Yom Kippur and Natural Souls
Chapter 1, Law 3
"In times when there is no Temple and we have no altar of atonement,
there is only repentance. Repentance atones for all sins. Even one [who is]
wicked his entire life and repents at the end, they (i.e., the Heavenly
tribunal) do not recall his wickedness, as it is stated, 'And the wicked man
will not stumble in his wickedness on the day of his repenting from his
evil' (Ezekiel 33:12). The day of Yom Kippur (lit., 'the essence of Yom
Kippur') atones for those who repent, as it is stated, 'For on this day he
[the High Priest] will effect atonement for you...' (Leviticus 16:30)."
Last week the Rambam discussed the effectiveness of the Yom Kippur Temple
service -- and in particular the scapegoat -- in attaining forgiveness for
our sins. We discovered surprisingly that at times the High Priest's service
grants atonement (at least to some extent) even to the unrepentant, and we
discussed the idea behind this.
This week the Rambam turns to a topic sadly more relevant to us today -- the
means of achieving atonement in times when the Temple does not stand. The
Rambam begins by stating that teshuva (repentance) atones all -- even the
sins of one who repents in his final moments. He then states that the day of
Yom Kippur also effects atonement for us (even when no Temple service is
performed), provided we repent.
One important point of clarification before we look more closely at this
law. At the end of the law, the Rambam quotes Leviticus 16:30 as support for
his statement that Yom Kippur itself effects atonement, even without the
Temple service. That verse reads: "For on this day he will effect atonement
for you." In truth, in simple reading the "he" of the verse refers to the
High Priest, and if so, the meaning is that Yom Kippur *together with* the
High Priest's service brings atonement. The Rambam, however, appears to
understand the verse as the Midrash (Sifra there), which understands the
"he" as referring to G-d. And so, the meaning is that even lacking the
Temple and its service, on that day G-d will forgive us for all our sins.
The main issue this week which I feel requires understanding is as follows.
The Rambam begins by stating that today repentance atones all. He then
continues that Yom Kippur too brings atonement -- but only to those who
repent. But if so, there's an obvious redundancy. If teshuva on its own
atones all -- even without Yom Kippur -- what does Yom Kippur do? It atones
those who repent? But once a person repents, he can achieve atonement even
without Yom Kippur! If so, Yom Kippur seems to make no difference. Without
repentance it does nothing (nowadays), and with repentance, a person can
achieve atonement even without it!
(I realize of course that *practically* Yom Kippur is an enormously
inspiring day which no doubt leads us to heights of repentance we would
never otherwise reach. Yet I don't believe that the Rambam just means that
practically we're bound to do a better job of things on Yom Kippur. He
appears to say that the day itself brings forgiveness. In fact, his precise
language (as I showed in parentheses in the translation) is: "The essence of
Yom Kippur atones..." He clearly means to say that the day itself has
curative powers to it.)
The answer to this is an important theme we will return to many times
throughout our studies. During the rest of the year, we must proactively
return to G-d. We must pick ourselves up and wrest ourselves from our faults
and bad behavior patterns. This requires immense amounts of energy and
willpower. If we can muster it, we can return to G-d at any time, even in
our final moments.
(By the way, it's highly unlikely that a lifelong sinner will actually
transform himself into a new person in his final moments and attain true
salvation. Although theoretically it is possible I wouldn't recommend
counting on it. ;-) True repentance is an arduous, gut-wrenching process of
remaking -- not one easy to pull off in a moment. It takes years to be done
right. Anyone who's been through it knows that it would have been much
*easier* not to fall victim to temptation in the first place. Furthermore,
G-d does not always grant lifelong sinners the peace of mind and composure
to reflect on their lives in their final moments. They may well die suddenly
and without warning -- or no longer have their marbles when their time arrives.)
