On a recent visit to one of our Hebrew School classes, I was asked what my favorite Jewish holiday is. I answered, “Purim,” naturally, “because I like to be silly.” But the kids weren’t satisfied, so they asked me, “What’s your second favorite holiday,” and I answered, “Yom Kippur.”

I realize, in retrospect, that this might paint me as a man who likes extremes, vacillating between the heights of frivolity and the depths of solemnity in just a few breaths. But the truth is tradition actually links these two incongruous days, Purim and Yom Kipur. The rabbi’s punned on the formal name Yom HaKippurim—the Day of Atonement—reading it as Yom K’Purim—a day that is like Purim, asserting some essential connection between the topsy-turvy revelry of spring and this majestic period of repentance.

There is a related teaching in the Babylonian Talmud: amar Shimon ben Gamliel: lo hayu yamim tovim lyisrael k’hamisha asar b’Av u’kh’yom hakippurim. Shimon son of Gamliel said, “There were no holidays, no yontifs, literally no days as good for Israel as the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur.” The 15th of Av was a cross between Valentines Day and a Sadie Hawkins dance, it was a day when the young women of Jerusalem would go out to the woods in white dresses and dance an invitation, or a challenge, to potential partners. What is striking is not only that the rabbi’s claim a similar joy, a similar goodness, for Yom Kippur, but that they also tell us it was a day on which the same thing happened. While the High Priest was fulfilling the ordered ritual through which he was prepared and authorized to enter the Temple’s Holy of Holies—the only time in the year that anyone was allowed in there—the white-clad daughters of Israel were already beginning to dance in the vineyards of the land.

This—what we’re doing here—is not your mother’s Yom Kippur. Your mother’s Yom Kippur seems to have been much more interesting. In ancient times, apparently, it was understood that this yom tov possessed a degree of goodness that could find expression only in such a way; that it was a day not just for fasting and self-denial, but for ecstatic dancing; worthy of comparison to Purim and Tu b’Av, these two other, unambiguously festive occasions.

This is the mystery I would like to spend a little time unraveling tonight (unless anyone has someplace they’d rather be.) What is the goodness of Yom Kippur? What joyful quality does the holiday possess in the secret recesses and chambers of its essence? And how do we find it for ourselves?

The Talmud offers its own answer to these questions : b’shleima yom hakipurim, we read, meeshum d’eet bei slichah u’mekhilah yom she’neetnu bo lukhot ha’akhronot. It makes sense that Yom Kippur would be considered such a good day because of slicha and mekhilah—forgiveness and pardon. And then it continues: it was the day, after all, that the second set of tablets was given. This is a reference to the rabbinic teaching that Yom Kippur was the day Moses brought the second set of tablets down from Mt. Sinai. You’ll recall that the first set were shattered in response to the sin of the Golden Calf—the great catastrophe of the Israelites engagement in idol worship, just as they were about to receive the Torah. If this shattering is read as a punishment for sin, then the second tablets must represent a profound act of forgiveness—God’s way of saying, “I consider you worthy of this after all.” And therefore it would be this slicha and mekhila, this reunion with the divine, that makes it such a happy day.

But there is another interesting trail leading out of this teaching for us to follow. Looking at this another way, we might read it as teaching us not just that this is a day of forgiveness and restoration after something has been broken, but that brokenness, shattering of something fundamental, is somehow necessary for the atonement to happen in the first place. If it weren’t for the initial breaking, the Israelites would not have had the opportunity to become as intimate with the divine as they did through the act of forgiveness.

This is actually not such an esoteric tradition in Judaism—the idea that a kind of breaking of the self or ego is what makes tshuva possible, bringing about greater closeness with god. Karov adonai l’nishberei lev, we read in the Psalms, v’et dakei ruakh yoshia. God is close to the broken-hearted, and saves those who are crushed in spirit. Not only are the second tablets a sign of forgiveness for the sin of the Golden Calf, but the shattering of the first tablets—this breaking—is a necessary part of the process of atonement, without which its full joy could not be realized.

I have long suspected that this same sentiment can also be found hanging out in a fairly unlikely location—the dry, legalistically formal language of Kol Nidrei, which we chanted earlier this evening. I learned something new about this prayer this year, while reading the commentary in the excellent, fairly new Conservative Mahzor, Lev Shalem. It has to do with the specific language of the prayer, all those dry terms that we think of more often than not merely as workmanlike syllables hauling a beautiful melody on their shoulders. “Kol Nidrei mentions seven types of promises,” I read, “and uses seven verbs expressing nullification.” I had never really thought about this before. Every action in this prayer has an equal and opposite reaction, in a way that we can best perceive by disassembling it, and instead of reading the list of words synonymous with vows first—nidrei, essarei, haramei, kinusei etc., and then the nullification– shran, shivikin, shivitein, biteilin umivutalin etc.—match up each word with its partner as we go down the list:

Kol nidray—all of our VOWS. Shran—UNDONE.
Essaray—all of our RENUNCIATIONS. Shivikin—REPEALED.
Haramay—our Bans. Shivitin—CANCELLED.
Konamay—our Oaths. Biteilin—VOIDED.
KHINUEI—obligations. Mivutalin—annulled.
Khinusei—Pledges. La Shririn—Not valid.
Shevuot la kayamin. Our promises not binding.

