Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is unquestionably one of the most important days of the year. And yet, it is an anomaly. While one might assumedly categorize it as a day of suffering and sadness, Chazal refer to Yom Kippur as a spiritually uplifting day of atonement and rebirth. There s even an element of the day that is associated with the happiness of Purim (Yom K’-Purim, like Purim). At the same time, though, it is a fast day. We normally characterize fast days as times of mourning and sadness, such as Shiv’ah Asar B’Tamuz and Tish’ah B’Av. How is Yom Kippur different?
In many respects, the customs of Yom Kippur have an ascetic tone. We do not eat or drink, engage in marital relations, wash ourselves, or apply any ointments or perfumes. These types of restrictions are generally associated with sad days, as is the fifth prohibition of the day: not wearing shoes. This appears like a strange restriction. What is the connection between shoes and Yom Kippur?
Interestingly, there is another instance of removing shoes, one completely unrelated to fasting. In this week’s parshah, Parshas VaYeilech, Moshe Rabbeinu prepares to hand over the mantle of leadership to Yehoshua. A fascinating parallel between these two great leaders is that both of them were instructed, at different points, to remove their shoes. Moshe, when he first spoke to Hashem, was told to remove both his shoes from his feet (Sh’mos 3:5). Yehoshua, on the other hand, was told by a mal’ach Hashem to remove one shoe (Yehoshua 5:15). Aside from the curious difference between Moshe and Yehoshua, the command to remove their shoes in general begs the question: What is the meaning behind “removing one’s shoes,” and what is the connection between these incidents and removing our shoes on Yom Kippur?
Soul Questions: What Are We?
Arguably the most important concept in life, albeit the one most often misunderstood, is the nature of the soul. Most people believe that they “have” a soul, some spiritual essence within themselves. However, the deeper Jewish sources reveal one of the most profound spiritual secrets: You don’t have a soul, you are a soul! In other words, the soul is not an aspect of your self, or some spiritual component of your being; it is your very self. You are a soul, a consciousness, a spiritual being. When you say “I,” you are referring to your soul, your inner sense of self. You have a body, emotions, and an intellect, all different aspects and expressions of your soul. But at root, you are a soul, a neshamah, an infinitely expansive consciousness.
The Birth of Finitude
A soul is angelic, perfect, pure, and transcendent. This is what Chazal refer to as your “fetal self,” when you were still in the womb, just before entering this physical world. However, the moment one enters this physical world, the infinite expansiveness of the soul is confined within the physical body, its container, its vehicle in this world. The body is meant to be the tool of the soul, allowing the soul to fully manifest its will in this world. This is our mission in life. We enter this world with an undeveloped vehicle, our limited body. The soul, our existential self, is already perfect, but we don’t yet have access to the fullness of our true self. As we journey through life, we tap into greater and greater aspects of our soul, our self, and we must then manifest them into the world through our physical bodies. In doing so, we uplift our physical vessels, and enable them to tap into greater and greater aspects of our true self. This is the beautiful cycle of life, the endless expansion and expression of self into this physical world.
Our Inner Struggle
While this perspective is both powerful and fundamental, its implementation eludes us, and is perhaps humanity’s most central struggle. Many people believe that they are a body, a physical, finite being. Having forgotten our true selves, we are born with the illusory belief that we are only that which we see. When we look into the mirror, we see a physical body, and thus, we believe that this is all that we are, flesh and bone.
However, this is merely our starting point. The turning point in life is the moment we realize that we are angelic souls in a physical casing. We are not physical beings attempting to have a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings trying to uplift our physical experience. This is the central theme of Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur: Flying with Angels
Yom Kippur is the one day of the year when we completely free ourselves of our physical limitations and embrace our angelic selves. This day embodies true t’shuvah, where we return to our ultimate root, to our spiritual and perfect selves. Chazal characterize Yom Kippur as the one day of the year where we each have the ability to become a mal’ach (angel). On this day, our lower selves and our physical urges are powerless: they cannot bring us down. They formulate this idea through the following g’matria: “HaSatan” – also referred to as the evil inclination, has the numerical value of 364. There are 365 days in the year (and in the lunar year, there are 355, plus the ten of Aseres Y’mei T’shuvah). Yom Kippur is the one day where the Satan, the Yeitzer HaRa, has no power over you, where you can fully transcend and experience angelic perfection.
