By Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann
A popular rabbinic saying in Talmud Bavli, Tractate Yoma, 87b (quote below) regarding the relationship between Yom Kippur and the process of teshuva (repentance or turning around) tells us that Yom Kippur atones for sins between God and the individual, but it does not atone for sins between one individual and another until a person makes amends to the other against whom they have sinned. Only after an interpersonal tikkun (repair or healing) does Yom Kippur complete the spiritual process. What is true for the individual is also true within a community and even between nations. Reconciliation is a necessary step, without which there can be neither peace– not in the community and not between nations – nor peace of mind for the individual sinner. The relationship of that individual, that community or that people to God remains flawed.
“For sins between man and God Yom Kippur atones, but for sins between man and his fellow, Yom Kippur does not atone until he appeases his fellow. R. Elazar ben Azarya derived [this from the verse]: ‘From all your sins before God you shall be cleansed’ (Vayikra 16:30)
The Gemara (87a) continues:
“R. Yitzchak said: Whoever aggravates his fellow even through words is required to placate him. R. Yosi bar Chanina said: Whoever beseeches forgiveness from his friend should not beseech him more than three times. And if he died, [the offender] brings ten people and must stand them by his grave and he says, ‘I have sinned against the Lord, the God of Israel, and so-and-so whom I wounded.’”
The ten days of penitence or “turning” from Rosh Hashana until Yom Kippur are a ritual-liturgical expression of this rabbinic insight. The focus of the slichot (forgiveness) prayers, and particularly of the vidui (confession) repeatedly recited in this period, is on sins between people much more than on ritual transgression.
RHR, influenced by a humanist or universalist interpretation of Judaism, has expanded the confessional prayers in our annual pre- Yom Kippur materials (coming soon…) to include sins against others beyond “the tribe.” We believe this is in keeping with the universalist tone of many of the High Holyday prayers – celebrating the creation of the world or/and humankind. They remind us again and again of the vision of one humanity, worshipping the one true God, and standing together in judgment before the Holy One. The Aleinu (“For Us”) prayer – originally written for the “Days of Awe”, but now recited throughout the year – is a central example of this religious vision. There is indeed a particularist element in this prayer that causes some of us discomfort but the ultimate vision is nevertheless one of humanity standing before God:
“And so we hope in You our God, soon to see Your splendor, sweeping idolatry away…perfecting earth by Your kingship so that all mankind will invoke Your name…, bringing all the earth’s wicked back to You, repentant…”
The words of the prophets (Isaiah, Hosea) read in last week’s and this week’s haftara also make it clear that teshuva must be a two-way process. God will return to us when we return to God, we are told, and the way to God is through correcting our ways and opening our hearts to our fellow human beings.
As we celebrate and prepare ourselves spiritually for this new year, let us find the place within our souls from which to continue our holy work. Let us create a place of inner peace, reconciled with our own limitations, our human frailty, while striving for reconciliation with those against whom we have sinned, but nevertheless filled with hope for the future .
G’mar Hatima Tova – May you be inscribed in the Book of Life!
Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann is a the director of organisational development at Rabbis for Human Rights.
Read previous Torah commentaries