Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook Photo Credit: Shuku (own work) @Wikipedia Commons
No hours were more difficult in the life of our forebears than those just before the onset of the awesome day of Yom Kippur. These were moments of intense introspection and religious upheaval in the human soul. Both Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Abraham Joshua Heschel have described the palpable aura of trepidation on this Day of Judgment.
In an attempt to explain this phenomenon, former Chief Rabbi of Israel, the venerable Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook (Olat Re’iyah, II, page 356) draws attention to a most curious phrase in the confessional prayers, which are said on this awesome day: “My God, before I was formed, I was of no worth, and now that I have been formed, it was as if I was not formed.” Rabbi Kook explains that the first of part of this confession is indeed easy to understand. Before I was formed I was obviously of no worth since I did not yet exist! But once formed, why should the prayer say that my existence is as if I had not been formed? The very fact that I exist is confirmation that I have been formed and that I do indeed exist. What then is the meaning of this strange confession?
Rabbi Kook explains the deeper import of these words: When I was not yet formed, I was obviously of no worth, since the fact that I did not yet exist meant that there was no need for me to exist. But now that I have been formed, there must be a reason for my being. There must be a mission that I am to fulfill, something which only I am able to accomplish. This is an exhilarating thought. My existence is of crucial importance not just for myself, but for all of mankind and the entire universe.
So what is the soul-searching that I do at this solemn hour of Yom Kippur? That despite my inherent importance to the universe, perhaps I have not been living up to my mission, nor have I succeeded in my attempts to accomplish it. If that is so, then my whole existence is called into question. So, “now that I have been formed, it is as if I was not formed”. This awe-inspiring thought stands at the center of Yom Kippur. The trembling of our forebears on the eve of Yom Kippur was indeed that of great fear - not fear of punishment or death, but of not rising to the challenge to live in God’s presence and fulfill one’s destiny.
This idea is reflected in the famous story about the Rebbe Reb Zushe of Anapoli. Reb Zushe was troubled before he passed away; his friends asked him: “Reb Zushe, of what do you have to be fearful?" He replied, "I am not worried that I will be asked at the gates of heaven why I was not like Moses, or like Rambam or like the Ba'al Shem Tov. I clearly did not have their intellectual or spiritual skills. I am worried that I will be asked: ‘Zushe, why weren't you Reb Zushe?’ I am worried that I have talents and potential that have not been used fully.”
As Jews, we are privileged to have one day in the year to remind us of our central importance to Creation. Yet we are bidden, at the same time, not to forget that this importance stems from a unique mission each of us is bidden to fulfill. On Yom Kippur, the Creator remembers us, but we are also commanded to remember ourselves. It is also a day of self-judgment. “Zushe: discover your unique mission to better the world, and endeavor to be the best Reb Zushe you can.”
[Based on “Thoughts to Ponder,” # 197, by Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo, http://www.cardozoacademy.info/thoughts-to-ponder/jealousy-on-erev-yom-kippur-ttp-197/]