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Torah Sparks

April 19, 2008 – 14 Nisan 5768

Annual: Leviticus 16:1 – 18:30 (Etz Hayim, p. 679; Hertz p. 480)
Triennial: Leviticus 16:1 – 17:7 (Etz Hayim, p. 679; Hertz p. 480)
Haftarah: Malakhi 3:4 – 24:3:23 (Etz Hayim, p. 1296; Hertz p. 1005

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

God instructs Moses about the Yom Kippur rituals, during which the High Priest was to cleanse and purify the sanctuary from the effects of the sins of the Israelites. Only on that holiest of days was Aaron permitted to enter the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctuary. He was to dress in special linen garments and to bring a purification offering on behalf of himself and his household. He would then cast lots over two goats, designating one for God as a purification offering on behalf of the people and one for Azazel, the “scapegoat” to be sent off into the wilderness bearing Israel’s sins. The people were to observe Yom Kippur each year as a day of fasting and abstinence from work so that their sins might be forgiven.

Moses tells the people that animals, whether they were intended for food or as sacrifices, were to be slaughtered only at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. It is strictly forbidden to eat blood.

God instructs Moses to tell the people that they are not to copy the practices of the Egyptians or the Canaanites. Forbidden sexual relationships are specified.

1. True Confessions

Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat; and it shall be sent off to the wilderness through a designated man. (Vayikra 16:21)

  1. He who says again and again, “I will sin and then repent” – he will be given no opportunity to repent. He who says, “I will sin, and the Day of Atonement will procure forgiveness for me” – the Day of Atonement will not procure forgiveness for him. (Talmud Yoma 85b)
  2. Rabbi Adda bar Ahavah said: A man who confesses after committing a transgression but does not change his ways is like the one who persists in holding a dead reptile in his hand – even if he immerses himself in all the waters of the world, his immersions will not cleanse him. But once he throws the reptile away and then immerses himself in no more than forty seah of water, the immersion is effective in cleansing him, as it is said, He who confesses and gives [his faults] up will find mercy (Mishlei 28:13). (Talmud Taanit 16a)
  3. That is the meaning of the Jewish vidui [confession], which is no “confession” to any other person, not even an avowal to God, but essentially, as the expression hitvadah [a reflexive verb form] signifies, an “admission to oneself,” which in one’s innermost self silences every extenuating, excusing defense. It is only when one has the courage to look at one’s wrongdoings in the same disapproving clarity with which God’s Eye sees them, only then will our resolutions for the future betterment not fail to be realized. A genuine hatati [I have sinned] precludes the recurrence of the sin. Every true self-judgment includes self-knowledge, not only that we should have behaved otherwise, but that we could have behaved otherwise, and by such recognition of our moral freedom of will rejects any excuse for present or future failings. (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, 1808-1888, Germany)

Sparks for Discussion

On Yom Kippur, we repeat our confessions of sins – both the short Ashamnu and the long Al Het – many times. But saying the words is not magic; the words must be matched by action. What does Rabbi Hirsch see as the essence of confession and of repentance? How often do you think this actually happens on Yom Kippur? Why is it so hard?

We frequently read news stories about some politician, businessperson, or celebrity caught with a hand in the cookie jar, with a zipper undone, or in some other compromising position. He or she then will issue a statement “taking responsibility,” apologizing to anyone who was offended, and claiming that he didn’t mean it, he couldn’t help himself (but he would be going to rehab), or he was drunk. Do you think these public confessions are ever real, or are they simply damage control? What motivates a person to change?

2. On One Condition

For on this day expiation shall be made for you to purify you of all your sins; you shall be pure before the Lord. (Vayikra 16:30)

  1. Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah expounded on the verse, of all your sins; you shall be pure before the Lord. This means that for transgressions between man and God Yom Kippur procures atonement; for transgressions between a man and his neighbor Yom Kippur does not procure atonement until he appeases his neighbor. (Talmud Yoma 85b)
  2. The Lord will make atonement for all your sins, but only if you will be clean before the Lord – if you will first repent and cleanse yourselves of your transgressions. (Binah LeIttim [Rabbi Obadiah Figu, 1579-1647, Italy])
  3. Our rabbis taught: If a man misappropriates a beam and builds it into a palace, he must demolish the palace and return the beam to its rightful owner. So says the school of Shammai. But the school of Hillel says: Because we wish to encourage penitents, the owner may claim no more than the value of the beam. (Talmud Gittin 55a)
  4. In my humble opinion, Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah deduced from the text that Yom Kippur atones for transgressions between man and God and that when he has, in addition, transgressions between man and man to his debit, the atonement for his iniquities against God is suspended until he has placated the man he has wronged. As soon as he placates his fellow, the Holy Blessed One is reconciled with him and gives him atonement for the iniquities he perpetrated against Him…. What the text means is therefore that Yom Kippur will indeed make atonement for you to purify yourself from all your sins before the Lord (sins against God) on condition you purify yourselves from the transgressions on the human plane, between man and man. (Rabbi Josiah ben Joseph Pinto, 1565-1648, Syria and Israel)

Sparks for Discussion

In The Book of Jewish Values, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin quotes Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: No one can forgive crimes committed against someone else. According to our commentators, not even God is willing to do this. Why do you think this is so? How does a person earn the forgiveness of someone he or she has wronged? Does the injured party have the right to withhold forgiveness? What does Rabbi Pinto’s comment add to your understanding of the nature of forgiveness? Does this affect your understanding of what it means to be a religious person?

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