Atoning for sins on Yom Kippur

At this time of year, we are given the opportunity to choose the right path.

October 11, 2016 09:50
3 minute read.
Painting by Yoram Raanan

Painting ‘Kotel Destiny’ by Yoram Raanan. (photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)


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Freedom of choice is a basic Jewish doctrine from Genesis’s first story.

“If you feel shame over having sinned, Heaven immediately forgives you.” These comforting words (Brachot 12B Hagiga 5A) are timely at Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, but we should also remember what Mark Twain wrote: “Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.”

Yom Kippur is the day that we specifically put aside to atone for our sins, and even the most saintly figure could not manage to get through a year without some form of wrongdoing. It is written: “For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins shall ye be clean before the Lord” (Leviticus 16:30).

Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are the only Jewish holy days that do not relate to any historical event or agricultural concept. Most Jewish festivals have some kind of national significance that even secular Jews can relate to, but the Day of Atonement relates only to people’s relationship with God and their fellow human beings. The days preceding Yom Kippur are for people to make restitution and ask pardon from those they may have wronged during the year.

In Hebrew, there are about 20 words denoting sin – each with a different nuance.

The usual rabbinic term is avera, from the root avar, to pass over, and is interpreted as a rejection of God’s will. Jews believe this is caused by the evil inclination (yetzer hara), a force that drives one to gratify instincts regardless of the cost. God said: “My children, I created the evil inclination, but I created Torah as its antidote. If you occupy yourself with the Torah, you will not be delivered into its hand!” (Kiddushin 30b)

Freedom of choice is a basic Jewish doctrine, from the first story in Genesis, where Adam and Eve are given the option to accept or reject God’s commandments. The great medieval scholar Maimonides wrote: “Every man has the possibility of becoming as righteous as Moses our teacher or as wicked as Jeroboam; wise or stupid; kind or cruel; miserly or generous…” (Yad, Teshuva 5). This contradicts a popular belief that things are predestined. Judaism teaches us that we can make the choices and go toward righteousness or towards sin and its consequences.

However, another prayer we recite seems to contradict this. “On the New Year it is written down, and on the Day of Atonement it is sealed… who shall live and who shall die, who at the measure of man’s days and who before it…” Some rabbis claim that this is a meditation rather than a prayer, designed to help a Jew understand the important conclusion: “but penitence, prayer and charity avert the severe decree.”

Even if our lives warrant punishment, we can still choose to repent, even up to our last hours on Earth. This is the wonderful and optimistic aspect of Judaism.

The solemnity of Yom Kippur has a special dimension in Israel, especially in Jerusalem. No cars are seen on the street for the entire 25 hours, as even the most secular Jew would not publicly profane this holy day.

As darkness descends and the long day of fasting and prayer draws to a close, the synagogues are crowded, and thousands more walk to the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, to hear the blast of the shofar.

As the piercing sound rends the night, we in Israel are mindful of Isaiah addressing the exiles: “And it shall come to pass in that day, that a great horn shall be blown; and they shall come that were lost in the land of Assyria” (Isaiah 27:13).

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