Tradition Today: True atonement

Yom Kippur predicated on the idea that no one is free from sin and transgression. At the very least, we do things we shouldn’t inadvertently,

Torah 521 (photo credit: Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT)
Torah 521
(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).
This 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 sufficient.
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 righteousness.
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 meaningless.
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.
We 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.