A rabbi explains 'deeper mysteries' of Yom Kippur

Posted: September 15, 2002

Yom Kippur, which arrives at sundown today, is the holiest day of the Jewish year. Most people understand that the solemn Day of Atonement is a time for fasting, prayer, reflection and inner purification.

But Rabbi Eliyahu Bergstein, an Orthodox Hasidic teacher, says the day contains "deeper mysteries" and opportunities than many Jews might appreciate. In a Yom Kippur warm-up talk here Thursday, the New York-based rabbi took listeners on a mystical soul trip that is the Hasidic tradition's specialty.

Yom Kippur, Rabbi Bergstein said, lifts Jews to a momentary pinnacle of space (olam in Hebrew), time (shanah), and soul (nefesh).

This pinnacle refers to the fact that, historically, Yom Kippur was the only day the high priest in Jerusalem, and the high priest alone, could enter the temple's inner chamber, or Holy of Holies. There, he would offer incense as a way to restore the divine cloud (oshon) that rested on the ancient tabernacle, and would perform expiation rituals on behalf of the Jewish nation.

Rabbi Bergstein, in a phone interview, explained the spiritual convergence that is at work for Jews. "In physical space, olam, there are stages in going up," he said - to Israel; to Jerusalem; to the Temple Mount; then to the ultimate, "the pinpoint spot of the Holy of Holies."

The same ascensions apply to time, he said: "There are mundane weeks; and the Rosh Chodesh new-moon periods, Rosh Hashanah and the festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot; Shabbat, and, at the peak, Yom Kippur."

Similarly, there is "the plain soul and the higher soul," he said. The "ultimate, highest soul is the high priest, the kohen gadol. . . . There is some kind of spiritual element the high priest has that no one else has, although he is not necessarily a tzaddik [righteous person]."

Here, Rabbi Bergstein added an elegant twist, employing the age-old Jewish way of playing with the Hebrew text. If you take the first letters of the key words olam, shanah and nefesh, he said, you get ayin, shin and nun. And those spell oshon - the divine cloud.

"We find that word used at the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, that Mount Sinai was full of oshon," a cloud or smoke, he said, citing Exodus 19:18.

"The Sinai experience the Jews had seems to have a connection with the experience of the high priest in the Holy of Holies. He was the highest person in the highest time in the highest place.

"We believe that every person is still standing at Sinai, and because the Torah keeps repeating the word oshon, there is a certain amount of divine connection to the priest on Yom Kippur."

So if Jewish souls are on esoteric pinnacles tonight and tomorrow, how should they seize the moment in the everyday world? Look to the pharaoh, the rabbi said.

In an encounter in Genesis 47:8-9, Jacob is presented to the Egyptian pharaoh. The ruler greets the elderly Jewish patriarch with only one question - what is your age? - and Jacob responds with a lament about his long, hard life.

"The whole conversation may look weird," Rabbi Bergstein said, "but I believe pharaoh knew the value of time.

"The literal translation is, 'How many are the days of the years of your life?' Pharaoh was saying, 'Jacob, you the patriarch of this Jewish family, the son of the wise man Joseph. Maybe you can tell me the secret of time and using it correctly.' "

"Jacob understood the question and answered, 'I have not maximized my time. Few and bad were the days of my life. I haven't used them as preciously as my father Isaac and my grandfather Abraham did.' "

It's an insight for Yom Kippur, Rabbi Bergstein said.

"Yom Kippur has a sublime message that says focus on your soul and the time it's being given on this world and the people you come in contact with. You don't have to be high priest. Everyone at Sinai had a similar experience [of relevation] that gives us the ability to touch that highest level."

Rabbi Bergstein, 52, who was ordained in the Bobover Hasidic sect, gave his talk here at the Etz Chaim outreach center in Center City.

Tonight and tomorrow, he will observe Yom Kippur in Bala Cynwyd with another Orthodox outreach group, Aish Hatorah. He'll be doing some private soul work, he said.

"The soul is my business. I try to pick myself up to where the day is a spiritual chiropractic for me."

Contact Jim Remsen at 215-854-5621 or jremsen@phillynews.com.

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