Published in the Jerusalem Post on Sept. 28, 2008
“For on this day he shall atone for you to purify you; that you may be clean from all your sins before the Lord.” (Lev. 16:30)
This verse appears at the end of the Torah reading for Yom Kippur, when we leave all of our this-worldly pursuits behind, even food and drink, a day that is totally devoted to God, and a day we are promised atonement for our sins. The reading describes in great detail the service of the High Priest in the Temple on this day – the sacrifices, the ablutions, the burning of the incense, the sending of the scapegoat to the desert. Teshuvah, or repentance, is not mentioned as part of the service of the day. According to the verses, it is the sacrificial rites that cleanse the Temple and achieve atonement for the people.
But what is the significance of Yom Kippur when the Temple and these rituals are absent? The Rabbis of the Talmud, in their affirmation of the timeless relevance of the Torah after the destruction of the Temple, declared that in the absence of sacrifices, the day itself achieves atonement provided that it is accompanied by teshuvah (Bavli, Yoma 85b). The “he” of the verse who atones for us is no longer the High Priest offering the sacrifices, but God Himself, who provides atonement on this day to those who undertake the process of teshuvah. After the Temple, it is teshuvah which takes the place of the sacrificial rites of the day.
For the last two thousand years, the dominant theme of Yom Kippur has thus been teshuvah – the work of improving our behavior and transforming our character. And yet, the Torah reading remains Chapter 16 of Leviticus. Rather than hearing moral or religious exhortation – undeniably the theme of the haftarot of the day – we are treated to the minute details of the rites of the sacrifices. These Temple-based rites, while seemingly irrelevant to our contemporary concerns, can teach serious corrective lessons regarding sin and repentance.
It is widely believed that sin affects the spiritual well-being of the soul, and that teshuvah is a process devoted wholly to the repairing of the soul. This is only partly true. The sacrificial rites of Yom Kippur tell another story: “And he [the High Priest] shall make an atonement for the Holy Sanctuary, and he shall make an atonement for the Tent of Meeting, and for the altar, and he shall make an atonement for the priests, and for all the people of the congregation” (Lev. 16: 33). It is first and foremost the Temple that must be cleansed, and only afterwards is the atonement of the people achieved.
The Torah assumes a basic metaphysical reality: sin pollutes. When the Children of Israel have sinned, the Temple itself becomes impure. This understanding of sin holds for us even today. When we sin, we hurt not only ourselves, we pollute our environment as well. If we have not respected our parents or our spouse, if we have betrayed a trust, or hurt others physically or emotionally, then our sin has damaged others and injured our relationships. If we have not honored Shabbat or the holidays properly, then the sanctity that these times hold for us has been diminished. The process of teshuvah requires that we recognize that improving ourselves is insufficient; we must also cleanse the reality that we have polluted.
An understanding of teshuvah that is limited to the self minimizes the work that needs to be done to set things right. This can have an insidious effect not only on us as individuals, but on our behavior as a community as well. Often, an abusive teacher or someone who has betrayed the public trust states that he has repented and asks for forgiveness and re-acceptance. If we understand repentance to be limited to self-improvement and repairing one’s relationship with God, then such claims may have traction. But if we understand what the work of teshuvah truly entails, we will rightfully demand that such people first demonstrate how they have worked to restore the lives, the trust, and the relationships that they have broken.
While Yom Kippur is a day that we devote fully to God and leave our this-worldly concerns behind, our process of teshuvah, like the cleansing of the Temple, can only be accomplished through a focus on this-world realities, a cleansing of our relationships and the realities around us that we have created.
… And Cleansing Ourselves
On Yom Kippur we strive, not only to purify the world and our relationships, but also to purify ourselves. Sin affects who we are and, like tumah, ritual impurity, stand in the way of us drawing closer to the holy, closer to God. The radical notion of Yom Kippur is that this tumah does not have to define us. We can transform and again become pure.
An insight into this process emerges from a discussion in the Talmud (Hullin 101a-b) which underscores the difference between the severity of impurity and its permanence. If a pure person eats the meat of a sacrifice that has become impure, the transgression is not severe. The meat, however, does have a permanent state of impurity. In contrast, when an impure person eats the meat of a sacrifice, the transgression is a severe one. And yet, the Talmud says, the situation is not a permanent one. The person can immerse and become pure, and thus his act, and certainly his state, is not as weighty as it may seem.
This touches on a key point of teshuva and Yom Kippur. The difference between foods and people, between what can become pure and what will always remain impure, is this: Foods, such as the meat of sacrifices, are consumable, inanimate objects; they are static and fixed; they cannot change themselves and thus their status is permanent. People, on the other hand, are dynamic, with new thoughts, passions, and feelings every day, and with the ability to transform themselves. Their status is never fixed. Change, even purity, is always possible.
There is a middle category: vessels. Vessels are inanimate, but they also represent a certain dynamism due to their use and versatility. Some vessels – wooden and metal ones – can become pure by immersion in a mikvah. This is only because they partake in the dynamic world of human activity, and they can therefore be purified as a result of a human action – being placed in the mikvah. Other vessels – pottery – cannot become pure. Pottery is both less versatile and also made of inferior material. Such a vessel cannot be transformed – it is too rigid, and lacks the inner strength and quality to effect – or to allow for such transformation.
The key, then, to becoming pure, to ridding oneself of ritual impurity or of sin, is the ability to transform, to free ourselves from past actions and to reassert, or redefine, our inner direction and our true self. A sin, even a light one, can be weighty if it becomes a permanent part of a person. On the other hand, even a very severe sin need not be seen as weighty if it does not become part of one’s identity. If a person does not let him or herself be an object, be fixed, rigid, and only impacted by outside forces, but rather insists on his or her own personhood, the ability to define his or her own path, to change and to remake oneself, then, even a weighty sin, can become a light one. Such a person, a person with strong character, a person who believes in the possibility of change, can free herself of her sin, can immerse in a mikvah, and can undergo a transformation that will allow her to become a new person.
What is this mikvah? Rabbi Akiva answers this in the last mishna in the last chapter of Yoma, the tractate devoted to Yom Kippur:
R. Akiva said: Happy are you, Israel! Who is it before whom you become pure? And Who is it that makes you clean? Your Father Who is in Heaven, as it is said: “And I will sprinkle purifying water upon you and ye shall be clean.” (Ezek. 36:25). And it further says: “The hope (mikvei) [read here as “immersion pool” (mikvah)] of Israel, the Lord.” (Jer. 17:13). Just as an immersion pool renders the impure pure, so does the Holy One, Blessed be God, render Israel pure (Mishna Yoma 8:9).
God, not teshuva, is the mikvah. The Talmud speaks of a person who does teshuva without abandoning the sin, as one who immerses while holding on to an impure rodent in his hand. In this understanding, one cannot immerse in the mikvah until one has done teshuva. But sometimes we need to reverse the order. Sometimes real teshuva is not possible until we have first immersed in the mikvah, until God has washed us from our sins.
While teshuva gives us the ability to transform ourselves, we often don’t believe that we can change. Our own sense that our past actions will always define us, that our state is a permanent one, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yom Kippur says: stop standing in your own way! On this day you present yourself before God, on this day you immerse yourself in a mikvah, and when this day is over, you will emerge pure. Change is always possible. Those stains you believe are indelible can be washed away. By cleansing our sins on this day, God is giving us a chance to make real transformation happen. When we believe that change is possible, it can become a reality: “For on this day he shall atone for you to purify you; that you may be clean from all your sins before the Lord.” (Lev. 16:30).