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The True You

In the janowska concentration camp there was a notorious kapo named Schneeweiss. He was considered by the Jews as cruel as the Nazis were. Before Yom Kippur a group of Jews came to Rabbi Israel Spira the Bluzhover Rebbe and asked him to approach Schneweiss and to request on their behalf a special work assignment for Yom Kippur. They didn’t want to perform any biblically forbidden labors and wanted permission to pray the special prayers of the day. The Rebbe was afraid to ask but didn’t want to disappoint his fellow Jews. The Rebbe approached the Kapo and begged him to assign this group of Jews to work that wouldn’t entail biblically forbidden labor. Something touched in the heart of this cold cruel man and he agreed to try and help.

Mr. Schneweiss arranged that on the morning of Yom Kippur the Rebbe and his followers were assigned to clean the barracks. He gave them rags and they didn’t use any cleaning agents so as not to violate the holiness of the day. During the day two nazis walked in with a cart laden with delicacies never before seen in the camp. There was steaming meat and white bread instead of the watery filth that was normally served as “soup”.

“Quick, get up and eat” one of the Nazis barked.

Nobody moved.

Schneeweiss stepped forward and said “Today is the holiest day of the year, we Jews fast on this day.”

The Nazi was shocked at his insolence “You are all working for the Whermacht. If you starve yourselves you are guilty of sabotaging our war effort, whomever does not eat is a traitor. Tell them to eat!!” He screamed.

Schneeweiss drew himself up a little straighter and said “We Jews do not eat on Yom Kippur.”

The Nazi took out his revolver and shot Schneeweiss at point blank range. He ordered the stunned Jews to clean up the blood of the holy martyr and left the room.

[“Hasidic Tales Of The Holocaust" by Yaffa Eliach]

This story expresses what Yom Kippur is all about. Let me explain: We all know the story of Yoseph and his brothers. Yoseph was sold by his brothers and as a result suffered terribly in an Egyptian dungeon for 12 years.

The Torah relates that after Yaacov their father died the brothers approached Yoseph and told him that Yaacov instructed them to tell Yoseph as follows “O please [“ana”] kindly forgive the spiteful deed of your brothers and their sin for they have done you evil.” [50/17]

The Medrash [Tanchuma Shmos 2] teaches that the reality is that Yaacov never told the brothers to ask Yoseph for forgiveness. [In fact there is no indication from the Torah that Yaacov ever found out what that the brothers had sold Yoseph.] The brothers made the whole thing up because they were afraid of Yoseph possibly taking revenge now that his father was dead. The Medrash adds that because the brothers asked Yoseph for forgiveness in the future the Kohen Gadol would be able to enter the Holy of Holies and beseech Hashem for forgiveness in the very same language “Ana Hashem”.

Excuse me for being rude but this seems flat out WEIRD. What is the connection between Yoseph’s brothers asking him forgiveness and the Kohen Gadol asking forgiveness on behalf of the Jewish people on Yom Kippur? Moreover the whole story that the brothers told Yoseph was a complete fabrication!! Why should this be a source of merit??

My Holy teacher the Tolna Rebbe Shlita explained as follows: The first Lubavitcher Rebbe Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi explained that every Jew has ten layers in his heart, each layer deeper that the previous one. The deepest layer of one’s heart is the pure, unsullied level of being, the part of a Jew that does not want to sin and just wants to fulfill the will of G-d. On Yom Kippur we try to bring that part of ourselves to the fore. We come before Hashem and say “The true me is really a holy tzaddik. It is the external layers of my heart that caused me to sin.”

Now we can understand the Medrash. Chazal teach us that one is even allowed to bend the truth in order to create peace. So the brothers knew that the deepest desire of Yaacov would have been to tell Yoseph that he should forgive his brothers. Yaacov certainly wanted peace! So the brothers were in essence reading into Yaacov’s heart and deepest desire without his ever having said so.

This is exactly what the Kohen Gadol is doing on Yom Kippur. He is asking Hashem to look deep into the hearts of the Jews and see that they are really holy. It was just the external parts of themselves that caused them to sin. But their essence is pure.

That is also why we start the day with kol nidrei. Why do we begin Yom Kippur by releasing ourselves from our vows? What does that have to do with teshuva? The answer is that we are saying - "That person who vowed WASN'T THE TRUE ME and therefore I should be freed from the oath." Just like something external causes us to sin so too our oaths were only external. We didn't really mean it.

Every Jew is inherently holy - even a Kapo like Schneeweiss. On Yom Kippur the truth is revealed. “Mi kiamcha Yisrael goy echad b’aretz” - Who is like you O Israel, [you are] unique amongst the nations.

Gmar chasima tova to all of my beloved friends and may this year be the beginning of tremendous success in all of your endeavors, good health, happiness and the geulah hashleimah!

With heartfelt blessings,

Elchanan ben Henna Miriam

Your faithful servant from Jerusalem

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About me

  • I'm Rabbi Ally Ehrman
  • From Old City Jerusalem, Israel
  • I am a Rebbe in Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh.
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