The Midrash (Tanna De-bei Eliyahu, 1) teaches that God experienced “great joy” (“simcha gedola”), so-to-speak, when He presented the command of the Yom Kippur observance, a mitzva which He gave to Benei Yisrael “with great love.” To explain the nature of this special joy, the Midrash draws an analogy to a king whose servants and family members were busy one day cleaning out the palace. As the king approached the entrance of the palace, he saw large piles of trash. He reacted with great joy and satisfaction, realizing that this was being done for the purpose of making the palace cleaner, more orderly and more extravagant.
The Midrash here beautifully captures the complex emotional experience of Yom Kippur, a day characterized by a unique blend of angst and exhilaration. On the one hand, the process of cleaning out a large, luxurious home, which has collected dust, garbage and clutter, is difficult, grueling and unpleasant. Seeing and smelling the large heaps of trash by the entrance should, on the one hand, be a cause of distress, as the beauty and grandeur of the building is concealed by the hideous display of refuse and the stench it emits. But the resident of the home, who understands what is happening, emphatically welcomes this unseemly sight. He rejoices over the process he sees unfolding in front of him, recognizing that the presence of trash outside the home means his home is now more beautiful and luxurious.
The Yom Kippur experience, too, is, at once, both agonizing and gratifying. We endure the discomfort and angst of collecting the “refuse” from our beings, thoroughly examining our characters and our conduct to identify the “filth,” the unflattering elements of our behavior, our bad habits and tendencies, our failures and our mistakes which we have preferred until now to keep conveniently buried in the deeper recesses of our consciousness. Acknowledging and confessing our “refuse,” admitting the presence of “trash” within our beings, is uncomfortable and difficult. At the same time, however, it is a source of unparalleled joy and satisfaction, as we realize that this cathartic process will have a significant “cleansing” effect upon us. The “heaps” of “trash” that we put forth on Yom Kippur, as we openly admit our failings, are unseemly, but we rejoice knowing that they are being eliminated from our beings, a process that will make us better people.
The process we undergo on Yom Kippur is, by design, unnerving and even painful, but it is one which brings the exhilarating feeling of growth and change, advancing us one step – or perhaps several steps – closer to being the people who we truly want to be.