Rabbi Zvi Sobolofsky
Rabbi Zvi Sobolofsky

Angels or Sinners - Who Are We?

Our actions, prayers and even external clothing on Yom Kippur appear to be replete with one fundamental contradiction - are we presenting ourselves as sinners humbly requesting forgiveness or are we portraying ourselves as pure angels in the service of Hashem?

In Tefillah Zakka (the prayer many recite before Kol Nidrei) we describe the prohibitions of Yom Kippur as methods of atonement for our sins. We beseech Hashem to consider our refraining from eating as atonement for sins in the realm of food. Each aspect of physical abstaining is seen as a method to correct some flaw in our behavior. Yet the imagery of refraining from food and drink and other physical pleasures also conjures up an entirely different picture. Moshe Rabbeinu, upon ascending to Har Sinai comes as close to being an angel as a human being can. He no longer needed food or drink. Similarly, on Yom Kippur when we completely dissociate ourselves from our physical existence, we are transformed to an angelic state.

This dual existence, as sinners and angels, is reflected throughout our Tefillos on Yom Kippur. Our constant reference to sin highlighted by the numerous times viduy is recited portrays us as contrite sinners. Yet we also play a very different role throughout our tefillos. Unlike any other day, we recite "Baruch sheim kavod malchuso l'olam vaed" in a loud voice. A phrase normally reserved for angels to cry out, we take advantage of our angelic status in this unique praise. More than any other day we elaborately praise Hashem in many different ways. Many have the custom of reciting the entire shir hayichud - a prayer of intricate praise of Hashem - following maariv on Yom Kippur. When reciting kedusha, the prayer most associated with angels, we introduce it with praises reserved for Yom Kippur. Even the text of the actual kedusha is unique - we recite the longer form of it for all the tefillos of the day, unlike other days where it is reserved for mussaf. Each time a prayer which is usually in the domain of angels is recited we take the opportunity to cast ourselves in the role of these angels.

Even in our external appearance we are simultaneously sinners and angels. It is customary for married men to wear a kittel on Yom Kippur. The kittel is representative of death; we stand before Hashem in shrouds, acknowledging our mortality. Knowing that our very lives are now on the line, subject to our repentance from sin, the most appropriate garment to don is the one which conjures up the image that frightens us the most. Yet the kittel also has a very inspiring message as well. The angels are described as wearing white robes. The kohein gadol on Yom Kippur upon entering the kodesh hakodoshim wears such a robe. We too, emulating the kohein gadol and the angels, dress in white which radiates the purity of the heavenly angels[1].

How should we understand these apparent contradictions on Yom Kippur in the realms of action, prayer, and dress? Who are we really on this special day - sinners focusing on the frailty of life, or angels in the service of Hashem?

This apparent contradiction teaches us a fundamental lesson that we must internalize on Yom Kippur. The Yom Kippur service in the Beis Hamikdash revolved around the two goats that were brought - one as a korban la'Hashem and the other thrown off a cliff as the sair la'azazel. These two goats had to be identical in size, appearance, and cost. Although externally identical their fates were completely different. One would be chosen for the noble task of being a korban la'Hashem, whereas the other would be destined for destruction.

On Yom Kippur we are faced with the decision whether to become a sair la'Hashem or a sair laazazel. These two images play out before us throughout the day and are reinforced by our actions, prayers, and dress. Who are we? Are we the sinners who seek atonement by abstaining from pleasure or are we the angels who have no need for physical pleasure? Are we laden with sin that we must repeatedly confess, or are we angels singing the praise of Hashem? Are we mere mortals who fear death as a result of our sins, or are we heavenly beings dressed in white symbolizing our purity?

The essence of Yom Kippur is to undergo a transformation. We begin the day with these two images before us. Are we going to become the sair laazazel, laden with sin, destined for destruction, or are we going to chose the path of the sair la'Hashem whose very existence is to enter the kodesh hakodoshim as a korban la'Hashem? By the end of the day we realize that the only path to take is the path of the sair la'Hashem. We are no longer sinners, suffering from our abstaining from pleasure, confessing our sins dressed in shrouds. We have become angels, praising Hashem, dressed in white robes of purity. May we all merit to make this transformation on this Yom Kippur and in this merit may Hashem bless all of us with a gmar chasima tova.

[1] The kittel as the embodiment of two very different messages is true for the other time during the year that many wear a kittel as well, i.e. the Pesach Seder. There are tow reasons suggested by the poskim as to why many don a kittel then. The first explains that at a time when we celebrate our freedom, we are concerned lest we lose sight of our fragile existence. Therefore even as we dine as kings we are therefore reminded of our mortality by the clothing we wear. Others suggest that the kittel worn during the seder is reminiscent of the special robes worn in the time of the Beis Hamikdash when korbanos were eaten. These robes of white symbolizing purity befit those who eat from the table of Hashem.

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