This isn’t my original thought, but rather musings on a wonderful article I read a few days ago. The source is here: https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/292209/a-manual-for-living-with-defeat
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, actually comes at the end of a 40-day period of reflection which starts at the beginning of the previous month, named “Elul”. From the start of Elul, we gather each morning to recall our actions over the past year – the ways in which our actions didn’t measure up to our intention; successes that were short-lived or empty; outright shortcomings and failings. Rather than wallow, the intention is to use these observations to craft a plan for the coming year. And through it all, we openly admit our mistakes and ask for forgiveness.
The number 40 is familiar in Torah – Moses spent 40 days on Mt. Sinai (twice); The Israelites wandered for 40 years in the desert; After Noah was closed up in the ark, it rained for 40 days; and so on. This is not accidental or merely some fairy-tale-esque storytelling trope.
SO… When we arrive at Yom Kippur – 40 days after the start of Elul – having done the hard work of introspection, we are as pure as we can possibly be. And that is why many have the tradition of wearing a white robe (a “kittel” in Yiddish) throughout that day.
David Bashevkin, author of “Sin•a•gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought” found this tradition dovetailed nicely into a well known short story, “Somebody’s Son”, by Richard Pindell. You can read a version of it here, but to summarize: a wayward son asks his Mother for a sign that he’s been forgiven – a white ribbon around a branch of the apple tree outside their house. If he sees it, he’ll come home. If not, he’ll move on and won’t bother them ever again.
Sitting in the train that will pass by his childhood home, the son finds he’ too afraid to look, and asks a stranger sitting next to him to tell him what he sees.
“Son,” the man says in a voice slow with wonder, “I see a white cloth tied on almost every twig.”
That moment alone is enough to get you in the gut as it is, but Bashevkin takes it a step further: In reading this story, he says, we always assume we’re the wayward son, and God is the forgiving parent. But what if the young man is a stand-in for GOD, asking us, His people, to forgive Him?
“Once a year,” Bashevkin writes, “God’s presence seems more attainable. And once a year, we imagine God is asking us that we let Him back into His world. And as God symbolically passes by the shul on Yom Kippur, He petitions His people, ‘if you want me back in your life—give me a sign.’
And each year on Yom Kippur we all wear white so when God peers into our lives, wondering if the relationship can still be salvaged, we remind Him and ourselves that He is invited back. The whole shul is clothed in white.”