REPENTANCE V. ATONEMENT
Rabbi David Walk
There's hardly time to breathe these days. The combination of eating industrial amounts of food, preparing material and waking up early to recite the Slichot (Penitential Prayers, but it feels more like penitentiary than penance) blend together to make one feel like a zombie these days. So, if my article this week sounds a bit confused, it's just a reflection of the jumble going on between my ears. And this is a good year; the davening was great, my Shofar blowing went well and my sermons were well received. Imagine how I feel when Rosh Hashanah doesn't go this smoothly. But I can't lose focus, because Yom Kippur is coming, followed immediately by Sukkot. These days are special and we must take advantage of the opportunity afforded us. Maimonides points out: Even though repentance and calling out to God are desirable at all times, during the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, they are even more desirable and will be accepted immediately as [Isaiah 55:6] states: Seek God when He is to be found (Laws of Repentance 2:6). We can't miss God's office hours.
But why is God more available at this time? One possible answer is that we are praying more often and with better intent than we usually do because of the fear induced by the Judgment aspect of Rosh Hashanah. God is more available when we call upon our Divine parent. Good answer, but the survey says that the number one answer is: Because of the historical events which occurred on the date of Yom Kippur. We believe that momentous events leave an indelible mark upon time, and when we return to that season, the event affects us again. The event on Yom Kippur was the replacement of the broken tablets with the new ones. It is a time marked for reconciliation forever.
This reconciliation takes on a special format, which is well known to those who attend Yom Kippur services, because we sing them: Selach lanu, mechal lanu, kaper lanu. Forgive us; pardon us; grant us atonement. But what do these three terms really mean? Forgiveness, in this context, is a relatively superficial cessation of resentment, indignation or anger. Pardon, on the other hand, means a cancellation of penalty or debt incurred by the transgression. It's atonement which has the special significance. In Judaism, atonement is a process which results in my relationship with God returning to the status quo ante, or as if the sin never occurred. Rarely do humans grant atonement. It would be dangerous, because we don't know if the perpetrator's penance is sincere.
How do we get from the Judgment of Rosh Hashanah to the Atonement of Yom Kippur? Many say that it's automatic. The day itself grants this boon. But I'd like to suggest another explanation which will take about five hundred words to explain.
Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein of Yeshivat Har Etziyon asks an interesting question. There is a famous Midrash which instructs us to read three haftorot of calamities before the Ninth of Av and then seven prophetic readings of comfort until Rosh Hashanah. But the great collection of commentaries on the Talmud called Tosafot (TB Rosh Hashanah 32b) adds that we must add to this list two haftorot of repentance. Those readings are called 'Dirshu' read on the fast day called Zom Gedaliah and 'Shuva' chanted on the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The repentance aspect of these two readings is quickly apparent to any reader. On Shabbat Shuva we read: Return, Israel, to the Lord your God. your sins have been your downfall! Take words with you and return to the Lord. Say: Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously (Hoshea 14:2-3), and on the fast day we read: Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the Lord, and He will have mercy on them (Isaiah 55:7). However, shouldn't the authors of Tosafot have counted four haftorot of teshuva, because we read two haftorot on Yom Kippur? Shouldn't those be considered prophetic calls to repentance as well?
Rabbi Lichtenstein says no! A look at the haftorah for Yom Kippur morning reveals that the theme isn't a demand that the Jews repent and repair their ways. Here are the prophet's critical words: "Build up, build up, prepare the way, remove every obstacle out of the way of My people. In order to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite and the breath of those whom I have made. I have seen his ways, but I will heal him; I will lead him and restore comfort to him (Isaiah 57:16-18). This tone is one of forgiveness or atonement. The other haftorah of Yom Kippur is read in the afternoon and is, of course, the book of Jonah. Even though the repentance aspect of this book can't be denied, Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik explained in 1976 that the true importance of this reading is the desire for universal atonement. In this approach we can understand the importance of the final verse of the book: Now should I not take pity on Nineveh, the great city, in which there are many more than one hundred twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well (Jonah 4:19)? We see from these two haftorot that the major theme of Yom Kippur has shifted from repentance to atonement and God's reacceptance of humanity.
This concept is seen as well in the Torah reading of Yom Kippur morning, when we read: For on this day God shall effect atonement for you to cleanse you. Before the Lord, you shall be cleansed from all your sins (Leviticus 16:30). This day is clearly an amazing gift from a benevolent Deity. However, we believe that to truly appreciate and fully benefit requires hard work and preparation during the Ten of Repentance. Let that atonement wash away your sins, but first try to loosen their grip upon you, otherwise they might just find their way back. G'mar Chatima Tova!
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