Yom Kippur is a day of Divine forgiveness. If we have done the work we need to do, we are told in the Torah that “On this day he will atone for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins, before the Lord you will be cleansed.” (Lev. 16:30). But what is that work that we must do?
In the Temple period, surprisingly, atonement was achieved less by what we did than by what the high priest did—the Temple service, the sacrifices, incense and the scapegoat. The “he” who will atone for us in the verse cited above is the high priest. But should God forgive us because rituals were performed? Isn’t this forgiveness unearned? The answer may well be, “yes.” Sometimes we need forgiveness, even when we don’t deserve it.
Why? Because our sins, misdeeds and mistakes weigh us down. This weight prevents us from moving on, from growing into better people. The metaphor used in the Torah for forgiving sin is “Nosei avon,” to lift up the sin, to take the weight off our backs. Our sins are symbolically placed on the scapegoat, who “carries” our sins away from us. Freed from their weight, we can stand upright and devote our energies to becoming our fullest selves.
Growing up, the message I so often heard during this time of year was that I had to wallow in the badness of my past actions. If I wanted to be forgiven by God, I needed to feel guilty and ashamed of myself. This turned Yom Kippur into a day on which I felt crushed by my sins, not freed from them. As I grew older, I began to realize that the Torah is much wiser than my teachers were. The goal of Yom Kippur is not to exacerbate our guilty feelings, but to give us a way to move beyond them, to move into a healthier, more productive space. It’s okay, God is telling us, everyone sins. You are human. I forgive you. Put your energies into doing good, not into beating yourself up.
Now, this amnesty can be abused. Surely, a person has to do something to merit forgiveness. Well, yes. You have to show up. If you participate in this day by fasting and observing its rituals—better yet, if you actually show up at the Temple to see the service—then you are acknowledging that you have done wrong this last year, and that you need to be forgiven. And, at least as the Torah describes it, that was enough.
The rabbis raised the bar. First, they closed an obvious loophole, and said that if a person sins because she knows that she is promised forgiveness on Yom Kippur, that sin will not be forgiven. More significantly, they said that forgiveness had to be earned, and by more than just showing up. Teshuva, repentance, was needed. But the Rabbis made this teshuva very accessible. They did not demand that we completely transform who we are, never repeating our misdeeds. While this is the ideal, it is a goal out of reach of most people. Three things that any one of us can do to be forgiven and to put our sins behind us are:
Confession: We must admit to ourselves, verbally and concretely, that we have done something wrong. (With our predilection for rationalizing and minimizing our misdeeds, this can sometimes be hard.)
Remorse: We must truly feel bad about we have done. (For those of us with a conscience and Jewish guilt, this is an easy one.)
Commitment: We must honestly commit to try to do better. (More is needed when one has actually wronged another person.)
Notice that this last requirement does not mean we must actually succeed in doing better. It is not uncommon that by the time Sukkot rolls around, we find ourselves falling back in those bad behaviors. That is human nature. And God, and the Rabbis, know this. Yes, you will fail; Yes, you will slip up. That’s why there was last Yom Kippur, and that’s why there is next Yom Kippur. As long as you admit it, feel bad about it and make an honest attempt to do better, the gift of Yom Kippur allows you to put it behind you and move forward. Freed from the weight, you can take off and fly.
Kabbalah teaches that our actions below—itaruta di’litata—bring about corresponding actions from on high—itaruta di’li’eyla. Yom Kippur exists to let us move beyond the guilt that weighs us down, that we heap upon ourselves. If we can learn to forgive ourselves, to accept that we are human and have made mistakes, and that’s OK and we try to do better next year, then God will forgive us as well.
By Rabbi Dov Linzer
Rabbi Dov Linzer is the Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, and the primary architect of its groundbreaking curriculum of Torah, Halacha, pastoral counseling and professional training.