Snuggled in my lap,
nestled her head
in the crook of my arm.
grew heavy with sleep
through closed eyelids
to keep her safe.
The Rabbis teach that on Yom Kippur, we, each and every one of us, are like an angel. As the great 16th century rabbi and mystic Rabbi Yehudah Loew, the Maharal of Prague, explained: "All of the mitzvot that God commanded us on [Yom Kippur] are designed to remove, as much as possible, a person's relationship to physicality, until he is completely like an angel." What did he mean by that? What do we do during these 25 hours of Yom Kippur that make us angelic? What are angels?
Many people picture the angels as being white creatures; because of their purity, and that we wear white on Yom Kippur in order to look like them. But, how do we know what angels look like? One way is through the writings of those who say that they have seen angels and/or the heavenly court. There are many visions of G-d throughout the Tananch and rabbinic literature, including the first chapter of Ezekial, 1 Kings 22:19-23, and Isaiah 6:2-3.
Ezekial’s vision of sapphires, fire, and spinning wheels is more overwhelming than the most elaborate Broadway show or the biggest screen movie with the most outrageous special effects. It is too over the top for me. It is Isaiah’s vision, his “call scene”, that I find most powerful. Isaiah described his vision, saying:
שְׂרָפִים עֹמְדִים מִמַּעַל לוֹ, שֵׁשׁ כְּנָפַיִם שֵׁשׁ כְּנָפַיִם לְאֶחָד: בִּשְׁתַּיִם יְכַסֶּה פָנָיו, וּבִשְׁתַּיִם יְכַסֶּה רַגְלָיו--וּבִשְׁתַּיִם יְעוֹפֵף. וְקָרָא זֶה אֶל-זֶה וְאָמַר, קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת, מְלֹא כָל-הָאָרֶץ, כְּבוֹדוֹ.
“Above Him stood the seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew; And one called unto another, and said: Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory” (Isaiah 6:2-3).
Isaiah’s vision has just the right mix of spectacular heavenly other-worldliness combined with a simplicity and gravity of a spiritual ritual or ceremony. And I am clearly not alone. As Professor Michael Fishbane comments in his book about the Haftorot, people have written volumes of poetry about Isaiah’s vision. Isaiah’s angels are indeed miraculous creatures that capture the imagination.
But, in our attempt to become angels for a day, we do not actually attempt to look like the angels of Isaiah’s vision. While it might be fun to dress up as angels on Yom Kippur, especially for the children, it would probably be uncomfortable to try and actually go about the day wearing six wings, especially if we had to actually keep our faces and our legs covered! Instead of trying to look like the angels, therefore, we try to imitate their actions: the outward manifestation of their spirits. And what actions do these these fantastical angels that Isaiah saw take? They praise G-d.
That doesn’t sound so hard. It certainly sounds easier than holding wings over our faces all day! In our prayers, we, too, are used to praising G-d. The Rabbis, however, wanted to get their angelic imitation just right. In tractate Hullin of the Babylonian Talmud, the rabbis argued over how exactly the angels Isaiah saw recited their praise of G-d. The Talmudic sage Rav thought that there are three groups of angels each reciting a different portion of the verse קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת, מְלֹא כָל-הָאָרֶץ, כְּבוֹדוֹ. I imagine that such a scene would be like a concert, where the sopranos, altos, and tenors are each singing a different part, but they all combine together to a beautiful whole. In contrast, others believe that there were only two groups of angels. The first group called out “kadosh”, then the second group answered “kadosh”, and finally they joined together to say “kadosh”. The medieval French commentator Rashi “suggests that the calling is a mutual angelic invitation to sanctify G-d, performed in unison”. The rabbis who wrote our siddur, our prayer book, interpreted Isaiah’s vision as a combination of these latter two options. Two groups of angels called out antiphonally, prompting each other with the next line of praise. This is the way that we reenact the scene on a daily basis, with the two groups of angels being represented by the shaliach tsibor, the prayer leader, and the congregation.
Yes, you heard that right. We reenact this angelic scene every day. On weekdays, we do it four times a day, in fact. Today, on Yom Kippur, we do it more than any other day during the year – seven times! We say this line קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת מְלֹא כָל-הָאָרֶץ, כְּבוֹדוֹ every time that we do a repetition of the Amidah, the silent prayer. We also say it two other times during the morning service, Shacharit!
I am clearly not the only one fascinated by Isaiah’s vision of these six-winged angels praising G-d. The rabbis incorporated it into our liturgy three times within the space of a single service. We call our recitation of Isaiah’s vision the kedusha, the sanctification. Why do we say the same thing so many times in such a short space of time? Perhaps you have heard of the well known teaching strategy: see one, do one, teach one. The rabbis were master teachers who understood this principle well. See one, do one, teach one. First, Isaiah shows us his vision of the angels, and we watch what it is that the angels do. Then, we stand up and try it ourselves during the repetition of the Amidah. As we recite the kedusha of the Amidah, we mimic the angels. So, we stand with our feet together, to mimic the single leg that the angels had, and we rise up on our toes to mimic the way that the angles flew, and to try to rise up to the level of the heavens where G-d sits on the heavenly throne. Finally, at the end of the morning service, we say these words one last time, קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת, מְלֹא כָל-הָאָרֶץ, כְּבוֹדוֹ. Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.
