Yom Kippur: Atonement and purification before God

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By Rabbi Matt Schneeweiss

The purpose of Yom Kippur is stated explicitly in the Torah: “For on this day, [the High Priest] shall atone for you, to purify you; from your sins before Hashem shall you be purified” (Leviticus 16:30).

(Courtesy of Rabbi Matt Schneeweiss)

The medieval Italian Biblical commentator Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno explains: “Atonement (kaparah) is the diminution of the sin and prepares it to receive forgiveness (selichah). The attainment of purificantion (taharah) and complete forgiveness will be before Hashem alone, through confession (vidui) and repentance (teshuvah), for He alone knows
their reality.”

According to Sforno, kaparah serves two functions: diminution of the sin and preparation for it to be forgiven. Taharah doesn’t mean purification here as much as “complete forgiveness,” which is achieved through confession and repentance.

What does all this mean? The answer lies in the central part of the Yom Kippur service (avodah) in the Holy Temple: the scapegoat (seir ha’mishtaleach).

After the High Priest placed his hands on the goat and confessed on behalf of the entire Jewish people, the goat would be led into the desert and pushed off a cliff to its demise.

Rabbi Israel Chait explains that the Torah is teaching us that our sins are extraneous to our essential nature (as represented by the High Priest’s act of symbolically transferring these sins onto the goat). This avodah teaches us that the instinctual part of the human, which is fueled by fantasy and is the cause of our sins, does not reflect our essence – our intellect, the tzelem Elokim. If we follow our animalistic inclinations, we are as doomed as the scapegoat.

It is in this sense that the avodah of the Scapegoat “diminishes” our sins and “prepares them for forgiveness.” Without the perspective embedded in this avodah, we would regard each sin as its own essential entity, and doing teshuvah on our multitude of sins would seem impossible. But when we view our sins through the lens of the avodah of Yom Kippur, we recognize that they all stem from one underlying source: the instinctual part of human nature. This paradigm shift results in a “diminution” of our sins by reducing them from essential entities to particular expressions of a single aspect of our nature. We are, in effect, asking Hashem to pardon us for succumbing to human nature: “This is not who we really are,” we say. That recognition, combined with genuine teshuvah, is what earns us our forgiveness.

Rabbi Matt Schneeweiss is a rebbi and administrator at Yeshiva Bnei Torah in Far Rockaway, N.Y. Check out his Torah content on YouTube, kolhaseridim.blogspot.com, and podcasts “The Stoic Jew Podcast,” “Machshavah Lab” and more.

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