The Difference a Day Can Make

| Yom Kippur By :  Burton L. Visotzky Nathan and Janet Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies Posted On Oct 3, 2014 / 5775 | Main Commentary | Holidays
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Wouldn’t it be grand to wipe the slate clean? What if there were a day in the calendar when the slate was simply wiped clean once again? No marks against you. No petty quarrels remembered, no grudges borne, no more grievances for trespasses petty or grievous. What if?

How might any one of us feel if we had a chance to do it all again, and—let’s sweeten the deal—do it knowing what we know now? Would we dare? Could we change things? Can we imagine ourselves to be better people than we might be right this minute? Who would each of us be? Would it be a tad easier to look at our reflections in the mirror? To kiss our spouses and children? To tell our siblings, or our parents, “I love you”? What if there were a day on the calendar called Wipe the Slate Clean Day? A day when—such as in the game Monopoly—we “get out of jail free and collect $200”? Well, maybe we don’t get the $200, but the guilt is gone.

Ever since the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE, almost two thousand years ago, Jewish scholars have bemoaned the lack of an altar to offer sacrifices and so achieve the atonements of which the biblical book of Leviticus speaks. We no longer have a High Priest to perform the cultic ceremonies that lead to the cleansing of our sins. No longer is the scapegoat dashed upon the rocks, taking away our errors in the wash of its blood. What can we do to atone for our sins? How can we wipe clean the slate and start the year afresh once more?

What is the point of Yom Kippur, really? How does it help us change our ways, repent, return to the pristine state we imagine for our better selves? The Torah speaks of it as “A Day of Atonement, on which expiation is made on your behalf before the Lord your God” (Lev. 23:28). Okay, but how does it work now, absent blood on the altar? Must our own blood be offered as atonement instead (God forbid)? Intriguingly, the editor of the Mishnah, the first essential compendium of Jewish law and custom compiled around the year 200 CE following the destruction of Jerusalem, Rabbi Judah the Patriarch suggested that we take the verse of Leviticus literally, and so he said, “the day itself brings atonement” (BT Yoma 85b). That’s a great “get out of jail free” card. Well, almost.

The verse says, indeed, “A Day of Atonement, on which expiation is made on your behalf before the Lord your God.” Yes, the day itself atones, but—there’s always a “but”—it only atones for those sins against “the Lord your God.” It is not a small thing to be forgiven for sins against God. But for sins against our fellow human beings, we have to go and apologize. Until we make it right with our neighbors, we don’t really get the slate wiped clean (M Yoma 8:9). And, God or not, that slate is chock full of marks against us this late in the Jewish year. There is lots of work to be done between now and Yom Kippur.

If we may dwell on our relationships with God a few moments longer, our sins against God surely must include those sins we commit against God’s creatures, our fellow human beings. So, while we might technically get a freebie on Yom Kippur, we don’t even really wipe the slate clean regarding God. Indeed, other rabbis suggest that without the sacrificial system prescribed by the Torah, there are four means of atoning, the first three of which are Yom Kippur itself, suffering, and death (BT Yoma 86a). It is reassuring to know that our ancient Rabbis sought meaning for suffering and suggested that it helps achieve atonement. Of course, there are yet other rabbis who reject this, saying, “keep your suffering; I want none of it” (BT Berakhot 5b). The same argument can be offered for death as a means of achieving atonement, but at least everybody dies—so there must be some universal benefit, right? If only.

The fourth means of atonement is a prerequisite for the other three: repentance. This requires that we change our ways. We repent of what we have done, and then we do not do it again. This is very, very hard to do. The good news built into repentance is this: it achieves atonement for our sins against both God and our fellow human beings.

What is required of us is a sincere apology and an equally sincere desire not to repeat the offense. Wow, where do we begin? The Torah gives us a clue. In Leviticus 16:17, speaking of the sacrifices that Aaron offered back on the first Yom Kippur, Scripture says, “when he has achieved atonement for himself, and for his household, and for the whole congregation of Israel.” The Rabbis explain this verse to teach the order of asking forgiveness (Sifra Aharei Mot par. 6:3).

First, we must forgive ourselves. This means self-examination and criticism. Second, we must resolve to change our ways. Third, we must actually do the hard work of changing. Finally—and this is not easily achieved, either—we must forgive ourselves for our idiocies and sins. Go onward to your immediate family. Ask their forgiveness. Be a better parent, partner, child. And forgive yourself there, too. Finally, and only when you have done the hard work within your immediate circle, can you look outward to the community and your relationships there.

The day is nigh: let the hard work of atonement begin!

The publication and distribution of the JTS Torah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.