“G-d’s Gift to His People on Yom Kippur”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The Torah reading scheduled for this Shabbat would normally have been V’zot Habracha–the final parasha of the Torah. However, because of the observance of Yom Kippur, the Torah reading is instead a selection from Leviticus 16:1-34, a portion that describes the scapegoat ritual as part of the Yom Kippur service in the Temple.

Following this Torah reading from Leviticus 16 (parashat Acharei Mot), the maftir is read from parashat Pinchas, Numbers 29:7-11. The maftir begins with the following words: “Ooh’veh’ah’sor la’chodesh hash’vee’ee ha’zeh, mik’rah ko’desh yeeh’yeh lah’chem, v’ee’nee’tem et naf’sho’tay’chem, kol m’lah’chah lo tah’ah’soo.” On the tenth day of the seventh month, there shall be a holy convocation for you, and you shall afflict yourselves; you shall not do any work.

The Torah then proceeds to describe the various offerings that were brought in the ancient temple on Yom Kippur. However, the Torah does not clarify what exactly it means when it says “and you shall afflict yourselves.” Our rabbis conclude that this phrase connotes not only fasting, abstaining from food and water, but also implies self-denial. Consequently, washing and anointing the body is prohibited, as is wearing leather shoes. Having sexual relations on Yom Kippur is also proscribed.

If one were to read only the description of Yom Kippur found in chapter 29 of Numbers, only an incomplete picture would be portrayed, one that fails to reveal the beauty and majesty of the day. It is only in parashat Acharei Mot, in Leviticus 16, that the blanks are filled in, and the essence of Yom Kippur is fully revealed. It is there that the Torah describes the Avodah–the impressive priestly service that takes place on Yom Kippur. Two goats are presented. By lottery one goat is randomly designated for G-d, and is slaughtered and offered as a sacrifice in the Temple, while the other is fated for ah’zah’zayl and is sent into the wilderness to die.

The Torah also goes into a lengthy description of how the High Priest maintains his sanctity on Yom Kippur, changing his clothes five times, and bathing ten times. And all this is done in preparation for the key role that the High Priest–the Cohen Gadol–plays in achieving atonement for the Jewish people.

The description of the Yom Kippur service in Leviticus closes with a most beautiful and significant verse, Leviticus 16:30: “Kee va’yom ha’zeh y’chah’payr ah’lay’chem l’tah’her et’chem mee’kol chah’toh’tay’chem, lif’nay Hashem tit’hah’roo.” For on this day, G-d shall provide atonement for you, to cleanse you from all your sins, before the Lord, you shall be cleansed.

Rabbeinu Yona of Gerondi (Jonah b. Abraham c.1200-1263, Spanish rabbi, author and moralist) was the author of a classical work on repentance known as Sha’arei Teshuva (“Gates of Repentence”). In this volume, Rabbeinu Yona underscores the magnificence of the concept of Teshuva and how great a gift it is from the Al-mighty to the people.

Normally when a person commits a trespass, the violator is held accountable and is expected to pay a price, to suffer a financial loss, or a loss of independence by being sent to jail. And yet, maintains Rabbeinu Yona, through Teshuva, the sin is completely erased. The Al-mighty, in effect, says to the violator: “You’ve robbed the ‘Divine bank,’ you’ve defiled the ‘Divine home’–nevertheless, you can be forgiven! In fact, I’m not even asking you to return the stolen goods or to repair the defiled home, all you need do is to be truly contrite, to give your heart and your soul to G-d in true repentance.”

Can we possibly imagine such a “penal” system working? Under normal circumstances would it make sense to say to a bank robber or a house destroyer, “You’re forgiven”? Have no fear, you don’t have to restore the looted money or rebuild the home, you don’t have to spend time in prison and you don’t even get lashes. If you simply return to the L-rd, your G-d, with all your heart and all your soul, your slate will be wiped clean and all will be forgiven!”

This is what is meant when we repeatedly beg G-d in our Yom Kippur prayers to erase our sins, as if there were no sign that there ever was sin.

All of this underscores G-d’s wondrous qualities of mercy. The Al-mighty well understands that those who are truly contrite are frequently overwhelmed by what they had done. They often despair of ever being able to return because they feel (as Cain said to G-d, “Gah’dol ah’voh’nee min’soh,” Genesis 4:13) my sin is too great for me to bear. It is crushing me and pushing me down into oblivion. The Al-mighty in response says to the sinner, “I will wipe your slate clean. In fact, there will be no sign that you have ever sinned or trespassed.”

What a wonderful gift this is. It is almost too good to be true, and in a sense it is too good to be true.

Who truly merits to receive this incredible gift of virtual retroactive forgiveness? Only those who possess a broken heart, only those who feel as if they have disappointed and failed their best friend.

That is why Yom Kippur is truly a day of joy, because it is a day on which every Jew receives a gift, a gift that is so undeserved and so unexpected. It is an exoneration based entirely in G-d’s love, it is a forgiveness due to G-d’s passionate caring and concern. That is what the gift of Teshuva is on Yom Kippur. Let us hope that we merit it.

Have a meaningful Yom Kippur.

May you be blessed.