Yom Kippur

"For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to purify you" Leviticus 16:30


What exactly is atonement? The archaic-sounding translation belies a fundamental perspective on behavioural transformation.

On Yom Kippur we ask for three things. The refrain throughout the Al Chet service is: "For all these, God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us and atone for us.' What is it that distinguishes the three?

Based on the Abarbanel, we may define forgiveness (selichah) as forgoing the instinct for vengeance. But forgiveness alone does not restore the lost relationships.

The Hebrew for pardoning is mechilah, connoting full-blown restoration.

Yet even when all if forgiven and forgotten, and the relationships functions as it did before, there remains the possibility of ongoing consequences. The kabbalists refer to the metaphysical reality of sin that takes on a life of its own. Kaparah, "atonement", is the grand cosmic delete switch that allows the very existence of evil we created to be eradicated.

The three modes of forgiveness reflect three possible attitudes of amend-making. You can sincerely regret what you have done because you realise it will lead to retaliation. It is sincere, but it is selfish. It may lead to forgiveness, but no more.

At a deeper level, a person may regret their choices because they fear the loss of relationship itself. The motivation includes the other, and, if sincere, may well be enough to help rebuild the relationship.

But the deepest sincerity comes from one who is simply motivated by the fact that another is hurt because of them. They are sincere in love and care, and would be willing to do anything to remove the pain they caused.

Such a person rises above self-interest. They see the world through the eyes of another. In space and time the two people are separate, but in repentance they become one.

In seeking forgiveness, we discover consequences; in seeking pardoning we discover relationship; in seeking atonement, we discover transcendence.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive