Yom Kippur / Face to Face With God

Yakov Z. Meyer
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“Sending Out the Scapegoat,” by William James Webb (1830-1904).
Yakov Z. Meyer

The latter part of the Babylonian Talmud’s Tractate Yoma describes the process of a person’s atonement on Yom Kippur, and culminates in a learned dispute between two rabbis over the interpretation of a single word in the Book of Leviticus. This disagreement has far-reaching implications with regard to the perception of the relationship between man and God on the Day of Atonement.

In Leviticus, it is written, “And it shall be a statute forever unto you: in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, ye shall afflict your souls, and shall do no manner of work, the home-born, or the stranger that sojourneth among you. For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins shall ye be clean before the Lord” (16:29-30).

The words “to cleanse you … shall you be clean” create a linguistic image firmly anchored in the theology of Leviticus. In this image, a sin has the capability of rendering a person ritually impure, and has the same contaminating effect as the carcass of a dead animal, a “swarming thing” (such as a rodent, reptile or insect) or a dead body. People who have become ritually impure can be purified by means of a certain praxis, however: Indeed, Yom Kippur purifies sinners and cleanses them of their sins. The use of this metaphor to describe the purification process constitutes the basis for the following dispute:

“Rabbi Elazar, son of Azaria, offers this interpretation: It is written, ‘from all your sins shall ye be clean before the Lord.’ Thus, Yom Kippur provides a person with atonement for any sins committed against God. However, it does not grant atonement for transgressions committed against another person; for that category of sin, the sinner must seek the forgiveness of the person he has sinned against. Rabbi Akiva said: How fortunate are you, O Israel! Before whom do you purify yourselves and who purifies you? Your Heavenly Father, as it is written, ‘And I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean’” (Mishnah, Tractate Yoma, 8:9-10).

Rabbi Elazar interprets the words “on this day shall atonement be made for you” as meaning, “by means of this day shall atonement be granted to you.” According to this interpretation, the text refers to the sins for which Yom Kippur can provide atonement; Rabbi Elazar does not explain “before the Lord” as a reference to the process of atonement itself. In his view, that process does not take place “before the Lord”: Instead, it is carried out by God; the atonement is granted by him.

If the verse intended to say that atonement on this holy day is indeed effected by God, it would have been phrased as, “For on this day shall God make atonement for you, to cleanse you.” Or perhaps, “For on this day shall atonement be made for you before the Lord, to cleanse you.” But the words “before the Lord” appear only at the end of the verse.

Thus, Rabbi Elazar understands them as referring not to the process of atonement but rather to the words “from all your sins.” Thus, in his view, it is by means of Yom Kippur that God will grant you atonement for, and purify you for, all the sins you committed against him. Yom Kippur, argues Rabbi Elazar, provides atonement only for those sins that fall under the category of “sins committed against God” – that is, sins that were committed “before the Lord.” It does not provide atonement for those categorized as “sins committed against another person,” for which people can attain atonement during Yom Kippur only if they have been forgiven by the person whom they have wronged.

This interpretation makes good sense from the standpoint of its moral and religious message as well as its syntax. The division of sins into two categories, “sins committed against God” and “sins committed against another person,” is both logical and meaningful. Thus, it sounds perfectly reasonable to argue that Yom Kippur provides atonement for the second category of sins only if the person who has transgressed is forgiven by the person whom he sinned against.

For his part, in his interpretation, Rabbi Elazar places little emphasis on the metaphorical view of atonement as a process of ritual purification. But Rabbi Akiva objects to Rabbi Elazar’s reading of the verse from Leviticus. Although initially he seems to be simply praising Israel for its special relationship with God, Rabbi Akiva is actually rejecting Rabbi Elazar’s understanding of the words “before the Lord.” Unlike Rabbi Elazar, Rabbi Akiva argues that the term “before the Lord” refers not to Israel’s transgressions, but rather to the very process of atonement.

To explain how it is that Jews actually purify themselves before God, Rabbi Akiva offers a fairly realistic interpretation of this verse. Persons who have become ritually impure and who must cleanse themselves will go to the Temple in Jerusalem and stand before a priest, who then sprinkles purifying water upon them. Rabbi Akiva understands the term “before the Lord” as depicting an act of ritual purification that is identical to the process of purification that any impure individual must undergo. Like the priest, God metaphorically cleanses the sinner who stands before him with purifying water.

According to this interpretation, if the process of atonement on Yom Kippur entails the sinner’s standing before God and being metaphorically purified in that way – it is obvious that Yom Kippur per se does not provide the sinner with atonement and that the latter is attained only through the sinner’s metaphorical encounter with God. For Rabbi Akiva, the phrase “for on this day” does not mean “by means of this day,” but merely signifies a day in the Hebrew calendar. On that day, Yom Kippur, God will forgive your sins and purify you. Only on that day, will you all be purified “before the Lord” – that is, you will actually stand before the Almighty, who will then purify you.

Rabbi Akiva infers the praxis of forgiveness of sins through metaphorical purifying water from Chapter 36 in the Book of Ezekiel. That is where the prophet describes how God will gather up all the Jews from among the world’s nations, bring them back to their native land, the Land of Israel, and purify them: “And I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean; from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you” (36:25).

Rabbi Akiva applies Ezekiel’s vision of the Jewish people’s future redemption to the process of atonement on Yom Kippur, creating a realistic depiction of purification as effected through an actual encounter – once a year – between the individual and his Maker.

With this innovative interpretation, Rabbi Akiva praises Jews for their intimate relationship with God. “How fortunate are you, O Israel!” he proclaims – because one is not purified at some arbitrary point in time, but rather through a direct meeting with God: “Before whom do you purify yourselves and who purifies you? Your Heavenly Father.”

Rabbi Elazar’s somewhat mechanical view of Yom Kippur, which allows atonement only for transgressions committed against God, is very different from Rabbi Akiva’s view of the one day in the year when the individual actually encounters God. In that meeting, there is no room for the subtle distinction between categories of sin – that is, between “sins committed against God,” and “sins committed against another person.”

Instead, Rabbi Akiva argues, the Day of Atonement should be seen as a unique opportunity for an intimate, face-to-face meeting between the individual and his God.