(photo credit: Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT)
Yom Kippur is predicated on the idea that no one is free from sin and
transgression. At the very least, we all do things we shouldn’t inadvertently,
without planning to or without realizing that they are wrong. It is impossible
not to overstep the bounds at sometime or other, whatever our good intentions.
All too often we also transgress knowingly and then regret it. We can do wrong,
but we can also repent and be forgiven.
From the very beginning Judaism
has dealt with this problem by providing ways to express regret for what we have
done and giving us ritual ways of cleansing us from our wrongdoing – rituals of
atonement. In general these rituals outlined in the Torah involved sacrifices.
Thus when the Temple was destroyed and sacrifices could no longer be brought
there was a feeling that atonement could no longer be attained. We see this
clearly in the well-known story of Rabbis Joshua and Yohanan ben Zakkai soon
after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. When they saw the ruins of
the Temple, Rabbi Joshua lamented, saying that the place where the sins of
Israel had been cleansed existed no longer. His teacher, Rabban Yohanan ben
Zakkai, consoled him with the thought that observance of gemilut hassadim – acts
of loving-kindness – was even more effective than sacrifice, quoting Hosea 6:6
“For I desire hessed and not sacrifice” (Avot D’Rabbi Natan 4).
story has always amazed me because ben Zakkai’s answer is so unexpected. When
Rabbi Joshua lamented the absence of the ritual of atonement, ben Zakkai might
have said that there is no problem since prayer can take the place of sacrifice.
After all, on Shabbat and other holy days, inserting the description of the
appropriate sacrifices into our prayers in place of the sacrifices themselves is
There is a verse that could be used to justify this as well –
“Take with you words and return to the Lord” (Hosea 14:3).
But that is
not what he said and that is not the verse he chose.
Rather he indicated
that gemilut hassadim – acts of righteous conduct, acts of kindness – are even
more effective than sacrifices in the attainment of atonement. The word hessed
in the verse itself should be translated as “faithfulness.” “I desire
faithfulness rather than sacrifices,” i.e. God wants us to be faithful to Him,
following His ways, performing His commandments.
By the rabbinic period,
however, hessed had taken on the meaning of acts of kindness. Ben Zakkai,
therefore, was saying that ritual is less important than
Atonement can be attained by our loving actions toward
others and that is even more effective than sacrifices.
What ben Zakkai
taught was truly an extension of the teachings of the prophet Isaiah. Once, when
a fast had been proclaimed, he told the people that fasting alone was
The true fast that God has chosen is “to loose the fetters
of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke and to let the oppressed go free
and that you break every yoke... Is it not to deal your bread to the hungry and
bring the poor that are cast out to your house? When you see the naked to cover
him and that you hide not yourself from your own flesh?” (Isaiah 58:6- 7).
Indeed this is the very prophetic portion that has been chosen for the haftara
of Yom Kippur morning.
Ritual is important, but not when it comes at the
expense of concern for others. Ritual can help us to direct our attention to how
we should act and what we should be doing, but we should never allow it to
become a substitute for gemilut hassadim – those acts that Isaiah mentioned:
caring for the needs of others, working toward freedom for all. It is all too
easy to believe that our fasting will make everything right and will eradicate
our sins. It will not. We do not need a Temple to atone for our sins.
do need righteousness and acts of kindness. This is the true way to deal with
wrongdoing and to earn forgiveness.The writer, former president of the
International Rabbinical Assembly, was the founding director of the Schechter
Rabbinical School. His latest book is Entering Torah.