Between the Lines

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi David Levy 

ויקרא טז:לג
לג וְכִפֶּר֙ אֶת־מִקְדַּ֣שׁ הַקֹּ֔דֶשׁ וְאֶת־אֹ֧הֶל מוֹעֵ֛ד וְאֶת־הַמִּזְבֵּ֖חַ יְכַפֵּ֑ר וְעַ֧ל הַכֹּֽהֲנ֛ים וְעַל־כָּל־עַ֥ם הַקָּהָ֖ל יְכַפֵּֽר:

Leviticus 16:33

And he shall make atonement for the most holy place, and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar; and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly.

פרקי דרבי אליעזר פרק מו

אמר סמאל לפני הקב"ה רבון כל העולמים על כל אומות העולם נתת לי רשות ועל ישראל אין אתה נותן לי, אמר לו הרי יש לך רשות עליהם ביום הכפורים אם יש להם חטא, ואם לאו אין לך רשות עליהם,... ראה סמאל שלא נמצא בהם ביום הכפורים חטא אמ' לפניו רבון כל העולמים יש לך עם אחד כמלאכי השרת שבשמים מה מלאכי השרת אין בהם אכילה ושתיה כך ישראל אין להם אכילה ושתיה ביום הכפורים... מה מלאכי השרת אין להם קפיצה כך ישראל עומדים על רגליהם ביום הכפורים, מה מלאכי השרת שלום ביניהם כך ישראל שלום ביניהם ביום הכפורים, מה מלאכי השרת נקיים מכל חטא כך ישראל נקיים מכל חטא ביום הכפורים. והקב"ה שומע עתירתן של ישראל מן הקטיגור שלהם ומכפר על המזבח ועל המקום ועל הכהנים ועל כל הקהל מקטון ועד גדול ועל כל עונותיהם של ישראל ועל כל העם,

Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer Chapter 46

Samael (the prosecuting angel) said before the Holy One, “Sovereign of the Universe! You have given me power over all of the nations of the world, but over Israel you have not given me power.” God answered him saying: “Behold you have power over them on Yom Kippur, if they have any sin, but if they do not, you have no power over them” . . . Samael saw that there was no sin to be found among them on Yom Kippur. Samael said, “Sovereign of the Universe! You have one people that are like the ministering angels in the heavens. Just as the angels don’t eat or drink, so Israel does not eat or drink on Yom Kippur. Just as angels have no joints (here referring to the knees), so too Israel stands on their feet on Yom Kippur. Just as the angels have peace among them, so too Israel has peace among them on Yom Kippur. Just as the angels are innocent of all sin, so too Israel is innocent of all sins on Yom Kippur.” And the Holy One Blessed Be He hears the entreaty of Israel from their accuser and makes atonement for the altar, and over the place, and the priests and all the assembly from the small to the great, and all the sins of Israel and over the entire nation.

I find this midrash to be both comforting and instructive on Yom Kippur. The comfort comes from knowing that, despite the language of harsh decrees and judgment on Yom Kippur, God is depicted here as wanting us to succeed. After all, God’s concession to Samael is offered only on a day when God can count on us to be on our best behavior. This not only disarms Samael in his pursuit of leading Israel astray, but also turns our greatest prosecutor into our defense counsel. So much so that it is based on Samael’s testimony that we are granted atonement.

What seems instructive is this very change in Samael. The midrash suggests that we can quiet even our most ardent critics by displaying exemplary behavior. It is true that there will be those who pursue us simply out of baseless hatred or jealousy, but we should not supply them with ammunition. By acting on our best impulses, we have the power to soften the hearts of those who would view us critically, and can change our adversaries into our advocates.