Yom Kippur is the single most significant day of the Jewish calendar. And so it’s certainly not coincidental that the Torah reading for Yom Kippur, stands in the center of the Torah. Almost precisely at the middle of the middle book of the Torah, we find a description of the rites that would take place in the Tabernacle on the Day of Atonement. On this most central of days, we read the central message of Torah and Judaism.
That central message, in somewhat abbreviated form, is this: once a year, one somewhat randomly selected person should slaughter some animals and sprinkle some blood on various parts of the central worship building. He should also put his hands on a goat, say some words, and then send that goat out into the wilderness.
Perhaps you find that message uncompelling. Perhaps we should find some other text to place at the center of the Torah, to read on Yom Kippur. But I would like to argue in favor of Leviticus 16 as the most important thing that the Torah has to teach us.
The Yom Kippur ritual as described in the Torah is distinctly physical, and largely automatic. The bulk of the chapter is focused not on themes of repentance or forgiveness, but something else entirely—the physical removal of sin from our midst.
The priest takes both of his hands and places them on the goat selected for “Azazel”—whatever that means—and confesses the sins of Israel onto the goat, sending it out into the wilderness. Despite our natural temptation to read this metaphorically, on the most basic level, the scapegoat simply carries our sins away, off into the desert. This ritual assumes that sin is a physical thing to be carried away, like the trash we throw into our garbage cans.
And, as has been pointed out by the biblical scholar Baruch Schwartz of Hebrew University, that is precisely how sin is described throughout the Bible. Over the course of Yom Kippur, we will recite the thirteen attributes of God, in which we invoke God’s mercy, twenty-six times. We will sing, over and over, nosei avon vafesha vehata’ah vanakei—bearing iniquity and transgression and sin, cleansing. Now, if you were to look at the translation of these words in most High Holiday prayerbooks, you would not see anything about bearing iniquity—rather, you would see words like “forgiving iniquity,” and there is a sense in which that translation is exactly right. Clearly, when we say that God bears our sins, we mean to say that God forgives them.
But we also lose something when we ignore the metaphor. For one thing, when you focus on the actual Hebrew idiom—nosei avon, bearing sin—you find that the phrase is ambiguous. Bearing sin could mean being punished for your actions, but it can also mean forgiving another for theirs. If you conceive of sin as a real, tangible item in the world that has actual weight to be borne, then someone is going to have to do the bearing. And if someone other than the original transgressor takes that weight off of the shoulders of the transgressor, then that is the original act of forgiveness. Take a load off.
Because sin, as presented in the Torah, is a real creation in the world, nothing can destroy it—all we can do is the pass the burden onto some other forgiver, or, in the case of the scapegoat ritual, send it off to the existential landfill. That is a depressing way to view the world, but it may also be an accurate depiction. Can you ever really repair a relationship in which you violated your partner’s trust? Isn’t there always some breach that remains?
However accurate it may be, the conception of sin as a weight eventually makes life unlivable. Just as we now realize that eventually we will run out of landfill space, so too, the biblical depiction of the world might lead us to a point at which we find ourselves surrounded by, and weighed down by, our past actions and the actions of others. And so, as Gary Anderson of Notre Dame University has pointed out, Rabbinic texts switch the metaphor on us. When you look at Jewish texts from the post-biblical period, you begin to see sin conceived of not as a weight to be born, but as a debt to be paid back. And just as, when I return to you the money that I owe you, my debt is wiped off the books, disappearing and losing any independent existence, so too, when I repent, when I make amends, I wipe out the transgressions of the past.
This Rabbinic model makes repentance possible; I believe I can make true and meaningful amends. But in the process of moving from an understanding of sin as burden to be borne to sin as debt to be repaid, we lose the sense of ultimate importance, the ethical imperative that derives from knowing that one misstep pollutes the whole earth.
Since we, following in the footsteps of the Rabbis, no longer experience sin as irremediable pollution, we also too often fail to experience the joy that onlookers would have felt when the high priest exited the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, a sense of relief so intense that you might spontaneously break out into song. There are relatively few texts that we as Rabbinic Jews not only study, but also reenact, but one is the Yom Kippur Avodah, the rites of Leviticus 16, which many synagogues include as part of the musaf service on Yom Kippur. We tell the story of what would happen in the Temple, and then the hazzan chants as if they were the High Priest, confessing our sins, counting out the sprinklings of blood, pronouncing (allusively) God’s name. And the congregation responds in kind, bowing at the point where we would have heard the name of God enunciated, engaging in a total prostration, in an attempt to place ourselves back in a mental space of treating our actions as if they have irrevocable meaning, feeling their weight on our backs and shoulders. And then, the Avodah concludes, we feel that weight lifted off of our shoulders, and we break out into joyous song.
That’s the message of the sixteenth chapter of Leviticus. That our misdeeds are supremely important, with effects that can never be undone, repercussions that cannot be nullified. But that there is nonetheless a sliver of hope, and that there can be a fresh start, a clean beginning.
We live our lives in a world of sin-as-debt, because to maintain the biblical model would be emotionally crushing. But once a year, we are asked to remember that the lenses through which we view our own transgressions are distorting. We read and reenact Leviticus 16 on Yom Kippur to remind ourselves both of the significance of those times when we failed to live up to our commitments, but also to experience true repentance—one joyous, shining moment of absolute lightening of our loads.
Rabbi Michael Rosenberg is Professor of Rabbinics at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College.
Looking for inspiration for the High Holidays? The Hebrew College High Holiday Companion (published in August 2017) is available now for study and reflection during the High Holidays. If you are interested in learning more about the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, we invite you to our Fall Open House and Day of Learning, Ta Sh’ma (Come & Hear) on November 6.
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