This is why there is a custom to wear white on Yom Kippur (and why married men where a kittel). We are expressing our purity. A neshamah is a pure, radiant light. On Yom Kippur, we set our focus on the spiritual root, transcending the opaque, physical world. This is also why we go to the mikvah on Erev Yom Kippur. The mikvah is an experience of rebirth, returning back to our angelic root, back to our fetal perfection, where we learn kol haTorah kulah in the amniotic waters of our mother’s womb.
Why Do We Fast?
There is a paradoxical relationship between your body and your soul. Your soul, which is your “self,” your consciousness, your inner being, is transcendent, spiritual, and infinite. You can’t see, touch, or smell your mind or consciousness. You will never see someone else’s inner world. Your body, however, is finite, limited, and physical. Your soul will never die, but your body will eventually age, wither, and fall apart. Therefore, if the soul and body are complete opposites, how do they manage to stay together? Should they not be like two opposite sides of a magnet, completely repelling each other?!
This is the deep secret of food. You need something to keep your soul attached to your body, some kind of “glue.” Eating food creates an energy that keeps your neshamah connected to your body. What happens when you don’t eat? You get faint. What happens if you continue to fast? You will pass out. If you still don’t manage to eat, your soul will leave your body, and you will die. Eating keeps your soul connected to your body; it is what keeps you alive.
This is the depth behind the phrase “u’mafli la’asos–Who performs wonders,” which we recite in our blessing after using the bathroom. What “wonder” are we referring to? Many commentaries (such as the Beis Yosef) suggest that the wonder is the fact that our soul, infinitely transcendent, can paradoxically remain connected to our bodies, a physical, finite vessel. We mention this specifically after using the bathroom because we have just filtered out the unneeded parts of what we ate or drank, the mechanisms of which create the connection between body and soul.
We can now understand the concept of fasting, especially on the day of Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, we are attempting to be mal’achim – to transcend the physical world. Therefore we fast, allowing our soul to somewhat transcend our body, enabling us to experience one day of living in an angelic state.
Transcending the Physical
This principle sheds light on all the isurim of Yom Kippur. We don’t engage in physical relations because Yom Kippur is a day of transcending the physical aspects of human experience. This is also why we don’t wash ourselves or wear perfume, as we avoid engaging our physical bodies at all. There is, however, one halachah that still remains elusive, requiring elucidation: Why do we remove our shoes on Yom Kippur?
The Spiritual Concept of Shoes
The Nefesh HaChayim (1:5, note 6) explains the profound spiritual concept of shoes. The body uses the shoe as a way of traveling through the world. The lowest part of your body goes into your shoe to allow you to walk. This relationship between your body and shoe is the same exact relationship between you and your body. You are an angelic soul, a neshamah. Your body is your container, your “shoe,” which allows you to interact with the world, move around, and actualize your potential! (Chazal discuss the five levels of every soul. The lowest part of the soul, the nefesh, is the part that resides within the body, just as the foot, the lowest part of the body, resides in the shoe.)
Na’al, the Hebrew word for shoe, also means to “lock,” because the shoes lock your feet in and allow you to walk around. So, too, your body locks your angelic self in, allowing you to control it and use it to navigate this physical world.
Taking Off Your Shoes: Transcending
The Nefesh HaChayim explains that the spiritual concept of removing our shoes represents transcending our physical bodies. Taking your “foot” out of your “shoe” represents taking your angelic soul out of your body. On Yom Kippur, we are transcending our physical bodies, embracing our angelic selves. As such, we remove our shoes, our “physical vessels.”
