Vayeilech 2

D'var Torah by Rabbi Jay Spero


A Day of Mercy 

Contact Rabbi Spero at 862-9546 or


In last week’s Dvar Torah we explained that Rosh Hashanah relates to G-d through the attribute of strict justice. Yom Kippur, however, relates to G-d in a different way. Yom Kippur relates through the attribute of mercy.

This does not seem to be so. On Rosh Hashanah, we act as we do on most Jewish holidays. We dress up and we eat festive meals. Yom Kippur is the complete opposite. On Yom Kippur, we do not wear regular shoes, eat or drink, wash ourselves, or engage in marital relations.  We also spend the entire day in prayer. Would it not make more sense to assume that Yom Kippur is the day of strict justice while Rosh Hashanah is the day of mercy?

What is merciful about Yom Kippur?

In order for us to understand this, we must first understand how the attributes of mercy and justice relate to each other, to us, and how we relate with them to G-d.

The Maharal (Rabbi Yehuda Loewy, 16th century Czechoslovakian Rabbi) writes in his classic work “Nesivos Olam” that the attribute of G-d’s justice is actually a manifestation of His love. Someone who loves something wants to give to it. And because of this love, he cares how this thing turns out. If this thing does not turn out right a certain amount of tweaking is required. This is not out of anger at the object of his love, but is rather because of the love that he feels for it. G-d judges us because He loves us and wants what is best for us.

The concept of doing teshuva — returning to G-d — is an extremely powerful concept. “In the place where a Jew who returns from his sinful ways stands, even a completely righteous Jew does not stand” (Brochos 34b). This shows the value that G-d has for one who returns to Him.

On Yom Kippur, the historic day of doing teshuva (for this was the day when Moses descended from the mountain with the second set of tablets, a descent that proved that G-d had forgiven the Jewish people for their sin with the golden calf), we refrain from many bodily pleasures, but not because we are judging or punishing ourselves because of our shortcomings. We leave these physical pleasures behind because G-d has such an intense love for His people that on this day when we approach Him in an attempt to right our wrongs, we become so close to Him that we leave our physicality behind and we cling to Him. This is not something that is ideal for us the entire year, as normally we strive to integrate the physical and the spiritual. But on this one special day we leave the physical behind and cling to G-d.

When we take such an approach, we are able to leave the physical world behind.  This is why Yom Kippur is considered a day of mercy.

Nachmanodies writes that Rosh Hashanah is a day of merciful judgment, while Yom Kippur is a day of strict mercy.  Both mercy and judgment are methods used by G-d to show His love for us.

Rabbi Jay Spero is the rabbi of the Saranac Synagogue in Buffalo.

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