Cleansing our World (Extract)

September 28, 2008 11:45
3 minute read.


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Extract from an article in Issue 13, October 13, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Yom Kippur is observed on October 9 "For on this day he shall atone for you to purify you; that you may be clean from all your sins before the Lord." (Lev. 16:30) This verse appears at the end of the Torah reading for Yom Kippur, when we leave all of our this-worldly pursuits behind, even food and drink, for a day that is totally devoted to God and a day we are promised atonement for our sins. The reading describes in great detail the service of the High Priest in the Temple on this day - the sacrifices, the ablutions, the burning of the incense, the sending of the scapegoat to the desert. Teshuva, or repentance, is not mentioned as part of the service of the day. According to the verses, it is the sacrificial rites that cleanse the Temple and achieve atonement for the people. But what is the significance of Yom Kippur when the Temple and these rituals are absent? The Rabbis of the Talmud, in their affirmation of the timeless relevance of the Torah after the destruction of the Temple, declared that in the absence of sacrifices, the day itself achieves atonement, provided that it is accompanied by teshuva (Bavli, Yoma 85b). The "he" of the verse who atones for us is no longer the High Priest offering the sacrifices, but God Himself, who provides atonement on this day to those who undertake the process of teshuva. After the Temple, it is teshuva which takes the place of the sacrificial rites of the day. For the last two thousand years, the dominant theme of Yom Kippur has thus been teshuva - the work of improving our behavior and transforming our character. And yet, the Torah reading remains Chapter 16 of Leviticus. Rather than hearing moral or religious exhortation - undeniably the theme of the haftarot of the day - we are treated to the minute details of the rites of the sacrifices. These Temple-based rites, while seemingly irrelevant to our contemporary concerns, can teach serious corrective lessons regarding sin and repentance. It is widely believed that sin affects the spiritual well-being of the soul and that teshuva is a process devoted wholly to the repairing of the soul. This is only partly true. The sacrificial rites of Yom Kippur tell another story. "And he [the High Priest] shall make an atonement for the Holy Sanctuary, and he shall make an atonement for the Tent of Meeting, and for the altar, and he shall make an atonement for the priests, and for all the people of the congregation" (Lev. 16: 33). It is first and foremost the Temple that must be cleansed, and only afterwards is the atonement of the people achieved. The Torah assumes a basic metaphysical reality - sin pollutes. When the Children of Israel have sinned, the Temple itself becomes impure. This understanding of sin holds for us even today. When we sin, we hurt not only ourselves, we pollute our environment as well. If we have not respected our parents or our spouse, if we have betrayed a trust or hurt others physically or emotionally, then our sin has damaged others and injured our relationships. If we have not honored Shabbat or the holidays properly, then the sanctity that these times hold for us has been diminished. The process of teshuva requires that we recognize that improving ourselves is insufficient; we must also cleanse the reality that we have polluted. Rabbi Dov Linzer is head of the yeshiva and dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, New York. Extract from an article in Issue 13, October 13, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.

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