By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
It’s the last Mishnah of a masechta that is replete with depictions of the day’s glory, immersions and offerings. It describes twenty-four hours of a nation, led by the kohein gadol, performing the avodah on the holiest day of the year in the holiest place on earth, returning as one to Hashem, Who comes closest to His people on this day.
Maseches Yoma concludes with the rousing words of Rabi Akiva: “Ashreichem Yisroel, lifnei mi atem metaharin umi metaher es’chem, Avichem shebaShomayim” (Yoma, 8:9). Rabi Akiva is responding to the preceding drasha of Rabi Elazar ben Azarya, who derives from the posuk of “Lifnei Hashem titharu” that the day of Yom Kippur only cleanses aveiros that are “lifnei Hashem,” between man and G-d. Yom Kippur doesn’t absolve one of aveiros that are bein adam lachaveiro, between man and his fellow man, until the person who has been wronged forgives the one who harmed him.
Commentators suggest that Rabi Akiva is addressing the posuk of “lifnei Hashem titharu,” from which Rabi Elazar ben Azarya derived his lesson. Rabi Akiva learns another lesson from those same words pertaining to the purification afforded by being lifnei Hashem on this day. Hashem Himself serves as the agent of purification, as the posuk states, “mikvei Yisroel Hashem.”
Why, however, is the lesson of Rabi Akiva placed here? Why did Rebbi Yehudah, who codified the Mishnah, choose the lesson of ashreichem Yisroel to close the masechta that details the intricate and complex halachos of the avodas hayom?
Rav Yitzchok Hutner, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, offers a beautiful explanation, which can provide inspiration and chizuk to us in all the situations we find ourselves.
Rabi Akiva, leader of the Jews at the time of the churban, was charged with uplifting and inspiring a people shattered and broken by destruction and colossal loss.
Consider, says Rav Hutner, the desolation that Klal Yisroel felt on the first Yom Kippur after the destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh. The Bais Hamikdosh hadn’t only been the earthly venue where Klal Yisroel was able to connect with the Ribbono Shel Olam. It was also the central component of the avodah on that holiest of days, with the mizbeiach, the ketores, the se’irim and the much anticipated change in the color of the strings. The destiny of the nation and its hopes for teshuvah were reflected in that awesome structure and its treasured keilim.
Then came the churban. In one fell swoop, it was all destroyed and taken from Klal Yisroel. They were bereft of so much.
The Bais Hamikdosh was gone. Without it, it seemed, there could be no Yom Kippur, no teshuvah, no taharah, and no closeness to Hashem. Klal Yisroel approached the day with anguish and fear, devastated by the thought of facing Yom Kippur without its heart and core, the avodah.
As those thoughts were percolating in the hearts and minds of the Jewish nation, Rabi Akiva, their leader, stood up and addressed them. “Yidden,” he called, “ashreichem, you are so fortunate. Why? Because lifnei mi atem metaharim umi metaher es’chem? Your cleansing and purification didn’t come from the mizbeiach or the korbanos, but from Avichem shebaShomayim.“
He’s still here. He hasn’t gone away. He hasn’t left us.
Our mikvah, our source of purity, isn’t the string that turned white after the avodah of the kohein gadol on Yom Kippur, but the One Who changes its color. In the words of Rabi Akiva, “Mah mikveh metaher es hatemei’im af Hakadosh Boruch Hu metaher es Yisroel…”
Rabi Akiva, in that final Mishnah, encapsulates the masechta and the holy avodah of the day. It was crucial, imperative, vital, and life-giving, but even without it, Rabi Akiva taught a mourning people, we still have Yom Kippur. Because, although the structure has been destroyed, and although fires have consumed the klei haMikdosh, our Father hasn’t left us.
Rabi Akiva’s words, laden with meaning and depth, rejuvenated the people of his day and are relevant today at the juncture at which we stand. Though we are mired here in golus, far from the heavenly Yerushalayim, distantly removed from the Bais Hamikdosh and the tangible connection it afforded us with Heaven, we still have Yom Kippur.
