The Torah tells us to "afflict ourselves on the ninth day of Tishrei" (a loose paraphrase of Leviticus 23:32). From this verse we derive that it is a mitzvah to eat on the day before Yom Kippur. The question is obvious: How is eating before Yom Kippur a form of affliction? Rashi interprets this verse to mean that the Torah gives us credit for eating before Yom Kippur as if we had afflicted ourselves.
In his commentary on Mishlei, the Vilna Gaon explains this concept as follows: Every mundane activity that we perform in this world can be elevated to a spiritual level. Therefore, when a person eats in order to have the energy to perform mitzvos, his very act of eating is a mitzvah. Everything is dependent on a person's intent.
The Vilna Gaon embodied this idea in his own approach to life. The story is told of a dibbuk (migrant soul that randomly possesses living people) that was terrified of appearing before the Gaon. The dibbuk explained that the Vilna Gaon's eating was tantamount to the consumption of offerings by the fire of the altar. That was the source of its fear.
The Gemara in Mesechta Avodah Zorah (Daf 11a) records that Rabbeinu HaKadosh always had radishes and celery on his table. In the time period that he lived, it was rare to have seasonal foods year-round, since it was very expensive to have them imported from all over the world. However, due to the demands of Rabbeinu HaKadosh's royal status, the money was always available.
At the end of his life, Rabbeinu HaKadosh declared that he did not derive enjoyment from this world even with his pinky (Kesubos 104a). This declaration appears to contradict reality: Rabbeinu HaKadosh clearly did enjoy this world, since he always had delicacies at his table!
The Vilna Gaon explains that while Rabbeinu HaKadosh did enjoy this world, every act of enjoyment that he had was for a mitzvah purpose. Therefore, Rabbeinu HaKadosh was justifiably able to say that he didn't derive any personal pleasure from this world.
With this explanation of the Gaon, we can understand why we scream the words "Blessed is the Name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever" in the Shema prayer on Yom Kippur night. While our stomachs are full, our minds are concentrated on thoughts of teshuvah. Thus, we scream these words in imitation of the angels in Heaven. On the night following Yom Kippur, however, we read these words quietly. While our stomachs are empty after a day of fasting, our minds are focused on what we will be doing to satisfy our hunger after the fast.
Our sense of taste is only one example of a physical faculty that we need to elevate. On Erev Yom Kippur, we recite the Tefillas Zakkah prayer written by R' Avraham Danzig, the author of the Chayei Adam. In this prayer, we confess that we have used our G-d-given faculties for the wrong things. However, our prayers and afflictions on Yom Kippur are supposed to atone for those sins. For example, fasting on Yom Kippur atones for eating forbidden foods. Not wearing leather shoes atones for running to do sins. Abstaining from marital relations atones for the misuse of our reproductive organs. The five prayers that we recite atone for the five parts of the mouth that we improperly used to engage in forbidden speech. Finally, the tears that we shed on Yom Kippur atone for looking at forbidden images.
The purpose of this prayer is to make us aware that our faculties should not be taken for granted. Rather, G-d renews them for us every moment. All too often we are reminded of this phenomenon when sudden illness strikes. The fact that G-d miraculously gives us the ability to function every moment despite our sins should motivate us to want to purify our deeds.
When Chanah the mother of Shmuel the Prophet was childless, she prayed to G-d to give her a child. The Gemara (Berachos 31b) records her prayer as follows: “Master of the Universe, of all that you created in woman, You did not create anything for naught. Eyes with which to see, ears with which to hear, a nose with which to smell, a mouth with which to talk, hands with which to do work, feet with which to walk, and breasts with which to nurse. These breasts that You placed on my heart—what for? not to nurse from them? Give me a son and I will nurse with them!”
R' Elyah Lopyan asks why this prayer isn't effective for all women. Don't they have the same claim? R' Elyah answers that Chanah was unique in that she used all of her faculties for their intended purpose. Therefore, she was justified in demanding that she be given a child so that she could use her reproductive organs for their intended purpose as well.
In the event that we fail to use one or more of our faculties properly, G-d sometimes returns our souls to this world to correct that character deficiency. Our Sages tell us that a gilgul is a soul that comes back to this world in order to rectify misdeeds of a past lifetime.
The Peleh Yoetz writes that it is important to believe in the concept of gilgulim. Since a gilgul's responsibility in life is to correct a particular fault that he has, believing in gilgulim keeps us focused on refining our character traits. If we find that we have an unusual amount of difficulty performing certain mitzvos or avoiding certain sins, those are the areas that we should focus on.
The story of Yonah that we read on Yom Kippur teaches us that a person can't escape from the fulfillment of his unique mission in life. Indeed, the Vilna Gaon writes that the entire book of Yonah is a metaphor for the soul’s experience in this world.
Yonah the Prophet was reluctant to obey G-d’s command to warn the people of Nineveh that their city would be destroyed if they didn’t repent for their sin of rampant theft. Therefore, he tried to flee to the land of Tarshish on a ship. G-d caused a powerful storm to threaten the ship, which ultimately led to Yonah being thrown overboard. Yonah was swallowed by a large fish and lived in its belly for three days and three nights. That miserable experience motivated Yonah to finally obey G-d’s command. Similarly, the soul often has to experience great suffering in order for it to acquiesce to G-d’s Will and to perform its mission in life.
Moshe Stempel helped edit Great Jewish Letters by Rabbi Moshe Bamberger.
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