Moshe vs. Yehoshua
As we previously mentioned, both Moshe and Yehoshua were commanded to remove their shoes. Moshe was instructed to remove both shoes, whereas Yehoshua was commanded to remove one. Based on the previous discussion, let us now try to understand this mysterious command.
Prophecy was an other-worldly experience. Hashem opened and expanded the navi’s consciousness, enabling him to connect to a higher dimension of existence, one that lies far beyond the limitations of time and space, far beyond the capacity of the normal human mind. In doing so, Hashem allowed the navi to experience lofty ideas and intellectual truths, which would then get translated through the navi’s intellect down into his imaginative faculties. In a very deep sense, it was an angelic experience of the spiritual world.
This is why Moshe was commanded to remove both of his shoes before receiving n’vuah at the burning bush. Before transcending into the spiritual and angelic realm, Moshe had to remove his shoes. He had to loosen the connection between his soul and his body.
The Malbim explains the difference between Moshe and Yehoshua. Moshe was on a much higher level of n’vuah, and as such, completely transcended his body. This was expressed by removing both of his shoes, reflecting total transcendence. The same is true when kohanim ascend the duchan: When they are performing the avodah, they transcend their bodies and connect to a higher consciousness. This is because their job is to connect the finite to the infinite, and connect klal Yisrael to Hashem.
Yehoshua, however, was not on the same level as Moshe, and as such, his n’vuah, as well, was on a lower level. Consequentially, he only removed one shoe, representing his partial transcendence during his prophetic experience. He was halfway between the infinite and finite, bridging the gap between the two. Yehoshua’s leadership represents the transition from Moshe’s transcendent leadership to Yehoshua’s more immanent and this-worldly leadership. This is the transition from the midbar, a place of constant miracles, to Eretz Yisrael, a place of hishtadlus, and finding the miraculous within the natural.
The Opportunity of Yom Kippur
This is the unique opportunity that Yom Kippur represents: to transcend, to experience the infinite. Unlike other fast days, it is not a day of suffering and mourning, but one of spiritual transcendence. As the famous quote goes: “On Tish’ah B’Av, who can eat? On Yom Kippur, who needs to?” This is why the Rambam states that on Yom Kippur we “rest” from eating. This is not a day of prohibition and suffering; it is one of completely embracing the spiritual, tapping into our absolute root, our truest sense of self.
Preparation for the Year to Come
The transcendent experience of Yom Kippur lays the foundation for the rest of the year. While the physical can be destructive if misused, the ideal is not to completely transcend the physical, but rather to use the physical in order to reflect something higher. Our goal as humans is not to escape the physical, but to use it as a means of connecting to the transcendent.
This is the key behind the process we undertake through the Yamim Nora’im. We first experience Elul, then Rosh HaShanah, and then Yom Kippur, a developmental process of raising ourselves higher and higher above the physical world and deeper and deeper into the spiritual world. It is only once we create this transcendent root that we then re-immerse ourselves into physical living, but this time on an entirely new scale. Sukkos, which immediately follows Yom Kippur, embodies this lesson in embracing the physical. Our root must be transcendent, grounded firmly in the spiritual, and then atop that foundation we can descend into the physical and use it in a transcendent way.
May we be inspired to fully experience our angelic selves this Yom Kippur, and then infuse the totality of our spiritual acquisition into our physical life, elevating our actions and intentions as we move this physical world towards its ultimate spiritual root.
Shmuel Reichman is an inspirational speaker, writer, and coach who has lectured internationally at shuls, conferences, and Jewish communities on topics of Jewish Thought and Jewish Medical Ethics. He is the founder and CEO of Self-Mastery Academy (ShmuelReichman.com), the transformative online course that is revolutionizing how we engage in self-development. You can find more inspirational lectures, videos, and articles from Shmuel on his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com.