5769 - #02




Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 1:2 states that the seir hamishtale’ach, the goat that was sent to the wilderness (as part of the Yom Kippur Temple service), provides atonement for lesser sins even if the sinner did not personally do teshuva. The commentators have many problems with this assertion. Mo’adim U’zmanim 1:57 wonders how this is even possible. There is a concept within the laws of sacrifices of zevach reshaim to’eva, that the sacrifices of the wicked are an abomination. A rasha, a wicked person, as such, cannot be deemed to be connected to a sacrifice as, in such a case, the sacrifice would be deemed as improper. A rasha -- who, by definition, has not done teshuva -- as such, cannot connect with even the communal sacrifice of the seir hamishtale’ach,1 so how does this sacrifice provide atonement to this sinner? The Mo’adim U’zmanim answers that what the Rambam really means is that this seir provides atonement even if a person has not done a complete teshuva which includes, according to Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 1:1 regret for past deeds and the assertion and acceptance by this person that he/she will never repeat this sin. The person, though, must still remove from himself/herself the title of rasha in order to connect to the sacrifice of the seir, yet, the Mo’adim U’zmanim asserts that this can be done even through just feeling regret for past sins.2 What the Rambam is saying, according to this view, is that the seir hamishtale’ach offers atonement even if a full teshuva has not been undertaken but, nevertheless, there must still be regret by this individual for past transgressions, otherwise the person cannot be deemed as connected to the atonement power of the seir.

            The Mo’adim U’zmanim then develops this concept to elucidate the essential difference between teshuva the rest of the year and teshuva during the Aseret Yemei Teshuva, the Ten Days of Repentance, specifically Yom Kippur. He notes that the vidui we say on this day actually does not meet the standard for the oral confession that we are supposed to enunciate as part of the Teshuva process. The Rambam is clear; this vidui must include a commitment to not sin again. The vidui statements of Yom Kippur do not include such a statement; they, rather, focus on the regret that we feel for our sins. The Mo’adim U’zmanim states that this is in line with the uniqueness of teshuva at this time as evidenced by the teshuva that suffices to connect a sinner to the seir hamishtale’ach. The uniqueness of this day is that this teshuva, repentance only necessitates regret and can be accomplished even without an acceptance to not sin again. There would seem to be, though, a fundamental weakness in this assertion by the Mo’adim U’zmanim for, in a certain way, he is changing the very essence of teshuva. What is teshuva without a commitment to change? He, though, still does clarify two aspects of the atonement process of these days that, perhaps, need to be clarified. In one respect, the focus of the Yomim Noraim is teshuva itself. Teshuva is actually a personal process that involves self-development and change within an individual. It occurs within the parameters of the self. There is another facet of these days and that involves kapara, atonement, and that is not a personal matter. Kapara involves God and is actually the domain of God. We ask for forgiveness. That, ultimately, is outside of our personal realm and is the decision of the Almighty.

            It would seem obvious that teshuva and kapara are interconnected; if we change and commit to being better people, there is greater reason for God to forgive. But is God’s forgiveness really dependant upon our teshuva, or any of our actions? While it is clearly understandable that teshuva and kapara should be connected – and God’s attribute of din,3 justice, would support such an assertion – placing any restriction upon God that He can only forgive one who repents lessens His autonomy and challenges His attribute of rachamim, mercy. Divine mercy, in fact, reflects the concept that God is above all rules and all parameters. It is not a coincidence that the term rachamim also is used as a term for prayer, for essential to prayer is that God is above everything. When we pray, we are essentially asking God to relate to us solely based upon His Will, and not necessarily based, through judgment, on what we necessarily deserve. This idea may actually reflect the special significance of tefilla, prayer, during the Yomim Noraim. Indeed it is a time of teshuva but it would be a haunting consideration if kapara, God’s forgiveness, was totally dependent upon our ability to change and improve. Thus we pray. Thus we ask God to ignore any parameters He has placed upon His actions, even justice, and forgive us simply because that is His Will to grant us kapara because that is the ratzon Hashem.

            Prayer and sacrifices are intertwined and so this concept may help us to further understand, albeit in a different manner, the idea introduced by the Mo’adim U’zmanim. Teshuva without a commitment to not repeat this sin is, simply, not teshuva. Regret for past misdeeds, though, still has value. The seir hamishtale’ach represents the realm of tefilla and our desire that God overlook the inappropriateness, through justice, of granting us kapara and still forgives us as an expression of His Will. Requesting this forgiveness, though, without regret, whether through a sacrifice or through prayer, is an abomination; it is chutzpa of the highest degree. Regret without commitment for the future, though, is not a to’eva and the sacrifice, or prayer, offered in this manner is not a zevach reshaim.  So we pronounce the incomplete vidui of Yom Kippur with its focus on regret for it still serves a function in the process of teshuva but it also lays the foundation for our tefillot and our request from God that, even if we are not worthy, we pray for the ratzon Hashem that He forgive us.

            This idea may also explain the essence of Rabbi Akiva’s statement in the mishna on T.B. Yoma 85b.4 The early Christians were challenging the Jews about what they will do without the Temple service – how would they be forgiven? Rabbi Akiva’s retort is that it is God Who ultimately forgives and while God does make demands upon human beings, when possible, in this process of gaining His forgiveness, kapara, ultimately is solely dependent upon Ratzon Hashem, the Will of God. He can forgive with or without the Temple service. He can forgive with or without full teshuva. That is the essence of our prayers during the Yomim Noraim.


            Rabbi Benjamin Hecht



1 See T.B. Shevuot 12b.

2 See also, interestingly, the language of Rashi, Yoma 85b, d.h. chatot v’asham vadai mechaprim which may provide some support for the Mo’adim U’zmanim’s assertion but also challenges the argument that this idea applies solely to Yom Kippur.

3 Further on the meanings of the terms din and rachamim as used within this Insight, see Ramchal, Da’at Tevunot.

4 See, also, Tosfot Yomtov on the mishna.

 (c) Nishma, 2008





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