Alei Etzion 16: "Kallot Va-Chamurot": Gradation of Sins in Repentance
Based on a sicha by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l
DIFFERENTIATED AND UNDIFFERENTIATED REPENTANCE
Many sources note the existence of different levels within the world of mitzva observance. I wish to examine the extent, if any, to which we are sensitive to these gradations within the context of teshuva (repentance). Let me open by citing two classic texts relating to teshuva. Rambam opens his Hilkhot Teshuva as follows:
With regard to all the precepts in the Torah, positive commands or negative ones, whenever a person transgresses one of them, either willfully or unknowingly, and subsequently repents and turns away from his sin, it is his duty to confess before God, blessed be He, as it is said, “When a man or woman shall commit any sin that men commit, to do a trespass against the Lord, and that person be guilty, then they shall confess their sin which they have done” (Bamidbar 5:6-7). This means to confess in words, and this confession is an affirmative precept.
How does one confess? One says, “I beseech You, O Lord, I have sinned, I have acted perversely, I have transgressed before You, and have done thus and thus, and lo, I repent and am ashamed of my deed and will never do this again.” This constitutes the essence of confession. The more one elaborates and the more detailed the confession one makes, the more he is praiseworthy.
Rambam’s presentation here is comprehensive and undifferentiated. He makes a sweeping statement about “all the precepts in the Torah, positive commands or negative ones.” There is no hint of weighing the significance or substance of a particular sin. The process is more or less uniform, the formulation identical, except for the fact that a person must mention exactly what he has done – slandered someone, shaved with a razor, lent with interest, etc.
In contrast, the third section of Rabbeinu Yona’s Sha’arei Teshuva opens with an exhortation for penitents to distinguish between the various levels of commandments and prohibitions:
The penitent is exhorted to search his ways to discover how many transgressions and sins he is guilty of; and after having performed a diligent examination, he is further exhorted to determine the severity of each of his sins, as it said, “Let us examine and scrutinize our ways” (Eikha 3:40). He must do this to appraise himself of the degree of sin involved in every one of his misdeeds. There are cases of guilt so great that they approach Heaven, and instances of evil that are as weighty as many great sins. The magnitude of one’s repentance will be commensurate with the magnitude of his soul-searching. His spirit will be broken to the extent of his awareness of the magnitude and gravity of his transgression – and then his uncircumcised heart will be humbled and he will requite his transgression.
According to Rabbeinu Yona, it is important to distinguish between gradations of sin for a number of reasons. First, this is necessary in order that the requisite repentance be commensurate with the misdeed. Second, it is required so that the sense of guilt and shame – two different yet interactive responses – be of the proper dimensions.
Clearly, Rabbeinu Yona’s presentation differs substantially from Rambam’s. Although in Hilkhot Teshuva 1:1, quoted above, Rambam speaks not of the stages of teshuva, but rather of the viddui (confession) that comes at its end, his discussion of the stages of teshuva in chapter 2 does not highlight the need for inquiry into the different levels or grades of sin. Rabbeinu Yona, on the other hand, devotes the third section of his book to a very detailed catalogue of different levels of sin, listed in ascending order.
In terms of our own experience, goals and directions, should we assume, like Rambam, that there is a uniform sense of teshuva, or, like Rabbeinu Yona, that differentiation is critical in order to undergo teshuva properly? If the latter, what kind of differentiation do we have in mind, and what kind of categories can we think of?
SINS AGAINST GOD AND AGAINST MAN
Let us start with the familiar distinction between aveirot bein adam la-Makom and aveirot bein adam le-chavero, sins man commits against God and sins against his fellow man. The mishna at the end of Yoma (8:9) speaks of the need to attain forgiveness from one’s fellow in order for Yom Kippur to atone for an interpersonal sin, whereas with regard to aveirot bein adam la-Makom, it is sufficient if someone makes his peace, as it were, with the Almighty. This distinction can be variously understood.
(1) In a pragmatic sense, the Rosh (Yoma 8:17) and others say that interpersonal sins undermine the solidarity of Klal Yisrael. If this is the case, then interpersonal forgiveness is valuable in its own right, but is not directly related to the quality of the teshuva involved. Rather, in addition to the person repenting, something else can be attained – Jewish unity.
(2) The Gemara in Rosh Ha-shana (17b) suggests a different explanation.
Beloria the convert once asked Rabban Gamliel: “It is written in your Torah [that God] ‘does not show favor’ (Devarim 10:17). Yet it is also written, ‘May God show favor to you’ (Bamidbar 6:26)!”
R. Yosi the Kohen joined the conversation and said to her, “I will give you a parable which will illustrate the matter. A man lent his neighbor an amount of money and fixed a time for payment in the presence of the king, while the other swore to pay him by the life of the king. When the time arrived, he did not pay him, and he went to excuse himself to the king. The king, however, said to him, ‘The wrong done to me I excuse you, but go and obtain forgiveness from you neighbor.’ So, too, here: one verse speaks of offences committed by man against God, and the other of offences committed by man against his fellow man.”
With regard to bein adam la-Makom, God is willing to shower His grace upon us. However, forgiveness for aveirot bein adam le-chavero is not up to God. The reason one must placate his fellow is that God is not the proper address; you have to pay the person from whom you borrowed, or placate the person against whom you transgressed.
