Parashat Acharei-Mot begins by outlining the avodat Yom Ha-kippurim, the service that is to be performed in the Beit Ha-mikdash each year on Yom Kippur. After detailing the special sacrifices and rituals, the Torah proceeds to introduce the two commands that apply on Yom Kippur even outside the Beit Ha-mikdash: the requirement of “affliction” (fasting and refraining from other physical pleasures), and the prohibition against work (16:29). Two verses later, the Torah repeats these two commands: “It is a Sabbath of rest for you; you shall afflict your souls.”
Abarbanel offers an insightful interpretation of this second verse, explaining that the phrase “afflict your souls” in this context refers not to fasting, but rather to the emotional angst of introspection and repentance, which he describes as, “inui la-nefashot ha-mitchartot mi-ma she-chat’u kol ha-shana” – “the torment of souls that regret all that they sinned throughout the year.” In this verse, Abarbanel writes, the Torah commands us to reverse our normal mode of conduct on Yom Kippur. On ordinary weekdays, we exert a great deal of physical energy in the pursuit of a livelihood and in caring for our bodily and material needs, but we generally spend little time “afflicting” our souls by reflecting upon our failings and shortcomings and upon how we can improve. Yom Kippur is the time to do just the opposite – to abstain from all physical work, and to spend the day involved in the “torment” of teshuva, in the difficult and painful process of introspection, remorse, guilt and resolutions for the future.
Abarbanel’s interpretation of this verse, according to which the term “affliction” refers to the emotional torment of teshuva, reminds us that repentance and spiritual growth is not easy. While the end result is gratifying, as one recognizes his achievement and appreciates how far he has come, the process itself is excruciating. If we want to elevate ourselves and improve, we need to endure the shame of guilt, the anguish of remorse, and the frustration of failure and missed opportunities. If we simply tell ourselves that we should improve, without experiencing any degree of what Abarbanel calls “torment,” then we are not likely to advance or grow. Self-improvement demands an element of “inui,” of emotional “affliction” borne out of a recognition of our guilt and failure, which in turn leads to a recognition of the desperate need for change.
(See also Rav Mayer Twersky’s “Penitential Pains”)