Yom Kippur: The Purifying Power of Ayin

Rabbi Akiva said, “Happy are you Israel! See before whom you purify yourselves, and who it is that purifies you? Your father in Heaven! As it is written, ‘And I will throw pure water upon you, and you will be purified.’ (Ezekiel 36:25) And it is written, ‘The Mikvah [ritual bath/purifying pool] of Israel is God.’ (Jeremiah 17:13) Just as a Mikvah purifies those who are impure, so does the Holy One purify Israel.” -Tractate Yoma 85B

On Rosh Hashanah, God opens the treasure house of heaven and a great stream of pure Divine Livingness flows down into the world. This Divine outpouring begins on Rosh Hashanah, continues through the ten days of repentance, and comes to its culmination on Yom Kippur.

The Hasidic Master Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev teaches that it is who we are in ourselves that will determine how we interact with this Divine stream of blessing. It is we who decide what we will bring into the world and into our lives during the coming year.

For the ordinary person, it will be a mixture of both good and bad, of higher and lower desires. For the more spiritually-minded – the individuals who are striving to live a life of purpose and meaning – the harvest will bring beneficial gifts, but nothing exalted or extraordinary. For the tzaddikim, the God-realized souls, this time period will bring a great influx of light, love and blessing, for themselves as well as everyone around them. [1]

The Yamim Noraim, the High Holydays, are about the resonance that we create between God and ourselves. If we are living a life of holiness, then the shefa, the Divine emanation, will naturally flow into us and whatever our needs may be: health, children, prosperity, or wisdom. If we are not living as we should, however, then the Divine emanation will flow in a negative direction, or it will dissipate out into the world around us, leaving no measurable effect at all.

This, the Hasidic Master Shlomo of Radamsk contends, is the true meaning of the special verse that we insert into our prayers during the High Holyday period: “Zacheranu lechaim, melech chafaitz bachaim” – Remember us for life, Oh King, Who desires Life. God, Rebbe Shlomo explains, wants His Divine Livingness to fill the whole world, and He has created human beings to be the chosen instruments for this spiritual work. Therefore, God desires that we constantly grow and evolve. He desires that we become ever-larger pipelines for His goodness, compassion and mercy to emanate into our physical plane of existence. [2]

There is also another way to look at this whole process. According to this perspective, who we are in ourselves and how we prepare for the High Holydays, will determine not what comes down into the world, but rather how far up we are able to reach into the eternal stream of Divine life. The sixteenth century kabbalist, the Ari, teaches that there are four different realms or worlds: the World of Asiyah (Making), the World of Yetzirah (Formation), the World of Briah (Creation) and the World of Atzilut (Emanation). If we are physically minded, then we will only be able to tap into the lowest manifestation of the Divine emanation in the world of Asiyah (Making), the realm where it takes its most concrete form. If we are more spiritually minded, then we will be able to reach up into the world of Yetzirah – the realm of good intentions and aspirations and receive from the Divine energy that is there. If we are serious seekers, then we will be able to contact the world of Briah – the realm of pure thought and ideas. And if we have dedicated the whole of our lives to God, we will ascend right up into Atzilut – the world of energies and the realm of pure Being – to draw on the infinite light and power of that Supernal Source.

Rabbi Akiva said, “Happy are you Israel! See before whom you purify yourselves, and who it is that purifies you? Your father in Heaven! As it is written, ‘And I will throw pure water upon you, and you will be purified.’ (Ezekiel 36:25) And it is written, ‘The Mikvah [ritual bath/purifying pool] of Israel is God.’ (Jeremiah 17:13) Just as a Mikvah purifies those who are impure, so does the Holy One purify Israel.”

– Tractate Yoma 85B

We all want to become pure instruments that perfectly reflect the Divine Light in this world. This is the spiritual ideal. The reality, however, is that we are imperfect beings that think, say and do many things that build barriers between God and ourselves. How do we remove these spiritual obstacles from our path? How do we clear the dross from our heart, mind and soul?

