking jealousy,” seem puzzling. We barely speak to one another the entire 25 hours of Yom Kippur, and the slight amount of interaction we may have hardly affords us the time to strengthen bonds of friendship. What is the machzor referring to?
The only possible answer to this question would seem to be that although Yom Kippur is not the day when we actively practice this friendship and bonding, it is the culmination of the heavy lifting that has already been done.
Ever since we were children we have played the mechilah game, running around the classroom asking, “Mochel me, mochel me?” Now we are adults, and this is serious business, for if the day’s identity as one of “instituting love and friendship” is part of our atonement process, our pursuit of forgiveness had better be sincere.
This might actually be the most challenging component of our kapparah. We know that one must enter Yom Kippur with a clean slate between him and his fellow man in order to achieve kapparah, and both the Sfas Emes of Ger and Rav Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk maintain that this requirement applies regardless of upon whom the onus rests to approach the other.
The Sfas Emes proves this from the narrative at the end of Maseches Yoma where Rav asked Rav Chanina mechilah for taking him to task for coming late to his shiur and chastising him when he intimated that Rav should have started over for him, as he had for the previous latecomers. Even though Rav was in the right, since it was before Yom Kippur, Rav took the initiative to approach Rav Chanina.
This idea is evident from the previous narrative in the same Gemara, which recounts that after having been derided by the local butcher, Rav approached the offender and gave him the opportunity to ask mechilah. Surely it was not his obligation to do so, but apparently Rav wanted to enter Yom Kippur with positive relationships with everyone he knew, even adversaries who owed him an apology.
Rav Itzeleh Peterburger ztz”l commented that Rav learned this from Hashem Himself, Who comes closer to us during the days of Elul and Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, providing us with the opportunity to approach Him with our heartfelt pleas for mechilah.
Rav Chaim Soloveitchik practiced this virtue to a high degree, as evidenced by an incredible anecdote recorded in the Sefer Porach Mateh Aharon by Rav Chaim’s grandson Rav Aharon ztz”l. The incident took place when Rav Chaim’s three sons, Rav Yisrael Gershon, Rav Moshe, and Rav Velvel were ages 21, 19, and 11, respectively. The butcher in Brisk had been involved in a din Torah over a 3,000 ruble claim, no small change in those days, and had turned down the option to work out a compromise, due to his confidence that he would be completely exonerated. Rav Chaim’s beis din ruled against the butcher and ordered him to pay. Upon hearing the verdict, the butcher screamed at Rav Chaim, “Gazlan! Rotzeiach! [Thief! Murderer!]” Rav Chaim calmly reminded the butcher that he had refused the option of compromise, through which he would have been spared a formal psak din. The butcher continued to berate him until finally, Rav Chaim strongly reprimanded him, saying, “Chatzuf, get out of here!”
This took place in the month of Av. The following Erev Yom Kippur, as everyone gathered in shul half an hour before sundown, Rav Chaim asked his three sons to accompany him to the Tailors’ Shul, where the butcher davened, explaining that he wanted to ask mechilah for his words after the din Torah. After entering the shul, where everyone was stooped over in deep concentration, with their talleisim covering their heads, Rav Chaim walked around the shul and peered inside the draped talleisim in search of his target. Upon locating the butcher, he asked him if he remembered the incident with the 3,000 rubles, when Rav Chaim had dismissed him in a strong manner. “I am asking you for mechilah,” Rav Chaim concluded.
The butcher removed the tallis from his head and again berated the rav, accusing him of being a thief and a murderer and telling him that he would grant mechilah only if the rav would return the entire sum of money to him after Yom Kippur.
“I am asking you mechilah once, twice, and three times in front of my three sons,” Rav Chaim responded. To Rav Chaim’s great disappointment, the butcher stood his ground. After leaving the shul, Rav Chaim explained to his children, “I am not required to do more. But I want you to know that I didn’t come because I thought that I transgressed any Torah or rabbinic prohibitions, but rather, because on Erev Yom Kippur there is an obligation for every Jew to ask mechilah for upsetting his friend, even if what was done was absolutely permissible. I merely transgressed the virtue of shomin cherpasan v’einan meishivin — hearing oneself being disgraced and remaining silent.”
Rav Chaim had an elaborate proof of his own to explain why he felt compelled to approach the butcher. (Lomdim can analyze the interesting details of the story, including the fact that one of the three sons was a minor, and that all three requests for mechilah were made at the same time.)
This act of righteousness was fitting for the likes of Rav Chaim, but is almost impossible for us to relate to. Many of us, though, have gone through similarly painful experiences that leave us with confusing emotions as we approach the Yemei Hadin. Obviously, every situation is unique, and sometimes the hard feelings are compounded by familial connections or business relationships. But Rav Chaim’s example can perhaps give us the courage to do what needs to be done, difficult as it is.
How much nachas ruach would we give Avinu Av Harachaman if we could dig deep into our hearts and souls and make the move before Yom Kippur, cleansing our slates below so that the slates can be cleaned above? Regardless of whose fault it was and who should really be approaching whom, let’s bury our hatchets and start anew so that our Yom Kippur can live up to the description in the machzor of a day of love and friendship. Now that we have unburdened ourselves of all of the discord and machlokes of yesterday, Yom Kippur can truly be a great day.
If the aggrieved party stands his ground by not allowing himself to be appeased, the Rambam tells us (Hilchos Teshuvah 2:10) that he becomes the sinner; he is considered cruel, and is exhibiting behavior fit for the umos ha’olam. Rav Hutner ztz”l (Pachad Yitzchak, Yom Kippur, ch. 26) relates the Rambam’s words to his statement elsewhere (Hilchos Matnos Aniyim) that one who displays such cruelty, “yesh lachush l’yichuso — we need to question if he is even Jewish at all!”
Nobody wins from engaging in the stalemate. Relationships can be ruined for a lifetime, and the opportunity for reconciliation can be lost. Is it worth it? By stubbornly refusing to be mollified, the person is only hurting himself and squandering the chance to unburden himself from a load that he can’t possibly enjoy carrying. It is so refreshing to release the hard feelings that weigh us down.
The accepted authority in all things Yamim Noraim, Sefer Mateh Ephraim, writes that one who harbors hatred toward his fellow man on Yom Kippur will not have his tefillos answered. Furthermore, according to a number of opinions, failing to rectify issues of bein adam l’chaveiro prevents kapparah on his bein adam laMakom as well (see Koveitz Shiurim Bava Basra 88b, and Rav Yitzchak Meltzan in Siddur HaGra, Tekias Shofar).
Teshuvah is hard enough now that we no longer have the se’ir hamishtaleiach. We cannot begin to evaluate the value of mustering up the courage to put machlokes and ill will behind us, so we can stoop our bodies in Vidui with the knowledge that we have done our best to merit the Heavenly mercy that we all desperately crave and need.
By restoring our relationships with others, we hope to restore our relationship with Hashem and become more deserving of a year of geulah and yeshuah for all of Klal Yisrael.
Rabbi Plotnik,a talmid of the yeshivos of Philadelphia and Ponevezh, has been active in rabbanus and chinuch for 25 years and currently serves as ram in Yeshivas Me’or HaTorah in Chicago.
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 780.