The sky is black. The chazan proclaims “Tekiah Gedolah”. The community is stirred by the great, long resonant blast of the shofar. It is the end of Yom Kippur; the day of fasting is over. As our stomachs rumble we experience a sense of lightheadedness and contentment, we go out into the night confident that we are forgiven by God.
Jewish tradition has always understood the word ta’anu as self-affliction. The Mishnah teaches that on Yom Kippur we oppress ourselves with fasting and other restrictions. Implicit in this understanding is that we are punishing ourselves for past misdeeds and the purpose of the fast is punishment.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the 20th-century American thinker, said: “On Yom Kippur, since a Jew is like an angel, ver darf essen (who needs to eat)?… One day a year we transcend the human to enter the state of ver darf essen.” On Yom Kippur we are spiritually purifying ourselves of all of the impurity of the previous year: of death, illness and our human moral frailties.
Apart from the rabbinic tradition, biblical scholars present a slightly different interpretation of the verb ta’anu. Rather than self-affliction we are engaging in a day of self-discipline to live up to the ideal presented in Genesis that human beings are created in the image of God.
Most of the year our very humanness necessarily keeps us from reaching God’s intention for humanity. The Creator of the Universe has no need for sustenance and so on the holiest day of the year we abstain from our needs for food, drink and human intimacy; through our fast God purifies us.
Through abstention from human needs we are purged of our day-to-day impurity. On Yom Kippur every Jew, together with all the Jews in the world, engages in a day long journey to purge their sins; striving for holiness, they imitate God’s ways.