According to Rebbe Shlomo of Radamsk, the answer lies in this teaching of Rabbi Akiva. What Rabbi Akiva is telling us is that we do not purify ourselves on Yom Kippur by fasting or by abstaining from bathing and adorning ourselves, or even by reciting the hundreds of words in the prayer book. We purify ourselves by immersing the whole of our being in God, by making contact with the place of Pure Consciousness – by experiencing the vast expanse of Infinite Oneness. [3]

The Hasidim call this place, the place of Ayin or Nothingness. This Nothingness, however, is not a numbing void. It is a vibrant living space that is filled with light, love and bliss. When we touch this supernal “place”, all of our pain and sorrow is washed away through the healing power of the Oneness; all of our grief, fear and doubt vanish in the radiant beauty of the Sacred Divine Presence.

It is by linking with this place of Pure Being that the transformation and atonement of Yom Kippur takes place. On Yom Kippur, we immerse ourselves in the stillness and peace that is the fathomless depths of the Self. Our old self dissolves in this ocean of Ayin and what emerges is a briah chadasha – a new creation. We become like a newly-born child.

This is the reason for all of the laws of abstinence on Yom Kippur, like fasting or not adorning ourselves. These laws help us to try and transcend our physical needs for one day, and look toward the boundless space of Ayin.

Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev believes that the search for the place of Ayin is the motive behind the full prostrations that the Cohen Gadol (High Priest) performs in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur: the prostrations express the Cohen Gadol’s willingness to totally surrender his lower self to God. This is why we imitate his prostrations during the Avodah service in synagogue: We too are expressing our desire to offer the whole of ourselves to God. We too are striving to enter into the Holy of Holies, to connect with the place inside us where there is nothing else but God. [4]

When the Cohen Gadol enters the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, he is entering into this timeless space of purity and power. When he reappears from the inner sanctum, he is filled with the force of Ayin. He blesses the people with the Ineffable Name of God and unleashes a celestial wave of cleansing redemption that brings forth forgiveness and atonement for all of Israel.

When we leave Yom Kippur, we take with us the sublime joy of our inner experience. This spiritual joy is the essence of the holyday of Sukkot. In Temple times, this joy was symbolically expressed through the water libations that were poured out on the altar of the Temple during the seven days of the festival. These celebrations are described in the Talmud as a time of exalted singing, dancing and spiritual ecstasy. On Sukkot, there is a great downpour of “living waters” that sweeps us up in a current of supernal bliss.

The rest of the year, we put up walls to protect ourselves, to separate us from the outside world. On Sukkot, we no longer feel the need for such walls or barriers. We live out-of-doors in a sukkah or temporary hut. On Sukkot, we dwell in an expanded state of consciousness where everyone is a part of us and everywhere is home.

On Sukkot, we take a palm branch (lulav) tied with myrtle and willow branches, and a special citrus fruit called an etrog, and wave them in the six directions for each day of the festival. Through this ritual act, we are expressing our desire to spread the Divine blessings that we have received to others, our wish to let it flow out from our heart into the wider world.

Sukkot is the one occasion when the nations of the world brought offerings to the Temple in ancient Jerusalem. Sukkot is a time of Universal Vision. It is a season when we live in the consciousness of Ayin – the consciousness of Oneness, harmony and fellowship.

“Happy are you Israel, See before Whom you purify yourselves, and Who it is that purifies you. Your Father in Heaven!”

During the High Holydays we immerse ourselves in the Ocean of God and purify all of the sadness, weariness and negativity from our being. On Sukkot, the Divine Ocean comes flooding forth into our lives to fill the whole of our world with light, love and bliss.

Copyright © 2011, by Yoel Glick

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Acknowledgements    (↵ returns to text)
  1. R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, Kedushat Levi, section on Rosh Hashanah.
  2. R. Shlomo of Radamsk, Tiferet Shlomo on the Holydays, section on Rosh Hashanah
  3. R. Shlomo of Radamsk, Tiferet Shlomo, section on Yom Kippur
  4. R. Levi Yitzchak, Kedushat Levi

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