Yom Kippur is different. On Yom Kippur the day itself brings us to G-d. We
naturally become penitent and G-d-oriented. It is true that we must repent
as well, but it is as if G-d is standing before us, awaiting our repentance
with outstretched arms. We do have to actively seek Him as the rest of the
year. We must merely be attuned to the sanctity of the day and allow it to
sweep us along. One almost has to actively resist the urge to return to not
be moved on that special day.
There are several key statements of the Sages along these lines. First, the
Talmud (Yevamos 49b), in explaining Isaiah 55:6 -- "Seek G-d when He is
found; call Him when He is near," states: When is G-d "found"? These are the
ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. During that time of year, and on
Yom Kippur in particular, we need not search for G-d on our own. He is
already there awaiting us.
An even more fascinating Talmudic passage appears in Yoma 20a. It states
that the numerical value of the word "ha'satan" ("the Satan") equals 364.
(The Hebrew letters all have numerical equivalents -- alef=1, bais=2, etc.
Much Biblical exegesis is based upon the numerical equivalents of Biblical
words.) The implication is that Satan is only given power to accuse 364 days
of the year. On one day -- Yom Kippur -- he cannot open his mouth. (I
suppose we get another quarter day off somewhere in there, though I've never
noticed which.) :-)
There are two important implications to this statement. The first is
straightforward: that on Yom Kippur G-d does not suffer the Satan to accuse.
He is muzzled. G-d hears only claims of our merit -- as well as our own
supplications for mercy. It is a day in which G-d is well-disposed to us as
A second, deeper meaning may also be implied (as understood by my teacher R.
Yochanan Zweig). The Talmud elsewhere (Bava Basra 16a) states that the
Satan, man's evil inclination, and the Angel of Death are all the same
being. In other words, the same angel, after tempting us to sin, flies
straight up to heaven to accuse us on account of it, and then himself
appears to us as the Reaper to collect the L-rd's debt. Not exactly the sort
you'd want your kids playing with.
If so, there are even further ramifications for Yom Kippur. If Satan is
repressed on Yom Kippur, we must have no temptation to sin either. We are
thus transformed into human beings who want nothing other than closeness to
G-d. And this is the true meaning that the day of Yom Kippur itself returns
us to G-d.
This, however, must be qualified. We're of course still *hungry* on Yom
Kippur. Our animal drives are still with us, alive and well. In fact the
Talmud we quoted earlier that Satan cannot accuse on Yom Kippur, began by
mentioning terrible sins which used to occur on Yom Kippur, then explaining
that even so Satan could not take advantage of our vulnerability.
The answer to this is that there are two types of drives to sin. The first
is animal -- we want to gratify ourselves, we want to take it easy. And this
is alive and well even on Yom Kippur -- we're hungry, we're tired, we're
restless. But there is a deeper drive within man -- one so inherent to man's
nature it drove Adam and Eve out of the Garden -- to assert his
independence. I don't want to be told what to do. I want to be my own person
and make my own decisions. I don't want to be a lackey of G-d, slavishly
obeying whatever I'm told. I want to be *alive*. I won't dwell on this topic
at length here, but this, in a word, is man's strongest and most deep-seated
drive. It can be used positively -- in many ways in fact -- yet it creates a
very strong, underlying tension in man's relationship with his Creator.
Having *anyone* tell me what to do -- even G-d -- makes for a very
This is the drive which does not exist on Yom Kippur. Sure we might be
hungry and tired, but spiteful? No one could be. And if someone is it's a
rebellion of the stomach (or of inertia) rather than the heart. And this, to
conclude, is the idea that Yom Kippur returns us to G-d. It is the one day
on which we are *truly* in touch with our inner wants -- if we are
perceptive enough to be attuned to them. We discover that even beneath our
deep desire for independence is an even deeper sense of unity with G-d, and
of yearning for total reunification. There is no tension between us and G-d.
The soul of man returns to its natural state, wanting nothing other than
oneness with G-d. And G-d, in turn, is standing there waiting.
And finally, a happy Chanukah to all my readers!
Text Copyright © 2010 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org