More than a dry legalistic formula, this becomes an incantation, a kind of rhythmic, verbal magic, the casting of a spell. And the rhythm of the spell is like the famous image of Penelope, the wife of Odysseus in the Odyssey, sitting at her loom, weaving and unweaving. We can see this prayer, especially when we read it like this, as a weaving and unweaving. We summon up the idea of all of the bonds we have made that give our senses of self their firmness, and then, with the magic cancellation, we unbind. Our sense of the firmness of ourselves, patched together out of the words we have used to shape and pledge ourselves, is shattered like the first set of tablets. The result, however, is not destruction or annihilation, but an atmosphere charged with a kind of unformation—like a metal object becoming molten again, a primal chaos of done things becoming undone; the world tohu vavohu, darkness upon the face of the deep and the divine wind rippling the face of the waters; in the moment just before the voice gives shape to the world and calls it good.

And, indeed, in this state of unformation, of brokenness, we can go places that we don’t normally go, just like the High Priest, daring to enter into the Holy of Holies. If YK does have a secret chamber, as I suggested it might, then this is surely it; this room that we can only go to sometimes, and only with the right preparation. But, at first glance, it doesn’t seem as if it’s joy that we find there. The rituals that the priest must go through in order to enter are detailed and intense—they bear the weight of the atonement of the people and the alternate fates of blessing and curse that hang upon it. The rabbis said that once this ceremony could no longer be performed on behalf of Israel, because the temple was destroyed—once all of the people could no longer wait in the Temple Court, in anticipation of a flesh and blood ceremony performed by one man on their behalf, the only thing left to do was to read the words describing it, as imagined in the Mishnah—to make it a journey of the imagination, with the high priest as avatar, going with him into the Holy of Holies as a way of entering into something profound within the language of our own spirits.

We follow him every step of the way—we become him, in a sense, joining ourselves to the ritual in a way that must not have been possible if and when this was actually performed in the flesh, our imaginations taking us to places that our bodies would not have been permitted to enter. He makes the ordinary morning offering, all the while aware there is something extraordinary about this day. Throughout the day he changes his garments many times, from gold to linen and back again, immersing and washing between each transition. He stands before two goats and by lots determines which is a sacrifice and which a wanderer. There is the sound and smell of animals, the sight of blood and entrails, moments when he stands before the throng, and the moment when he is alone in the chamber, wrapped up in the smoke of the incense. He is constantly shifting and changing throughout, washing and changing clothes, concealing his own flesh behind the animal bodies he opens with his knife, as if to evade some danger, as if he knows he is playing with some danger that might catch him square and unprepared. On the most basic level it is death he is playing with—we know from the fate of priests that do it wrong that these are the consequences. It’s right there in Leviticus 16, as we’ll read tomorrow. But in the language of the spirit it is something else, though it is related. Death is difficult, but we only face it once. While we live, what we seem to hide from more often is the knowledge of death.

I imagine there must be some moment in this ritual that the mishnah fails to describe, maybe because it is not supposed to be described, but only experienced. We, the High Priest, finally find ourselves in the inner chamber, a room from which there is no escape. Kol nidrei—shran. Shevuot—la kaymin. All of my vows—undone. All of my promises—no longer binding. What I see, feel, taste on my tongue is all that there will ever be for me, and there is nothing else. No more. My breaths are full, but numbered. This is a room called reality, and it is not easy to stay in it for very long—our tradition only asks us to visit it this intensely once a year. But I want to suggest to you that it is at this moment, in this Holy of Holies, that Yom Kippur will call out to us with its secret reserve of playfulness k’purim—like Purim—and with its offer of a profound joy.

I have been thinking of how to formulate this point as clearly as possible, and I have been at a loss. In the end, I have somebody else to thank for putting it plainly, the same person I have to thank for the computer on which I typed it out. Yes, I want to give the role of the voice of the divine, the voice of Yom Kippur this year, to Steve Jobs, of blessed memory, and an amazing passage you may have seen in the press over the past couple of days, from a commencement speech he delivered at Stanford a few years ago, between bouts of the illness that claimed his life earlier this week.

“Almost everything, all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure,” he said, enumerating a list whose rhythm could easily encompass all of our vows, bans, oaths, obligations, and pledges, “[all of] these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

Our traditional liturgy contains a hymn to the Kohen HaGadol, the high priest, describing what he looked like when he came walking out of the Holy of Holies, trailing the incense smoke behind him. It is said that his face was streaming with light—like Moses coming down from Mt. Sinai—with light and delight. And there were women dancing in the vineyard, and a divine wind was troubling the surface of dark waters. And it was good.

G’mar chatimah tova.