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Yom Kippur (morning) 5768

Yom Kippur – morning
(Isaiah 57:14-58:14)
10 Tishre 5768
September 22, 2007

With the onset of Yom Kippur, we potentially still find ourselves distant from God. This distance seems so pronounced because the process of \’teshuva\’ – repentance – remains overwhelming. How can we who are so ensconced in who we are actually bring about the kind of change which will make reconciliation with God possible? We so fear change, even change for the good, that our relationship with God seems irreconcilable. Even more than actually fearing change, we doubt our ability to affect change, afraid that we simply lack to strength to make it possible. Consequently, the sinner is trapped in who he or she has become and for those of us for whom sin has become habitual, we feel enslaved in our own personal darkness, captive to ways which do not allow us to appreciate who and what we really are and want to be, victims of fate, rather than shapers of destiny.

It is possible that the sages chose the haftarah for the morning of Yom Kippur to answer this bleak assessment of the human condition. Isaiah\’s prophecy opens with the following pronouncement: \”[The Lord] says: Build up, build up a highway! Clear a road! Remove all obstacles from the road of My people! For thus said He who high aloft forever dwells, whose name is holy: I dwell on high in holiness; yet with the contrite and the lowly in spirit – reviving the hearts of the contrite. For I will not always contend, I will not be angry forever: Nay, I who make spirits flag also create the breath of life.\” (57:14-16)

Rabbi David Kimche (13th century Provence) asserts that this message was aimed at those returning from exile. God will make it easy for the people to return both physically and spiritually. The road will be cleared and the path will be paved. Any obstructions will be removed. Kimche identifies Israel\’s enemies as their major impediment. God will insure the return will be unimpaired. Rashi maintains that this prophecy is meant for Israel. God tells them to prepare the way for God to enter their lives by clearing the path of their evil inclinations so that there will be room for God in their lives.

Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik (20th century USA) offers an interesting reading of this passage which takes Rashi\’s tack one step further, answering the existential concerns mentioned above. He notes that the highway is for God to enter into the lives of His people because without Him, they will be incapable of achieving their goals of teshuva and reconciliation with Him. God, who created human beings is aware of human inadequacies. He comes, figuratively, to knock at their doors, welcoming the sinner to leave his evil ways, out of His great love for his creatures. He cannot abide leaving them broken down and abandoned. He comes to them especially because of their fallen state. If they had not fallen, there would not be the need for Him to intervene. God wants us to know that we will never be left alone when we are in a troubled state. Yom Kippur, then, is the ultimate symbol of God\’s intervention to raise us up when we are in our most dire straits. (Yemei Zicharon, pp. 243-4)

About This Commentary

This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in  Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva.  He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives.
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