By: Daniel Feldman, Contributor
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The key to such change begins with our own attitudes regarding not just the concept or meaning of Yom Kippur, but the very letters that comprise the word Kippur itself. The letters of the word Kippur are Kaf Peh Vav Resh. Besides numerical value, the names of the Hebrew letters have meaning, as well. Specifically:
Kaph means Palm, as in the palm of the hand. The concept is that the palm of the hand is turned upward to be visible, and it receives items.
Peh means Mouth – a critical part of the body that can have far more power than all the other parts of the body combined. One encouraging word to another can be the impetus that sparks greatness. Similarly, lashon hara – gossip – destroys relationships and entire communities.
Vav means Hook – I’ll explain it’s use in the word Kippur, later
Resh means Head – One of the most important parts of the body. It is the center of thought and knowledge. The result of all activity or lack of it is a result of the thoughts and use of knowledge present in the head.
Kippur means atonement. A similar Hebrew word using the same letters is Kofer which means denial. The difference between Kippur and Kofer is merely the placement of the letter vav.
The word vav means hook. If we view the placement of the letter vav, we see a brilliant insight into the construction of these two words. The word kofer places the vav following the kaf and immediately preceding the peh. The vav or the hook is hooking the palm of one’s hand to the mouth. This is the nature of the kofer or denier. He denies that he has ever said anything wrong, so the palm of his hand is being hooked to or covering his mouth. If he makes any promise that he cannot deliver, the denier covers his mouth denying that he made such promises. The palm is turned upwards and is visible only to receive rather than to give. The denier expects others to do the majority of the work so that he can reap the benefits of others when things go well. When things go wrong, the denier blames others for what has occurred, again, denying the fact that perhaps, in fact, he is part of the problem rather than being part of the solution.
The biggest problem in the world is a result of denial as well as assigning blame to others. It hinders are progress and it places undue burden on others. Eventually, so much time is spent on assigning blame that those who make progress towards the solution become emotionally worn by the blame game, to the point where they physically withdraw from the task.
In the Yom Kippur Viduy, the confessional portion of the service, the section known in Hebrew as Al Cheit, the majority of the sins we ask forgiveness for are sins related to the mouth as well as thought. Two, in particular, should keep us alert:
When we recite this, we should think about the many times we did the wrong thing, yet we attempted to excuse the action by stating, “I couldn’t help myself; That’s the way I was born?”
The second phrase is:
How often have we done both? What has been the result of such action, or, rather, inaction.
In contrast, the word Kippur, has the letter vav placed between the peh and the resh. In a sense, the vav or hook connects the mouth to the head.
As mentioned before, the majority of sins we confess upon are related to speech. By hooking the mouth to the head, we state that our speech is first controlled by our heads. We think carefully before we speak, and we do not spread gossip or slander about others. We do not engage in idle talk, and we will use our mouths to encourage others to produce their best efforts; not to scorn or make fun of them.
The three-letter Hebrew root form kaph peh resh, that form the two words kippur and kopher means, “to cover.” On Yom Kippur, we ask God to “cover over” our sins. In a sense, we are asking God to “deny” that we have sinned in the first place. This is the strange and “illogical” power of Teshuva – repentance. It has the power to completely cover over our evil actions! Were this not the case, we would be burdened with a guilty conscience throughout the rest of the year, and be unable to develop an optimal relationship with God.
As we approaching Yizkor, the time we remember our departed loved ones. The word Yizkor contains most of the same letters in Kippur. In Yizkor, the vav is positioned between the kaph and the resh. This symbolizes that the palm (of the hand) is hooked or connected to the head. How appropriate this concept is as we recall how our beloved ones used their heads to better the world and translated this into actions to make the world a better place. If we remember them for such deeds, we truly can make their memory a blessing.
During Yom Kippur, we dress in white to recall the white shrouds worn by the dead. As we recall the lives, actions, and behaviors of our loved ones, we can sense that they are watching us now – here at this very moment. The choice is ours. Do we acknowledge our wrongdoings and ask for kaparah – forgiveness? Do we resolve to better ourselves and emulate the positive teachings our departed parents, grandparents, and relatives have shown us? Or, will we be that kofer – the one that denies the significance of what they did? Will we deny our own actions thinking that there shall be no consequences so that we can be free of any responsibilities? Your relatives are observing you now! Would they approve of your past actions? More importantly, would they approve of your choice?
On Yom Kippur, we pray to God for a long happy life. As we will soon say in Yizkor:
We pray that we view Yom Kippur as the day of Kippur – the
day where our mouths are “hooked” to our heads. May we pray
for both a wise head and a wise heart so that we may always
say and do the right things, be responsible for our
thoughts, speech, and actions. May we always be a source of
pride and joy to God and mankind.
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