Used Only Once
The Torah states in the weekly portion (Acharei Mot) that the High Priest had a special set of garments he donned on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur. It was unlike the garments he wore all year round: eight garments woven from gold and wool. On the Day of Atonement, he dressed in four garments (a turban, shirt, pants, and a belt) made of simple, pure, white linen.
Yet there is an intriguing law stated in our portion: “And Aaron shall enter the Tent of Meeting and remove the linen garments that he had worn when he came into the Holy, and there, he shall store them away.” (Leviticus 16:23). As Rashi explains, “This teaches us that they require being stored away forever, and he shall not use those four garments for any other Yom Kippur." (Toras Kohanim 16:61; Yoma 12b).
But this is strange. The priestly garments he wore all year could be used for many years, till they withered. Yet the Yom Kippur garments which he wore only once a year could never be used again? Why squander a set of expensive clothing used only once? Why not use them again on the following Yom Kippur?
In truth, this law captures the essence of Yom Kippur: the capacity for renewal. We often become addicted to our comfort zones and limitations. We get stuck in the quagmire of resentment, grudges, hate, misery, insecurity, envy, bad habits, addictions, fear, guilt, shame, and the belief that we are worthless. We enter into a box, one that restricts our flow and authenticity.
The vital message articulated in the institution of Yom Kippur is that I can start anew. The soul, just like its source, is capable of liberation and transformation. I have the power to create myself in the image I choose—according to my deepest and most authentic values. Yom Kippur I can become a new person. The “clothes” I wore last Yom Kippur will not be brought into the equation. I do not come into the process with any “old stuff,” not even old uniforms.
I may need lots of assistance and support to get out of the cycle of anxiety and release the traumas that hold me captive and deprive me of my wholesomeness, but I must always recall that the past must not become the future. I can let go of my old garments, because in truth they are only garments; they do not constitute the core of my being.
In his book of memoirs “All the Rivers Run to the Sea,” Noble Prize Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel tells the following episode. I thought of it in connection with Holocaust Remembrance Day.
On my first visit to the Lubavitcher Rebbe's court [at 770 Eastern Parkway, in Brooklyn, NY]... I had informed him at the outset that I was a hassid of Vishnitz, not Lubavitch, and that I had no intention of switching allegiance.
“The important thing is to be a hassid,” he replied. “It matters little whose.”
One year, writes Wiesel, during Simchas Torah, I visited Lubavitch, as was my custom.
“Welcome,” he said. “It's nice of a hassid of Vishnitz to come and greet us in Lubavitch. But is this how they celebrate Simchas Torah in Vishnitz?”
“Rebbe,” I said faintly, “we are not in Vishnitz, but in Lubavitch.”
“Then do as we do in Lubavitch,” he said.
“And what do you do in Lubavitch?"
"In Lubavitch we say L’chayim.”
“In Vishnitz, too.”
“Very well. Then say L’chayim.”
He handed me a glass filled to the brim with vodka.
“Rebbe,” I said, “in Vishnitz a hassid does not drink alone.”
“Nor in Lubavitch,” the Rebbe replied.
He emptied his glass in one gulp. I followed suit.
“Is one enough in Vishnitz?” the Rebbe asked.
“In Vishnitz,” I said bravely, “one is but a drop in the sea.”
“In Lubavitch as well.”
He handed me a second glass and refilled his own. He said L’chaim, I replied L’chaim, and we emptied our glasses.
“You deserve a brocha (blessing),” he said, his face beaming with happiness. “Name it.”
I wasn't sure what to say.
“Let me bless you so you can begin again.”
“Yes, Rebbe,” I said. “Give me your brocha.”
And the Rebbe blessed Eli Wiesel to begin his life anew.
Indeed, the man who was still tormented by the horrors of “Night” (the name of his first book), where in the long night of Auschwitz he saw the most horrific sights the human eye could endure, the individual who did not want to marry and have children feeling that it is unfair to bring Jewish children into such a cruel and brutal world, ultimately rebuilt his life from the ashes, creating a family, and becoming a spokesman for hope and conscience the world over.
On the day of his son’s bris, Wiesel writes, friends sent gifts. “But the most moving gift came from an unexpected place.” It was a beautiful bouquet of flowers sent from the Lubavitcher Rebbe. I guess it represented his blessings for a life invigorated with a fresh start, blossoming like a beautiful, fresh flower. He named his son, Elisha, after his father who perished in Buchenwald.
As Eli Weisel once reminded me, this was just a few weeks before my own bris, which Weisel attended, as my late father attended his son’s bris. My father and Eli worked closely together for many years as Jewish journalists. A survivor of Hitler and a survivor of Stalin—like so many other survivors of unspeakable horrors—they both chose to take out a new lease on life, love and happiness.