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Individual Atonement is Rooted in Communal Atonement

Atonement on Yom Kippur emanates from the brit (covenant) of love which God made with our forefathers. Fasting on Yom Kippur releases the soul from its material bondage and desires, revealing its true, good aspirations.


Rabbi Eliezer Melamed


The Secret of Yom Kippur’s Atonement

The foundation of Yom Kippur emanates from the brit ha’ahavah (covenant of love) that God made with our fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, which was performed through the mitzvah of brit milah (circumcision), strengthened when God took Israel out of Egypt, and was completed when God gave us the Torah, and as a result, the world continued to exist (Shabbat 88a).

This brit was revealed to the Jewish nation on Yom Kippur, for it was then that God completely forgave Israel for the Sin of the Golden Calf, and once again gave the Torah to Israel in the form of the Two Tablets, and commanded the building of the Mishkan (Sanctuary) in order for His Shechina (Divine Presence) to dwell within them (Pirkei D’ Rebbe Eliezer 56; Tanhuma Terumah 8, Ki Tisa 31).

And therefore we were commanded to fulfill Yom Kippur for all generations – the day on which the covenant of love between God and His people of Israel is revealed.

The Covenant is not dependent on Actions

It is important to understand that this covenant which God made with Israel is not dependent on the actions of the Jewish nation, but rather, on the special neshama (soul) which God created for Israel, a soul which at its very core, yearns for tikkun olam (perfecting the world) by means of revealing the Divine Light. This is the meaning of the verse: "You are a nation consecrated to God your Lord; God your Lord chose you to be His am segula (Chosen People) among all the nations on the face of the earth" (Deuteronomy 7:6).

It is also written: "For the Lord has chosen Israel as his personal possession" (Psalm 135:4). Therefore, even if Israel sins immeasurably, the Heavenly covenant cannot be broken, as it is written: "The Lord will not forsake his people, for they are his prize" (Psalm 94:14).

However, if Israel sins, they will be punished with harsh trials and tribulations, and the greater their sins are, the harsher the punishment will be, this, in order to purify and return them to God; nevertheless, Israel will never be able to break God’s covenant, as it is written: "As surely as I am the living Lord God, I will rule over you with my powerful arm. You will feel my fierce anger and my power, when I gather you from the places where you are scattered and lead you into a desert surrounded by nations. I will meet you there face to face… I will force each of you to obey the regulations of our solemn covenant"(Ezekiel 20:32-37).

The Covenant and Judgment

Usually, the world is conducted according to the rules of judgment as determined by God at the time of Creation, that it would be run according to the actions of human beings. If men choose good – blessings will abound, and if they choose evil - blessings will diminish, and troubles will increase.

Seemingly according to this, if sins multiply beyond a certain limit - the world will be destroyed. However, on Yom Kippur, the gates of Heaven are opened, God’s Supreme Guidance is revealed, Israel’s sins are forgiven at their core, and in their merit, the world continues to exist and progress towards its Redemption.

Nevertheless, God’s supervision of the world by means of judgment does not cease to exist, and for every sin or transgression which is not amended by teshuva (repentance), punishment will be meted out. And if the sins increase and multiply, the punishments will be insufferable, but will remedy and purify Israel. This is what is clarified in the Torah and the Prophets and the sayings of our Sages that even if Israel does not repent - the Geula (Redemption) that God promised our forefathers and us, will come. The choice we have is whether our actions influence its coming quickly and joyfully, or, God forbid, after a long and difficult road, filled with suffering.

The Principle Atonement on Yom Kippur Relates to Clal Yisrael

On Yom Kippur, kiddushat Clal Yisrael (the sanctity of all of Israel) is revealed, and thus, on this holy day, the Kohen Gadol (the High Priest), on behalf of all Israel entered the Kodesh Hakadashim (‘Holy of Holies’, the inner sanctuary of the Holy Temple) to atone for all of Israel. This is amazing! How could the Kohen Gadol confess for every single Jew? In fact, the principle atonement of Yom Kippur is for Clal Yisrael, including the inner nucleus of every single Jew, but for the private sins of each individual, Yom Kippur does not atone without that individual's own teshuva (repentance) (see, ‘Peninei Halakha: Yamim Nora’im 6:7-10).

Since this is so, there are some "tzadikim" (seemingly righteous people) who make great efforts on Yom Kippur to do teshuva over their private sins, and often add detailed confessions of all types of sins to atone for themselves, but as a result of their self-involvement, forget to think about Clal Yisrael. They err, because the principle avodah (service) of Yom Kippur is to reveal the general relationship between God and Israel His People., as can be seen from he wording of the prayers and confessions on Yom Kippur, written in the plural.

Therefore, first and foremost, everyone should pay attention to the wording of the prayers and direct his heart to them, and thinking to himself, add what he can do in order to help fulfill the Jewish nation’s role of perfecting the world in the Kingdom of the Almighty. What can he do for the sake of kibbutz Ha’Galiyot (the Ingathering of the Exiles), settling the Land, increasing and glorifying the Torah so that the Kingdom of God will be revealed in the world, so people will be better and more moral, and as a result, think about how he can further sanctify God's name in his work, and how he can educate hid family in the Jewish nation’s great mission.

