Yom Kippur: Letting Go

Posted by James Jacobson-Maisels on September 17, 2015
Topics: Yom Kippur

On Yom Kippur, we let go. We let go of food, drink, sex, and comfort. We try to let go, to not hold onto our normal ideas and practices of what we need.

On Yom Kippur, we reenact the Temple service of the High Priest and his entry into the holy of holies. This entry has an important lesson for us. The deeper you enter into the temple, the less there is. The display, sacrifice, songs and crowds disappear as you enter inwards until, in the holy of holies, there is little left, no commotion, no elaborate ceremonies.

On Yom Kippur, we are trying to come to the holy of holies. And when we do, that red thread — the thread of sin, anger, hate, or resentment — is transformed into a snowy white of peace, forgiveness and reconciliation. This is one way of understanding the process described in the avodah service: to transform the fiery energy of hate to the cool openness of peace and healing.

So, what can we let go of this year?

Letting go is what allows us to encounter the divine. The Psalms (verse 46:11) on a peshat level (the common literal reading) would be understood as, “Desist! Realize that I am God! I dominate (arum) the nations; I dominate (arum) the earth.” But on a deeper level it tells us, “Relax (hirpu) and know that I am God.” When we let go, when we release, we see divinity; for it is only our defenses, our walls, our fear which stop us from seeing the divine presence that is always there.

How do we do release? The verse has its own answer, reading “arum” at the level of derash (Rabbinic interpretation) not as “dominate,” but as “exalt.”  When we exalt, when we touch awe, when we see that which is so far beyond us, when we move beyond our limited perspective, we stop holding on so tight. Or, to take it a step further, we can read arum homonym-ically at the level of sod as “naked, exposed.” When we let go (ie. stop protecting ourselves), and when we let it all in, we are open to the encounter with the divine.

What might it feel like to try this right now? Let go of the idea of who we are and who we have to be, instead just touching our true, always-present divine nature. Let go of the burden you are carrying around, the burden you can put down, the burden you don’t need, the burden of your fear, anger, resentment, jealousy, discomfort, shame, anxiety, or whatever your favorite burden is. Right now, invite yourself to just let go.

Perhaps this is the meaning of Kol Nidrei, this moving yet bizarre prayer where we annul all of our vows, both past and future. Perhaps annulling vows is about letting go, about impermanence. Perhaps it is about us not being fooled into thinking that we get to decide, that we are in control, that we can know how everything works out. Can we let go of things being a certain way? Can we let go of being in control? Can we let go of this vision of our lives, our homes, our careers, our partnerships and how it all has to be?

This doesn’t mean we have no vision of a good life and a good world that we want to pursue, but that we are not grasping for it, that we know we can’t guarantee it will turn out our way.

This is the invitation of Yom Kippur, to let go. So I invite us all to let go, to drop into the spaciousness which is our nature and the love which awaits us behind all of our barriers and fears. May we let go. May we use the letting go of the fast as an arrow to point us to a deeper letting go of the self and the journey of the High Priest as a map for our journey to our center of silence, our holy of holies.


Inspired by what you read? Apply now for Awakening the Divine: Pardes Jewish Spirituality Retreat with James Jacobson-Maisels and others. Dec 22-27, PA.

About James Jacobson-Maisels

James grew up outside Hershey, PA and in Bloomfield Hills, MI. He is adjunct faculty of Jewish Thought and Mysticism and Jewish Spiritual Practices and Meditation at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, and also teaches at Yeshivat Hadar in New York City at Haifa University and at the Hannaton Educational and Spiritual Center in the Galilee. Click here to read more.

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