Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Ki Tavo (Rambam)

Teshuvah and Kaparah

For the next few weeks, as we have done over the past few years during this season, we will present passages from Rambam’s Hilkhot Teshuvah (“Laws of Repentance“). This section of the Yad is particularly well-known to many people, among other reasons thanks to Rav Soloveitchik’s abundant writings and public lectures on this text. This year, as Maimonides’ thought has been our theme for the entire year, it is doubly appropriate for us to study this material during Elul and the Days of Awe.

Chapter 1 is essentially devoted to the concept of kaparah, “atonement,” whereas Chapter 2 is devoted to teshuvah, “repentance,” per se. The later chapters are in a sense development of the themes and ideas presented there, or various offshoots and related subjects. But the basic definitions and core halakhic material dealing with teshuvah per se are all found in the first two chapters. For that reason, most of the Rav’s shiurim on this subject consisted of close, in-depth analysis of these two chapters, and only rarely went into the later chapters.

What is the essential difference between these two concepts? Teshuvah is essentially a moral act, an inner decision on the part of the individual, consisting of recognition of the sin, regret, and a decision for the future. Kaparah, or atonement, by contrast, is best understood as a process of catharsis or purgation; a setting right of one’s relationship with God (“at-one-ment”). It is a cleaning of the slate, a purification of the soul, a correcting and fixing of the damage done by the sin. Kaparah is more powerful, and usually follows after teshuvah, because it is understood not only as an inner action on the part of man, but is also dependent upon God’s active involvement, as to speak. Or, if interpreted psychologically, as evoking the Divine soul within to cleanse and rebuild the personality, that was injured by sin.

2. The goat sent into the wilderness (or “scape goat”; sa’ir ha-mishtaleah), because it serves as atonement for all Israel, the High Priest recites confession over it in the name of all Israel, as is said “and he shall confess over him all the iniquities of the people of Israel, [and all their transgressions, all their sins…” Lev 16:21]. The scapegoat atones for all sins in the Torah, whether light or heavy, whether he transgressed deliberately or by error, whether it was known to him or not known to him, they are all atoned by the scapegoat—and this, provided that he did teshuvah. But if he did not repent, the scapegoat only atones for the lighter sins. And what are the “lighter” sins and what are the serious ones? The serious ones are those for which one is subject to the death penalty through the court, or to karet (excision); and taking needless or false oaths, even though they are not punishable by karet, are considered among the serious sins. And the other negative commandments and positive commandments that do not involve karet are the light ones.

Note: the word “scapegoat” isn’t a particularly good translation of sa’ir hamishtaleah, “the goat sent-away,” because it has negative and even hypocritical connotations in English; I use it simply because it is shorter and more convenient than any other option I can think of.

This halakhah presents an amazing concept, highlighting the difference between the two concepts mentioned above: namely, that kaparah may occur even without teshuvah. This idea is strange, because we usually think of teshuvah as a moral act, and “atonement” as a kind of Divine grace that has to be earned, after the difficult and often soul-wrenching emotional, moral and spiritual work involved in that process. Yet here we are told that a person who is still attached to his sin, who thinks that whatever he did is OK, also receives atonement! How is such a thing possible?

The answer lies in the concept of collective kaparah ("atonement"): that each individual does not stand alone before God, but is part of the totality of the Jewish people, and enjoys a certain degree of Divine forgiveness and compassion simply through his participation or membership in this group. But this has two very strict limitations: one, that it only applies to relatively “light” sins (a term that begs for definition); two, that it is limited to the time when the Temple stood, and the atonement ritual, involving the sending away of the goat upon whose head the sins of the people had been confessed, making him their hapless (symbolic) bearer, was still performed. Somehow, simply by being part of this people, and knowing that some powerful spiritual event was taking place through this ritual, the individuals involved received a gift of Divine forgiveness.

The entire process of atonement (indeed, even the possibility of repentance per se) involves an element of Divine love; of God somehow accepting us as we are, with our faults, with our imperfect efforts to change ourselves; in short, in our humanity. (See on this concept also, HY I: Haazinu and the essay “Yom Kippur: the Meaning of the Temple Ritual,” on my blogsite).

3. In this time, when the Temple does not exist and we do not have the altar for atonement, there is naught but repentance. Repentance atones for all sins, so that even one who was a wicked person his entire life and did repentance at the end, nothing of his evildoing is held against him. As is said, “the wickedness of the wicked, he shall not fall by it when he turns from his wickedness” [Ezek 33:12]; and the Day of Atonement as such atones for those that repent, as is said, “for on this day shall atonement be made for you …” [Lev 16:30].

But there are two other fundamental concepts, that serve as substitutes for the scapegoat in our post-Temple age. (Incidentally, this is an answer to the assertion sometimes used by literal-minded Christianity missionaries, that after the Destruction of the Temple there was no “salvation” outside of Jesus, because of the need for “atoning blood”—if not the goat, than of Jesus.) First, teshuvah per se: the act of inner-change, the creation of a new consciousness on the part of the person, is accepted by God with love, and is the most powerful imaginable catalyst for forgiveness. Second, Itzumo shel yom: the day of Yom Kippur itself, even without the Temple Avodah, even without necessarily reciting the Vidduy, the confession of sin that is the centerpiece of the synagogue prayer service on that day, even, perhaps, without even fasting! Yom Kippur is seen as possessing a certain mysterious, metaphysical quality to it. Rav Soloveitchik describes how, as a small boy, his grandfather took him outside just before Neilah, pointed to the setting sun, and said “that sundown looks like any other day, but it is different; because the sunset of Yom Kippur brings atonement!”

