The experience associated with Yom HaKippurim is often linked to thoughts of fasting, the five עינוים, seemingly endless prayers, sin, and repentance. The central role played by confession is hard to overlook, with ten confessions recited throughout the course of the day. Indeed, many people find the confessions to be one of the most challenging aspects of the prayers, as they must confess sins they do not believe they committed or have little intention of refraining from in the future. In one of his famous Shiurim on Teshuva, Rav Soloveitchik, z”l, highlighted a different aspect of confession that may be helpful. He observes that there are a number of confessions that are particularly curious – one being that the high priest confesses the sins of his family, all of the Kohanim, and the entire Jewish People. How can one person, no matter how noble, confess the sins of another? If confession must emanate from a true sense of heartfelt contrition, how can one individual plumb the depths another’s heart of another to the point that he can confess his friend’s sins?
The Rav suggested that aside from the usual aspect of confession there is an element of atonement linked to the very act of confession; the process of confession itself serves as part of the atonement process. It is for that reason that the Kohen Gadol can, and must, confess for the nation, because his confession is not as much part of the process of repentance as it is a critical component of the process of atonement.
This insight adds a new dimension to our own confessions and to the entire experience of Yom HaKippurim. Each one of us engages in a variety of processes on Yom HaKippurim, repentance being one of them. Our confessions can certainly be part of our internal grappling with choices we made during the prior year, but they can alternately be seen as part of an atonement process as we become our own high priests on Yom Kippur. We can transform our confessions from introspectional into somewhat detached acts of atonement and allow that process to continue as we transform ourselves and our prayers throughout the course of the day.
This model sheds new light on the experience of Yom HaKippurim. After all, Yom HaKippurim literally means a day of atonement. Historically, the day is identified as the day on which Hashem gave Moshe the second set of tablets, signifying reconciliation between Him and the Jewish People. Yom HaKippurim is a day of celebration; a joyous day on which we delight in the knowledge that Hashem cleanses us as we cleanse ourselves, modeled after the original Yom HaKippurim in the Torah. The Mussaf of Yom HaKippurim, which highlights the service of the Kohen Gadol on Yom HaKippurim, also describes the intense joy and celebration that accompanied the conclusion of the service, and the Gemara describes how the Kohen Gadol did not reach his home until late that night as a result of the dancing that accompanied him on his way home.
As we allow ourselves to feel the purifying joy of Yom HaKippurim, we should also allow our experience to melt into a true inner reckoning and from that inner reckoning to flow back to an even greater experience of the celebration of atonement.