The observance of Yom Kippur today is imbued with grand ceremony as has been true since the time of the Bible. From the haunting melody of Kol Nidrei through the intensity of the repeated confessions of our sins and the urgent beauty of Ne’ilah, the concluding service, every aspect of the rituals is intended to focus us on the soul-wrenching task of atonement. On the other hand, the real work lies not in praying in the synagogue, but rather in applying our good intentions and self-examination as we move on from the Day of Atonement itself.
The traditional Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning describes the rituals associated with the observance in the mishkan (tabernacle) in the wilderness and then in the Temple in Jerusalem. In addition to the details of the various sacrifices that are to be offered, we find a description of the special clothes the High Priest would wear to enter the Holy of Holies on this one day out of the year, as well as the description of the scapegoat, which would be dispatched to the wilderness carrying all of the people’s sins with it. In the biblical model, these sacrifices effect repentance for the Israelites. That is, the people are passive in the process; it is the priestly rituals that act on behalf of the individuals. Certainly, there is much in our modern observance that draws on the collective nature of repentance. For example, the confessions of sin are all phrased in the plural rather than the singular.
By contrast, however, our modern understanding of teshuvah (repentance) is very much rooted in personal responsibility to rectify our wrongdoings. In fact, the traditional haftarah for Yom Kippur morning, from the book of Isaiah, emphasizes this aspect of individual involvement in the process of teshuvah. “Is this the fast I desire? A day for each to afflict his soul? To bow his head as a bulrush, and spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord?” asks the prophet. Clearly, the answer to these questions is, “No.”
However, the passage then describes what our prayers and repentance ought to inspire us to do: “Is this not the fast I desire? To loose the chains of wickedness, to release the bonds of the yoke, to allow the downtrodden to go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the wretched poor to your house? When you see the naked, to cover him; and not to ignore your own flesh?”
We see here the point and counterpoint of the collective and individual aspects of atonement. We gather in the synagogue together, to draw strength from one another as we admit our failings before the great, awesome and holy Judge. Having made this admission of guilt, we are then obligated to do better, to take up the cause of the oppressed and helpless all around us. Only then will all of our self-affliction effect repentance for us.
Shanah tovah teichateimu — May you be sealed for a good year! PJC
Rabbi Howard Stein is the spiritual leader of Temple Hadar Israel. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.