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Home » Acharei Mot, Yom Kippur

Acharei Mot: Yom Kippur

Submitted by on April 29, 2019 – 9:37 amNo Comment | 2,008 views

Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish calendar year. It is unusual to discuss Yom Kippur shortly after Passover, but it comes up this week because the Torah portion of the week describes the Yom Kippur service that was performed by the High Priest in the Holy of Holies in the ancient Temple.

One of the highlights of the service was the High Priest’s confession. The High Priest would confess three times on Yom Kippur. The first confession was on his behalf and on behalf of his wife. The second confession was on behalf of all the priests. The third confession was on behalf of the entire nation. When he then proceeded to offer the Yom Kippur sacrifices, atonement was affected for everyone.

You First

Right here we have our first lesson. Ordinarily, we are expected to pray for others ahead of ourselves. If we and others have similar needs, it is selfish to pray for ourselves and only then add a prayer for the others. In fact, our sages teach us that when we pray for others ahead of our own needs, our prayers are answered first.[1]

Yet, before the High Priest asked G-d to atone for the sins of others, he asked G-d to atone for his own sins. Why? Because cajoling others from a life of sin is different from praying for their needs. When we try to influence others for the better, we must begin with ourselves.[2] If we are deceitful, it is difficult to convince others to give up their duplicity. If we live a life of cravings and lust, it is difficult to lead the way for others toward holiness. A prisoner can’t break his or her fellow inmates out of prison. Help must come from the outside. Thus, the High Priest first secured forgiveness for Himself and then for others.

This is similar to the instructions we receive every time we fly. “In the event of decompression, an oxygen mask will automatically appear in front of you. To start the flow of oxygen, pull the mask towards you. Place it firmly over your nose and mouth, secure the elastic band behind your head, and breathe normally. Although the bag does not inflate, oxygen is flowing to the mask. If you are traveling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person.”

When we first sit down in the airplane, we tighten our children’s seatbelts before we tighten our own seatbelts. But when we are in crisis, we are unable to help others before we have helped ourselves.

Before G-d

The conclusion and highlight of the High Priest’s confessions was the following verse: “On this day G-d will effect atonement for you to cleanse you. Before G-d, you shall be cleansed from all your sins.”[3]

The High Priest would utter the Tetragrammaton, G-d’s ineffable name. And as he did, the priests would cry out, “Blessed is His glorious and royal name forever and ever.” This was done to ensure that no one would hear the ineffable name. The High Priest would elongate the utterance of G-d’s name and time it to conclude with the response from the priests. When silence finally returned, the High Priest would conclude with the dramatic words from the verse, “you shall be cleansed from all your sins.”

This responsive service was repeated ten times throughout the day, and thus draws our attention. Our sages derived many lessons from this verse to enhance our understanding of Yom Kippur.

The verse begins with the idea that G-d atones for our sins and concludes with the idea that will be cleansed before G-d. These two stitches of the verse seem to overlap—one repeats the theme of the other. This led our sages to offer multiple explanations.

However, these explanations require a preface. The word before has a dual meaning. It can mean in front of and it can mean in advance of. We can be standing before G-d or we can be standing before we approach G-d. Based on this play of words, our sages offered the following three explanations.

  1. Yom Kippur only effects atonement for those who repent. Before we approach G-d to seek atonement, we must already have regretted our sins and resolved not to repeat them. If we repent for our sins before we approach G-d, G-d will atone for our sins. If we don’t repent on Yom Kippur, Yom Kippur will not effect atonement for us.[4]
  2. Yom Kippur only effects atonement for sins that we commit before G-d. Sins committed against a fellow cannot be atoned for on Yom Kippur until we secure our fellow’s forgiveness. G-d effects atonement on this day to cleanse you, but only for those sins that you committed before G-d.[5]
  3. G-d effects atonement for us because He reaches back to His bond with us that preceded—that came before— His name. A name is a handle through which others reach us. If there are no others, we have no need for a name. Before G-d created the world, He did not have a name. The Tetragrammaton was only formulated after G-d created the world. G-d forgives our sins on Yom Kippur because He recalls the bond that He shared with us before He had a name. If His bond preceded creation, then it transcends creation. And if His bond with us transcends creation, it cannot be compromised by actions performed in this world—after creation.[6]

Double Rest

The second of the three explanations centered on offenses that we commit against each other. Most friction results either from monetary dispute or arguments that break out over our pursuits of material pleasure. When we covet what others have, we resent them. We forgive each other on Yom Kippur we rest on this day from all monetary and business engagements, and from all material pleasure. It is not merely Shabbat—a day of rest, it is Shabbat Shabbaton—a day of double Rest—we rest on both fronts.[7]

On Yom Kippur, we coalesce into a single congregation, in complete forgiveness and unity. And it is only in this state that we can secure atonement. If we don’t forgive others, they can’t be forgiven. If others don’t forgive us, we can’t be forgiven. We depend on each other and we pull together on this holy day.

The key is to extend the unity and comity of this day to the day after Yom Kippur and to the rest of the year. If we do this, we will have fewer sins to atone for next Yom Kippur. This is why Moses gathered the nation on the day after Yom Kippur to resolve their disputes.[8] It is not enough to forget our disputes on Yom Kippur and return to them the next day. The forgiveness of this day must be channeled into complete forgiveness and resolution so that we can move forward together. One for all and all for one.[9]

[1] Babylonian Talmud: Baba Kama 92a.

[2] Babylonian Talmud: Sanhedrin, 18a. See also Baba Batra, 18b that Rabbi Yanai refused to rule on someone’s violation of the law because he was personally in similar violation. Only after correcting his own violation, did he rule on the case.

[3] Leviticus 16:30.

[4] Babylonian Talmud: Shavuot, 13a.

[5] Babylonian Talmud: 85b.

[6] Likutei Torah 26b.

[7] Leviticus 16:33.

[8] Exodus, 35:1. See Rashi’s commentary ad loc.

[9] This essay is based on commentary from Kli Yakar on Leviticus 16:30.