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In the haftorah reading for Yom Kippur, Isaiah tells the people, “For thus said He Who high aloft, forever dwells, Whose Name is holy. ‘I dwell on high, in holiness. Yet with the contrite and lowly in spirit I also dwell, reviving the spirits of the lowly, reviving the hearts of the contrite’” (Isaiah 57:15). This is a powerful message of comfort. We shouldn't think that if we are not pure, if we are not perfect then God will not be accessible to us. No. God is with us wherever we go, no matter our spiritual state, as it says from Torah reading for Yom Kippur, God “dwells among the people in the midst of their impurity” (Vayikra 16:16). According to the Talmud this verse means, “Even when the people are impure, God's presence will still be with them” (Yoma 56b). However, there is a difference between being comforted and being comfortable. It's very easy to get comfortable with a bad situation. Humans are amazing at adapting. I remember I once had a bad toothache, and instead of going straight to the dentist, which I should have done, what did I do? “Oh, I'll just chew on the other side of my mouth.” We do it all the time! We get used to bad smells to the point where we can no longer smell them. We get used to unhealthy habits to the point we no longer fear or feel their deleterious effects. And the same thing is true in our spiritual lives. We get so used to doing things that don't help us grow as Jews, that after a while, we become okay with them.
This is what happened to Yonah, the prophet whom we also learn about on Yom Kippur. According to the Midrash, when Yonah entered the belly of the fish, he thought to himself, "Well, I guess this is my life now. I guess I'll just make the best of it." And so when he didn't cry out to God, which is why God sent the fish in the first place – to compel Yonah to pray – says the Midrash, God sent a pregnant female fish to swallow Yonah, that's why the language changes from "Dag" to "Dagah," and only then, when the pain was unbearable, when there was no room for him to move or breath, only then did he cry out in prayer.
God is with us in our lowest moments not to give us permission to give up and settle for what is, but to encourage us to reach for the higher things of what could be. And so here, when the Prophet tells us that God dwells on high and is also with the contrite and lowly of spirit, that means, says Rashi, that as God dwells on high, “From there, from that high place, I am with the lowly of spirit.” Meaning, “I bend My presence down to meet you, but I never leave My high and exalted place,” because the point of God's descent to us is to encourage us to ascend to Him! The comfort God gives us by dwelling in the lower places is not to tell us that we can't move up, that where we are right now is all right. On the contrary, it is to give us strength and hope that we can move up, and that we must – to revive the spirits of the lowly, and revive the hearts of the contrite.
And this is what the Prophet means when he says, “Build up, build up a highway! Clear a road! Remove all obstacles from the road of My people!” (Isaiah 57:14). Here, Rashi tells us that this means we must clear away the Evil Inclinations from our paths and remove those things in our lives – maybe the things we've become too comfortable with but which we know are not good for us, spiritually and physically – we must remove those stumbling blocks from before us, because those are the very things that convince us we can't move forward, and that it's okay to just stay where we are and accept it as concrete fact.
God's presence comes down to dwell with us to encourage us to keep moving, to obliterate the barriers in our way, but only we can do that. The ultimate message of Isaiah is one of encouragement - we must be comforted, but never comfortable. We must do the hard work and heavy lifting required in order to remove those impediments from our lives, so that as we find ourselves in those spiritual trenches, we can feel God's presence with us in order to help us succeed. This Yom Kippur, I encourage you all to think about one aspect of our lives, both Jewishly and non-Jewishly, in which you feel, in which you know you’ve grown too comfortable. Think about what's keeping you locked in that place, in that situation, in that frame of mind. Feel God's loving embrace come to you, encouraging you to be strong and break through the chains of comfort and complacency. When we feel God's presence in our lives, we feel the courage to be "Ma'alin baKodesh v'Ein Yordin," to keep moving up in holiness and never down. What a powerful message of comfort and encouragment for us all as we go into Yom Kippur!
Shabbat Shalom and Gamar Chatima Tova!