We all know what repentance is and what it demands of us. We must take full responsibility for our wrongdoing. We must turn toward those we have harmed in order to apologize, seek forgiveness, and repair the damage we have done. We must turn inward, engaging in a process of soul-reckoning, and then resolve to do better in the future. And we must demonstrate through our actions that we have truly changed. None of this is easy, of course, but neither is it mysterious.
This process of repentance has its roots in the teachings of the prophets, who repeatedly admonished Israel to “turn from” its transgressions and “turn back” to God and a righteous life.
“Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God,
For you have fallen because of your sin. Take words with you
And return to the Lord.” (Hosea 14:2-3)
“Is it my desire that a wicked man shall die?” asks the Lord God.
“It is rather that he shall turn back from his ways and live.” (Ezekiel 18:23)
For the prophets, and the rabbis who followed them, the essence of teshuvah was this act of “turning,” re-orienting ourselves morally by distancing ourselves from our transgressions and drawing closer to God. It is a profoundly personal and interpersonal process of moral transformation.
But there is another model of expiation for our transgressions, rooted in the priestly cult, that we tend to overlook. It is recounted most dramatically during Musaf on Yom Kippur.
“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. Thus the goat shall carry on it all their iniquities to an inaccessible region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.” (Leviticus 16:12-22)
For the ancient priests, such rituals, together with an elaborate system of sin offerings, literally purged the people of their transgressions, giving them a clean slate for the coming year.
What possible relevance could these ancient sacrificial rites have for us today? Surely the prophetic/rabbinic view of repentance, with its emphasis on soul-searching and repairing relationships, is more in keeping with our contemporary moral outlook.
I want to suggest, however, that there is more wisdom in these priestly rituals than we might at first suppose. For the priests, sin represents a stain on our souls. Transgressions are not simply missteps; they penetrate to the very core of our being. When we sin, we symbolically forfeit our place within the holy community of Israel and must redeem ourselves by ritually reaffirming our commitment to God. No simple apology will suffice. In an age when most Jews are allergic to the very word “sin” (“isn’t that a Christian concept?”), the priests remind us that sin is real — tangible and pervasive.
Atonement, then, is a matter of purifying us of the stain that we leave on our souls each time we transgress. And nothing purifies as palpably as the fire on the altar. When the sacrificial animal is slaughtered and burned to ashes, it symbolizes the sin being consumed in fire and turned to smoke. When the goat is sent off into the wilderness, the people are released from the burden of their sins, which have now been physically removed from the community. These ritual gestures powerfully convey our determination to purge sin from our midst.
Finally, the priestly rites remind us that sin is a communal issue that calls for a communal response. Of course, the liturgy of the High Holidays makes this point with its repetition of the formula “for the sins that we have sinned. …” The priests convey this by confessing the sins of the whole people, transferring them to the goat and sending them off. And this must be done even though, presumably,
individual Israelites have been bringing their sin offerings throughout the year. As a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” Israel must engage in an act of communal expiation and so set itself right again with God. “For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before the Lord.” (Leviticus 16:30)
The rabbis were wise, then, to remind us, however briefly, of these priestly rituals each Yom Kippur. They reinforce the fact that sinfulness is a tangible force in our lives that must be removed through a powerful set of communal rituals so that we can be cleansed as we enter a New Year. In combination with the prophetic view of repentance as “turning,” this priestly view of repentance as purification may yet inspire us to take our transgressions — and the removal of them — with the seriousness that they deserve.email print