Have we ever stood more bereft of a kohein gadol, a representative to beseech the Heavens on our behalf? Have we ever been more in need of the Urim Vetumim to tell us the reasons for the string of bizarre and horrific incidents that closed off the old year?
Yet, the words of Rabi Akiva jump out of the Mishnayos to comfort us.
Hashem is still here.
Ten years ago, Rav Shimshon Pincus, his wife and their daughter were driving down a road and, in an instant, they were gone. Their levaya was held on Erev Pesach. Throngs of family, talmidim and community members stood there, numb with grief, trying to somehow transcend the pain and prepare to enter the realm of Yom Tov. Words failed them. Thoughts failed them. They were lost, without the ability to even think.
Their son and brother, Rav Yaakov Yisroel Pincus, the present rov of Ofakim, rose to speak. This is what he said: “My grandfather, Rav Mordechai Mann, was a talmid in the great Mirrer Yeshiva of yesteryear in Lita. He was sent to learn there as a young boy before his bar mitzvah. Understandably, he was quite homesick. He missed his mother terribly and longed to be in the warm, welcoming confines of home.
“One night, feeling particularly lonely, he went for a walk. Alone in a field, he looked up at the sky and saw a magnificent moon, golden and full, hanging low. He stared at it and had a single thought. ‘This very moon is the one that my mother, back in Breinsk, can see right now. I cannot see her and she cannot see me, but we can both see you, dear moon.’
He felt connected to his mother once again and returned to yeshiva feeling rejuvenated and ready to meet the challenges of his new life.”
In a tear-choked voice, Rav Yaakov Yisroel cried, “Abba, you taught us to be aware, to see and feel the presence of the Ribbono Shel Olam all the time. Abba, Ima, Miriam, we cannot see you anymore, but one thing is certain: Where you are, and where we are, we both share the same Aibishter. And that, like the moon in Mir and Breinsk of old, will connect us…”
As we approach this Yom Kippur, there is so much that we have lost and that we are missing. But we are armed with the consoling words of Rabi Akiva. As far away as we might be, as deep as we may have sunk, Hashem is here with us.
The Maharal (drasha l’Shabbos Shuvah) explains the taharah that takes place on Yom Kippur as a natural effect of d’veykus, coming close to Hashem. “Since Yisroel is completely attached to Him, this itself removes the stains of sin, because cheit is impossible to exist next to Him.” Just as a mikvah, says the Maharal, is the source of purity for one who is completely immersed in it with no barriers, so is the taharah that comes from d’veykus in Hakadosh Boruch Hu with no barriers or impediments.
On Yom Kippur, we strip away all those barriers. We remove the layers that could get in the way of our d’veykus in Hashem, including food, drink and material comforts, and we draw ever closer. This itself, says the Maharal, grants us teshuvah.
This is the power of Yom Kippur. Once we are immersed in its healing waters, armed with the Mishnah’s promise, we lack for nothing.
We have been afforded ten days to address the King “behimatzo,” when He is close, available and attuned to us. Now we are approaching the opportunity of the day on which we can scale the heights and merit teshuvah. Let’s make the climb, fully aware of just how fortunate we are.
We don’t have the kohein gadol, resplendent in his begadim. We don’t have the Leviim singing shirah. We don’t have the korbanos, the ketores, the sa’ir la’azazeil. We don’t have much. But we still have the ability to repent, to be forgiven, to become clean once again, and to be pure and holy and one with Hashem. That capacity is here and attainable for all of us, if we set ourselves to it.
Now is the time. The place is anywhere, even here. It is dependent on us – our actions, our hearts and our prayers. Let us not be depressed with our matzav. Let us not concentrate on the negatives. Let us listen to what Rabi Akiva told our grandparents many years ago, when they were heartbroken and desperate and thought they were forsaken by Hashem. Rabi Akiva taught them to hold their heads up high and remember that they possessed what no one else does. Ashreichem Yisroel.
They had the ability to turn it all around. We do too. Let’s get to work.
Ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu.
Gemar chasimah tovah.