Certainly, among many, many Jews, who are ordinarily far removed from traditional observance, there is a powerful sense in which Yom Kippur is a day on which one has to be in synagogue, on which one most somehow connect with other Jews experiencing the sanctity of the day. Yom Kippur is the central “personality” in many of Agnon’s stories. In one, he paints an almost phantasmagoric picture of a man spending all day trying to get to shul on Yom Kippur—but somehow never quite getting there.

Let us return to the idea that teshuvah has the power to affect atonement in and by itself, even on a person’s dying day. The classic story about this subject concerns one Eleazar ben Durdai, a notorious profligate, who one day was told by one of his paramours that “you have no chance of ever returning in teshuvah.” Somehow, this offhand remark by a woman of easy virtue affected an upheaval within his soul. He immediately left her, went and sat in a valley between two great mountains, called on heaven and earth to seek mercy for him, and then placed his head between his knees and wept, bemoaning an entire life wasted on the pursuit of self-centered pleasure. He dies weeping, in a state of teshuvah, and immediately a Heavenly voice proclaims, “Rabbi (!) Eleazar ben Durdai is invited to Eternal Life.” On this, Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi commented, “There is one who earns his place after many years of effort, and one who earns his place in one hour!” (Avodah Zarah 17a).

There is thus a radical kind of teshuvah, in which a person may in a moment undergo a profound inner change that completely changes his perception of himself and his life—and by extension, affects a change in his standing in the world. “Great is teshuvah, through which deliberate transgressions become like merits.” True, soul-searing teshuvah has the power to change an individual so radically, that all the sins he did earlier are forgotten, nay, transformed, as the stepping stones to a new self. Teshuvah of this type is a redemptive, cathartic experience. One of the unanswered questions is: how does the cathartic power of radical teshuvah in and of itself fit in with the graduated model we shall see in the next, final halakhah of this chapter?

We now turn to the arba’ah halukei kaparah, the “four divisions of atonement,” taught to R. Eliezer b. Azariah by R. Matya ben Harash, in the name of R. Yishmael, when they met in Rome (Yoma 86a). This is a kind of more detailed working out of the above idea, that teshuvah and Yom Kippur each affect teshuvah.

4. Even though teshuvah atones for all, and the Day of Atonement as such atones, there are sins which are atoned immediately, and those sins that are not atoned until after some time.

How so? If a person violated a positive commandment for which karet is not prescribe, and he repented, he does not move from there until he is forgiven. Concerning these it is said, “Return, O faithless sons, I will heal your faithlessness” [Jer 3:22].

Here we see the immediacy of forgiveness: God is actively waiting to forgive the sinner.

Since the vast majority of sins involving karet are negative ones, what is meant by “a positive commandment for which karet is not prescribed”? There are in fact only two such mitzvot: circumcision (of the person himself, for which he becomes liable only after he reaches bar mitzvah uncircumcised); and eating the Passover sacrifice (which only applies when there is a Temple).

If he violated a negative commandment for which there is neither excision nor the court’s death penalty, and he repented, teshuvah suspends [his punishment], and Yom Kippur atones. Concerning these it is said, “for on this day shall atonement be made for you” [Lev 16:30]

If he violated [any one of the transgressions] involving excision or the death penalty and repented, teshuvah and Yom Kippur suspend punishment, and sufferings that shall befall him complete his atonement. And these are never completely atoned until sufferings come upon him. Concerning these it is said, “Then I will punish their transgressions with the rod, and their iniquity with scourges” [Psalm 89:33].

Note his insistence here that violations from this more serious class of sins can never be wholly atoned without suffering. Why? We shall return to this question later.

Concerning what are these things said? If he did not desecrate the Name when he sinned; but one who desecrated the Name, even though he did teshuvah, and Yom Kippur had come and he remains steadfast in his teshuvah, and he experienced sufferings, it is never atoned for him entirely until he dies. Rather: teshuvah and Yom Kippur and sufferings—all three suspend the punishment—and death alone atones, as is said, “The Lord of Hosts has revealed [himself] in my ears, ‘Surely this iniquity will not be forgiven you until you die” [Isa 22:14].

We have been left with many questions: 1) What is the whole meaning of this rating of sins by the degree of punishment involved? 2) What is behind the whole idea of karet? Is there any general pattern to the specific sins included under this rubric, and why are they considered particularly heinous? 3) How does all this relate to the notion of suffering as necessary for atonement? 4) Finally, and perhaps most important: How does “radical teshuvah,” with its power to affect total transformation in an single instant, fit into this neat, formalized scheme? Are there differing views among Hazal as to what al this means? As I write this piece, I realize how enigmatic all this is, bearing as it does upon concepts taken, not from tangible, concrete human life, but from the realm of the soul and its standing before God, both in this world and after death. Hopefully, I will be able to answer at least some of these questions in the coming weeks—or is it arrogant to imagine that I can really do so?


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