In tractate Hagigah of the Talmud, Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani says that Rabbi Yochanan taught that from every word that G-d spoke, an angel was created. The Tosofot, medieval commentators on the Talmud, agreed that new angels are constantly being created from a river of fire. These new angels rush to sing a song of praise to G-d and then are almost immediately banished from the heavenly realm. Yet, simultaneously, the heavenly host is comprised of fixed angels about whom we even have names and descriptions. What is it that distinguishes the “permanent” angels from those who barely survive a single song of praise? The Tosofot say that the difference is in how they treat one another. The “permanent” angels wait for one another before singing G-d’s praises. As Isaiah said, וְקָרָא זֶה אֶל-זֶה וְאָמַר “And one called unto another, and said”… In other words, they called out to each other, each checking to see if the others were ready before proceeding to sing their song קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת; מְלֹא כָל-הָאָרֶץ, כְּבוֹדוֹ “Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.” The newly formed angels, however, were impatient and thought only of themselves as they rushed to offer their own praises to G-d. Clearly, when imitating the angels on Yom Kippur, we need to be careful. We want to be like the permanent heavenly host, not like the extremely temporary inconsiderate firey newcomers.
So rather than rushing in on Yom Kippur, we prepare ourselves to be transformed from humans to angels. We have prepared for it both during the month of Elul prior to Rosh Hashanah and during the Aseret Yomei Tshuvah, the 10 days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. By seeing, imitating, and teaching the praises the angels sing to G-d, we too become holy people. How do we do this? Of course, we have asked forgiveness from our friends and families, our colleagues and acquaintances for all of the ways in which we may have hurt them during the preceding year. But we must go further than this We must avoid becoming what Isaiah felt that he was, people of “unclean lips”, as it says וָאֹמַר אוֹי-לִי כִי-נִדְמֵיתִי, כִּי אִישׁ טְמֵא-שְׂפָתַיִם אָנֹכִי “Then said I: Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). In order to become people of “clean” or “pure” lips, we must refrain from speaking poorly about those around us, whether they are our enemies, mere acquaintances, or even friends. It is not easy to refrain from passing on a juicy bit of gossip, or from retelling an embarrassing moment we witnessed during the day. But every time that we stop ourselves from speaking poorly of someone else, we become one step closer to angels, one step closer to holiness. Because it is not enough to be holy here in the sanctuary in the midst of prayer, we need to be holy in our everyday lives, in our schools and in our work-places.
Only then can the day of Yom Kippur itself comes to atone for all of the sins bein adam l’makom, between a person and G-d. In other words, assuming that we have done our part by doing tshuvah, repenting and vowing not to repeat our mistakes, on Yom Kippur, our slates are wiped clean. Our spirits are one again as pure as on the day we were born. We symbolically externalize this purity by wearing white. And then are we ready on Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement to become like angels.
But, to become like angels, we need to know what it is that separates humans from angels in the first place. One of the most prominent ways in which humans and angels are believed to differ is in their physical nature. We humans are rooted in our physicality and much of our time is spent preoccupied with that physicality. We agonize over the way that our bodies look both clothed and unclothed. We spend countless hours shopping for the perfect outfit for an event. We spend hours toning our muscles by going to the gym, playing sports, running, and walking. We cover up what we view as our own physical imperfections by putting on makeup, shaving, and undergoing plastic surgery. Most of all, we spend an extraordinary amount of time figuring out how to fuel our physical bodies – deciding what and when to eat and how to make sure that both food and drink are available when we want and need it.
On this day, however, we do our utmost to deny our physicality and transcend the physical world. The most obvious way we attempt this spiritual ascension is to refrain from eating, drinking and preparing food on Yom Kippur. (Though, this can be extra hard as many of us find ourselves fixated on food at various points throughout the day.) And while fasting might be the most apparent, it is not the only sacrifice made our bodies make to our spirit. We refrain from other physical pleasures as well. For the 25 hours of Yom Kippur, we are forbidden to engage in sexual relations. We don’t anoint ourselves with oils or lotions, and we don’t wash our bodies. In other words, we try our best to shed our corporal desires and become spiritual beings, like the angels, rather than the physical beings that we are for every other day of the year.
On Yom Kippur, we are given a short window of time in which we truly strive to be like angels. We make every attempt possible to rise above our physicality and focus on our spiritual sides, by denying physical needs and desires. We externalize our pure spirit in white clothes. We spend the day in praise of G-d, repeating קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת, מְלֹא כָל-הָאָרֶץ, כְּבוֹדוֹ like the angels in Isaiah’s vision; and we do this standing upright like the angels, spending most of Yom Kippur standing in the synagogue. Like the permanent angels, we make ourselves holy through careful speech, deferring to others and not rushing either to mental judgment or physical action. Through our imitation of the angels, we strive to be inspired to new heights for the coming year, and many years to come.
The six wings
who long for wings
to reach higher,
must forgo shortcuts
and dizzying heights
for the power in our legs.