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Yom Kippur―the Antidote to Thanatophobia (Fear of Dying)

The Black Hole Experience[1]

We all love life and find it difficult to conceive of relinquishing our hold on it. However, for some individualsthis love of life is accompanied by its flip-side, an unsolicited fear of death. Allegorically speaking, death is a “black hole experience,” in which one is devoured and drawn into a completely different dimension.[1] In Kabbalah, the passageway from one world to the next is referred to as “the passageway of Yabok.”[2] At some point in the future, every one of us will eventually pass through this “black hole.”

While the thought of one’s own death is enough to send a shiver down the spine, the Torah has an antidote for this fear.

The passage to this new dimension is potentially frightening for two reasons. First, there is an innate fear of the moment of death itself and what happens after the body stops functioning. The second are the thoughts surrounding the outcome, and the concern over what the afterlife will bring.

Passing from This World

Even Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai cried before he passed away from this world, saying “I don’t know which [side] I will be taken to.”[3] Rabbi Yochanan was a great sage who devoted his entire life to observing God’s commandments and teaching Torah. Nonetheless, he still did not know whether he would be punished or receive a reward in the afterlife. Kabbalah explains that although he led his conscious life in an exemplary fashion, he did not know what the repercussions of his unconscious mind (i.e., the unknowable side of himself) would be in the World to Come. Indeed, one of the most awe-inspiring thoughts about dying is to imagine what will happen when my soul rises to be judged in the Heavenly Court?

The path that a person is led to after crossing the passageway from this world depends on those aspects of his soul that he can never tap into; he can never know exactly what his mission in life was while in this world, and even if he achieved much good in his life, perhaps he failed on some aspect of the test.

Being Healed by Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, when every Jew who is truly contrite, is absolved of all their sins. Thus, Yom Kippur has a calming quality, as it enables us to relax in the knowledge that as long as we act according to the Torah from now on, our sins will no longer impede our entry into Paradise.

Similarly, on Yom Kippur, we neither eat nor drink, or involve ourselves in other physical pleasures. Worldly pleasure is prohibited on Yom Kippur because this holy day represents our state of being in a higher realm than this world. It is only on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when we are able to experience “passing away” in a controlled sense; entering a higher realm to bring down a new level of consciousness that heals us of our fear of death, and of passing from our physical realm into a dimension in which we bask in exclusively spiritual pleasures.

Wearing White

According to Jewish custom, individuals are buried in a white burial shroud. Similarly, on Yom Kippur there is a custom to wear white clothes. This is also symbolic of the clothing of righteous souls in the afterlife, the World to Come.

Passing into another realm altogether can be a fearful experience, but this fear can be healed by correctly observing the holy day of Yom Kippur; the day when we all have the potential to become white and pure. Thus, Yom Kippur reminds us all of our ability to pass on from this world in a state of purity, after a long, fruitful and prosperous life.

Adapted from Rabbi Ginsburgh’s class on Torah and Psychology, Chile, 5769

Photo by Maurycy Gottlieb

[1] The lion syndrome; see Body Mind and Soul, ch. 4, Origins of Disease.

[2] See Kehilat Yaakov 12.

[3] Berachot 28b.

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