Why is the Wording of the Vidui (confession) Prayers in the Plural?

Seemingly, one could ask, how can a righteous person say "moradnu, nee’atznu, avinu, pashanu" ("we have rebelled; we have angered G-d by disregarding His mitzvoth; we have been perverse and have sinned because of perverted reasoning; we have acted wantonly") – certainly, he did not willfully sin or rebel? And how can someone who is careful about other people’s money say "we have stolen; we have extorted"?

This is because the mitzvah of Yom Kippur is for all of Israel as one to do teshuva, and therefore our Sages fixed that each person recite the confession prayers in the plural for all of Israel, in the same manner as the Kohen Gadol would confess for all of Israel.

In addition, sometimes a person who himself has not sinned is responsible for sins committed by his family and friends, for he could have objected but did not, could have brought them closer to teshuva but did not make a great enough attempt, - and perhaps had he served as a shining example, they would have improved and not sinned.

Furthermore, ‘Kol Yisrael arevim zeh la zeh‘(all Israel is responsible for one another), and as such, are like one body composed of many organs; so that every sin committed by a fellow Jew belongs to all of Israel.

And therefore, the vidui prayers are also necessary for righteous men, tzadikim, cleansing them from their share in the sins, thereby arousing all of Israel to teshuva (Sefer Hasidim 601; Ari, Ben Ish Chai, Ki Tisa).

Individual Repentance as a Result of Public Repentance

Yom Kippur is, of course, also a day on which each individual can repent for his sins, and on Yom Kippur, one’s repentance is more readily accepted than on any other time of the year, because this day is designed to be a day of atonement and forgiveness, as it is written: "For on this day you will have all your sins atoned, so that you will be cleansed. Before God you will be cleansed of all your sins" (Leviticus 16:30) (Sha’arei Teshuva, 4:17; Rambam, Laws of Repentance 2:7).

Nonetheless, all the special virtue of Yom Kippur stems from the fact that on this day the relationship between God and Israel is revealed, and it is a day of atonement for all of Israel. Consequently, each individual can rise to the great and sacred aspirations of Clal Yisrael, and also repent for his private sins. And according to the degree of his attachment to Clal Yisrael, he will be able to repent for his private sins.

The Significance of Fasting

As known, the principle mitzvah of Yom Kippur is the fast. Seemingly, this is hard to understand. If the Torah wanted to set for us a day of repentance and atonement for sins, wouldn’t it be better if we were able to eat and drink a little, so our thoughts would be clear, and we could concentrate properly in our prayers and repentance?

By means of fasting, something much deeper is revealed. Throughout the year the soul is enveloped in a physical casing, in the bodies’ various cravings which cause man to forget his inner spiritual desires, and lead him to sin. God commanded us to fast on Yom Kippur, in order for our souls to slightly disconnect from the shackles of our body and material matters, and allow all of the soul’s good and true aspirations to be released and revealed. Through this supreme attachment to the core of our souls, the sins disconnect from us and are hurled to the wilderness, Azazel (Derech Hashem, chapter 4, 8:5).

And although as a result of fasting and the other afflictions it is more difficult for us to concentrate in prayer than on other days, a unique, deep understanding becomes gradually clearer – that our true desire is to cling to God and perfect the world in the light of the Torah and its guidance. Thus, our teshuva can be one of great profundity – each person according to his level.

Therefore, even if one is forced to lie in bed in order to continue fasting, he should not be distressed because in spite of this, he merits assimilating the main foundation of Yom Kippur. And even while lying in bed, he can resolve to increase Torah study, mitzvoth, and the development of his family.

The Fast as a Sacrifice

It should be further noted that the fast is similar to a sacrifice. While the Temple stood, a person would sacrifice an animal, and its chelev (fat) and blood would be placed upon the altar, and atone for him. On Yom Kippur, by fasting, Jews sacrifice their own fat and blood, and God atones for them.

Therefore, on the fast of Yom Kippur, every Jew should imagine as if he sacrifices himself on the altar, with his waning fat and blood atoning for him. And by means of raising them to the level of a sweet-smelling offering to God, he rises to the most highest level, which cannot be comprehended or perceived, but is the ratzon (will) and simple knowledge to do the Will our Father in Heaven (see, Berachot 17a; Ricananti, Leviticus 16:29; Zohar, Ruth 80:1).


Halakhic Responsum: Praying in a Minyan versus Eating in Shiurim

Q: Concerning a diabetic person for whom fasting could endanger his life, is it better for him to eat in shiurim (set, small amounts) and not pray in the synagogue, because in synagogue he will not be able to eat in shiurim, or is it better to eat a large amount at home, thus allowing him to attend services in the synagogue?

A: It is better to eat as usual and participate in public prayers. There are two reasons for this: first, eating in shiurim is a hidur (an enhancement of a mitzvah), and prayer in a minyan is more important. Second, if we require patients to stay at home and eat in shiurim, there will be those who still go to the synagogue with the intention of secretly eating in shiurim there, and in practice, for various reasons, in the synagogue they will forget to eat sufficiently, and as a result, may come to situations of stupor, unconsciousness or death, God forbid.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew.
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