Yom Kippur, the pinnacle of the Days of Awe, displays a quantum-like quality of reconciling two distinct but crucial modes of being. Atonement – the public need to make good for collectively falling short, for communal manifestations of greed, wrongdoing, impiety – jostles with the need for Repentance – the individual’s return from having veered off the narrow path of righteousness.
At its earliest layer, the Biblical Yom Kippur is a day of atonement – a day when the entire people of Israel come together to cleanse the Temple sanctuary of the residue of a year’s worth of sin.
This shall be to all of you a law for all time: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall practice self-denial; and you shall do no manner of work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you. For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you all shall be clean before the LORD. It shall be a sabbath of complete rest for you all, and you all shall practice self-denial; it is a law for all time (Lv 16:29 – 30).
The core of the Torah reading for the day of Yom Kippur emerges from the heart of the Priestly codes, detailing the regulations for purifying the altar and the sanctuary from the defilement of having absorbed another year of Israel’s sins. Surely, this day is more filled with ritual than any other, more swollen with poetry, pomp, a rich musical and liturgical rite, than any other. Yom Kippur is the high water mark of the priestly conviction that rite makes right, that Israel’s relationship to God demands adherence to the public practice established by Torah and rabbinic code. On Yom Kippur, we return as a people to the path of mitzvot and prayer. It is as a people that we are cleansed.
Yet Yom Kippur is also intensely personal, a day of introspection and repentance on an individual level too. That focus on teshuvah is reflected in the ancient words of the Prophet Isaiah, selected as the Haftarah reading on this most-ritually laden day of all:
Is such the fast I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush
And lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call that a fast,
A day when the LORD is favorable?
No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break of every yoke.
It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to ignore your own kin.
Then shall your light burst through like the dawn
And your healing spring up quickly. (Is 58:5 – 8)
On the very day when we come together to enact such a complex choreography, at the time when we attend to an endless ritual script, at that very moment we read the piercing charge of Isaiah condemning ritual that is not the outer reflection of real inner work. Ritual is beautiful when it is the manifestation of ethical rigor and spiritual depth. Then observance can become an art form of the body, almost a dance. But ritual severed from ethical or spiritual moorings is worse than mere inaction – it is hypocrisy institutionalized, it is abomination!
The key to both atonement and repentance is confession, the Torah’s simple requirement that the sinner (individual or the people) confess the sin publicly, Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins (Lv 16:21), reminding us to confess for the ways we, as a people, have failed to live up to the highest standards of Torah, failed to answer God’s call to be a light to the nations, failed to become our truest selves. At the same time as the Priest confesses our collective wrongdoing, we also confess our individual shortcomings and betrayals. When a man or woman commits any wrong toward another person, thus breaking faith with the LORD, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess the wrong that he has done (Nm 5:5 – 7). The communal ritual traces an inner awareness – as we contemplate the gap between our potential and our deeds, between what we could have been and how we actually acted, we muster the courage to repent.
According to Rav Saadia Gaon, great philosopher and Talmudic sage of Medieval Baghdad, "Repentance entails 1) the renunciation of sin, 2) remorse, 3) the quest of forgiveness, and 4) the assumption of the obligation not to relapse into sin." The day stands, therefore, on the edifice of honest self-scrutiny, on the optimism that human beings can grow toward the light, that we can discipline our errant behavior to express our highest ideals. Yom Kippur is a day in which the sanctuary of our heart, as well as the institutions we have established as a people, are held to a very high standard (God’s) and judged by that standard, not for the sake of smug self-congratulations, but because the work is great, and the Master is waiting to forgive.