How should a non-Jew relate to Yom Kippur
This week I was asked by one of my students the following question: Should a non-Jew that has taken upon himself the laws of Noah fast on Yom Kippur? Fasting and observing the Day of Atonement is not mentioned as one of the 7 Noachide laws. How does the holy day of Yom Kippur relate to a non-Jew?
Looking deeper into the meaning of the special Day of Atonement and the Noachide laws one can find a reason why a non-Jew should observe this holy day. One of the seven laws of Noah is the law not to practice idolatry. This means that every human being is required to believe in Hashem the creator of the universe and not worship anything or anyone else but G-D. If someone truly believes in G-D and loves and fears Him – his heart should be overtaken with embarrassment and pain after sinning. Asking himself questions like -how could I have forsaken the word of G-D? True faith is constant awareness that the Divine presence surrounds us and is aware of every one of our actions. But even more so it is realizing that our soul is so high and that in reality we are part of Hashem Himself. This Mitzvah of devotion and faith in Hashem is what the holiday of Yom Kippur is all about. The holiday of Yom Kippur teaches us that a person can cleanse himself from his sins through repentance – which means to return to Hashem. Our souls come from a very high spiritual place and enter a physical body which serves as a garment for our souls. Let us imagine trying to remove a stain on a white shirt. It is very hard to get it out completely and almost always leaves some impression. Similarly, by sinning we are staining the vestment of our souls. We are forcing our soul to dress in inappropriate garments. It is likened to a queen dressed in rags. It is interesting that common symbols of mourning and repentance are wearing a sackcloth and ash. This reminds us that we have stained the apparel of our souls. It would seem that someone who has tainted the garment of his soul would always leave some impression. But no, on Yom Kippur it is our custom to where white garments that symbolize purity. G-D says to us “for it is on this day that atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you; you shall be purified from all your sins before Hashem.” (Leviticus 16:30) Here the Torah reveals to us the power of this awesome day. This is an amazing gift Hashem has given us. By confessing and showing true remorse, and taking upon ourselves not to return to our folly, we can cleanse ourselves and start again with a clean slate. The word for repentance in Hebrew comes from the Hebrew word to return. The Talmud in Pesachim 54:1 teaches us that one of the 7 things proceeded the creation of the world was repentance. This means that we are returning to our true selves that came from the most pure of sources. This is what our prayer we say every morning when we wake up – Hashem the soul that you gave me is pure. Every human being Jew and non-Jew alike is required to return to his true self. This is what the Day of Atonement is all about!
It is interesting that we read on Yom Kippur at the afternoon minchah service the Prophet Jonah. The story of Jonah raises some very difficult questions. G-d tells the prophet Jonah to go to the Assyrian city of Nineveh (present day Iraq) and say to them that their evil ways have come before Me. In other words, G-D is asking Jonah to tell the people of Nineveh to repent otherwise they will be punished. Jonah the prophet does not want to fulfill this prophecy and runs away on a ship. The Mishnah in the tractate Sanhedrin 11:5 teaches us that if a prophet does not relate his prophecy to those who it was intended for are liable to death by heaven. In other words, their lives will be shortened. Yonah not wanting to go to Ninveh was endangering his own life. Our tradition explains that the reason he did not want to go was because he knew that the people of Ninveh would heed his call of repentance and this would stir up trouble for Israel who has heard many prophets and still did not repent. In addition, shortly after from the kindom of Ninveh will arise those that banishes the 10 tribes of Israel. Jonah wanted to prevent the falling of the kingdom of Israel. Nevertheless, G-D did not let Jonah forsake his mission. Jonah seemed like he was acting with logic. He was devoted to his people and did not want to cause harm to them in any way. Why did Hashem force him to give the prophetic message to Nineveh? Who would bring harm to the people of Israel His chosen nation? Jonah was being taught a great lesson about the power of repentance. True repentance can cleanse any sin even the most serious of transgressions. One can never give up hope in mankind for repenting and returning to G-D. This is an important lesson for Israel. G-D was teaching Jonah that one day redemption will come and that all the nations on earth repent and return to Him. Hashem is reminding us that we must be a light to the nations. As a chosen people, we have the power to rectify all of mankind by our positive influence. Jonah running away on a boat was trying to avoid his mission as a light to the nations. The interaction between Jonah and the men on the ship are exactly the relationship that must be developed between Israel and the nations. Our sages teach us that there were representatives of all 70 nations on the ship. Each one prayed to their false gods and were not answered. Until Jonah himself intervened and showed them the reason for the stormy sea was him. He brought them to G-d. I read somewhere that looking in the verses in Jonah chapter 1 verse five, ten, and sixteen we see a progression of fear of G-D that develops gradually as events take place. First it says in verse 5 that the seamen feared and shouted to their gods, then in verse ten is says that they feared a great fear, then finally in verse 16 they feared a great fear of Hashem. In my opinion, this demonstrates Jonah’s purpose and Divine mission in blessing the nations in finding Hashem! I think this is illuded to in the next part of the story when Jonah is swallowed up by a fish. In Hebrew DAG. The numerical value of DAG is 7. The Dalet is four and the Gimel which is 3. This hints that the 70 nations or 7 in Gematriah Katan(small Gematriah), will try to swallow us up if we don’t do our job as being a light to them. On Yom Kippur there is a very personal and intimate side which relates specifically to the people of Israel. In Leviticus 16:17 And he shall effect atonement for himself, for his household, and for all the congregation of Israel. We see how the Torah stresses atonement for Aaron then his house and them finally the people of Israel. G-D is teaching us the responsibility that all of Israel has for one another. We can never forget that we are one united nation. As we learned about in the covenant mentioned in parashat Nitzavim. (see my essay) Therefore, on Yom Kippur we can easily get caught up focusing only on ourselves as the people of Israel. This is why we need the lesson of Jonah on Yom Kippur. Not only on Yom Kippur but at the most special time of the holy day at Mincha as the holiday comes to an end. Elijah the prophet was answered at mincha time. Hashem wants this important impression to be made as we close the Day of Atonement. This message continues through the holiday of Succoth where Israel will bring 70 sacrifices for the nations. At the same time, Israel must always remember who it is. This is what the holiday of Shmini Azeret is all about.
I want to bless all our dear friends with a Gimar Chatimah Tovah and a beautiful happy and healthy New Year with all the greatest blessings of life.
Rabbi Moshe Goldsmith