(3) Perhaps the most obvious interpretation is that without placating your fellow, there is a problem with the quality of your teshuva. The most basic premise of teshuva is azivat ha-chet, abandoning the sin. If one does not do this, it is like plunging into a mikveh while gripping a continuous source of impurity. With regard to aveirot she-bein adam la-Makom, one confesses to God, and that constitutes azivat ha-chet. With regard to bein adam le-chavero, if a person has offended someone and has not taken pains to placate him, then the offense is continuing; it is a festering sore. That being the case, the teshuva is inadequate to attain the communal atonement offered by Yom Kippur, because one has not repented properly.
INTENTION AND MITIGATING CIRCUMSTANCES
Apart from classification of mitzvot, there are additional factors that affect the quality of a transgression. The Gemara in Yoma (36b) speaks about a multiple confession – “Chatati, aviti, pashati” – which distinguishes between different levels of rebelliousness. Though Chakhamim and R. Meir disagree regarding the sequence and the interpretation, they agree that one should distinguish between sins committed rebelliously, sins committed willfully but not out of a sense of rebellion, and sins performed out of carelessness.
Other contexts draw a contrast between transgressions done le-hakhis, to spite God, and those done le-te’avon, to quench a desire. If a person commits a sin in order to anger God or rebel against Him, then, apart from the particular sin, he also transgresses the prohibition of chillul Hashem, desecration of God’s name (see Rambam, Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 5:10). However, if person is impelled by appetite, not rebellion, then, although his sin may be intentional, it is not committed out of a desire to fight God, but rather out of weakness of the flesh.
In addition to these factors, there is the question of habituation. In certain contexts, if person commits a sin repeatedly, the punishment is commensurate.
Then there is the matter of mitigating circumstances. Chazal, by and large, did not take the view of many modern penologists, criminologists, sociologists, and psychologists that somehow everything can be ascribed to nurture and nature, and that, to a great extent, one can be divested of personal responsibility. The sense of personal responsibility and liability is central for us, and it is related to our faith in humanity, our belief in free will, and our conviction in a person’s ability to act if he so desires. Nonetheless, there is some recognition of circumstances which can either inhibit or mitigate certain actions. The Gemara in Berakhot (32a) speaks of a father grooming his son and leaving him with a purse of money in front of a brothel. In such circumstances, the sin is much harder to avoid than under normal conditions.
SEVERITY OF THE ACT
Beyond all this, we have the distinction, addressed by Rabbeinu Yona, between different levels of the severity of the act. The differentiation between kallot and chamurot, less and more severe infractions, is itself dual. The Gemara in Yoma (83a) says that if a person is suddenly seized on Yom Kippur with a consuming passion to eat, and otherwise his health will be in danger, then you must feed him. But what do you feed him if no kosher food is available? You feed him whatever constitutes a lesser degree of aveira (transgression). For instance, if you have tevel or neveila, untithed produce or an animal that died without proper slaughtering, you feed him the latter, because eating it violates a prohibition punishable by lashes, while the former prohibition entails death at the hands of Heaven. The sugya goes on to elaborate what is more chamur and less chamur, and R. Yona expands upon this.
This kind of “kallot and chamurot” refers to different gradations along the same continuum. Within the realm of prohibitions, there are those punished by lashes and those punished by death. Rambam (Hilkhot Teshuva 1:2) describes the sin of taking a false oath as being among the chamurot, even though it is only punished with lashes, because it entails a desecration of God’s name. Within positive precepts, too, there are some that are singled out as being particularly weighty. “The mitzva of tzitzit is equivalent to the entire Torah” (Nedarim 25a, Shevuot 29a). To take another example, Rambam (Hilkhot Matenot Aniyim 10:1) says that a person needs to observe the mitzva of tzedaka, charity, more than any other positive commandment. Rambam (Hilkhot Matenot Aniyim 8:10) also describes redemption of captives as a “mitzva rabba,” a great mitzva.
Yet there is another kind of distinction between kallot and chamurot. The Mishna in Yoma (85b) teaches:
The sin-offering and the guilt-offering [for the] undoubted commission of certain offences procure atonement.
Death and the Day of Atonement procure atonement together with penitence.
Penitence [alone] procures atonement for lighter transgressions (kallot): [the lack of fulfillment of] positive commandments and [the violation of] prohibitions.
In the case of more severe transgressions (chamurot), penitence suspends [the Divine punishment], until the Day of Atonement comes to procure atonement.
The Gemara (Yoma 86a), the Mekhilta (Yitro, Ba-Chodesh, 7) and the Yerushalmi (Yoma 8:7 and elsewhere) cite the famous classification of chilukei kappara, levels of atonement:
R. Mattia ben Charash asked R. Eleazar ben Azaria in Rome: Have you heard about the four kinds of sins, concerning which R. Yishmael has lectured?
He answered: They are three, and repentance is connected with each. If one transgressed a positive commandment, and repented, then he is forgiven on the spot...
If he has transgressed a prohibition and repented, then repentance suspends [the punishment] and the Day of Atonement procures atonement…
If he has committed [a sin to be punished with] excision or death at the hands of the court, and repented, then repentance and the Day of Atonement suspend [the punishment], and suffering finishes the atonement…
But if he has been guilty of the profanation of God’s name, then penitence has no power to suspend punishment, nor the Day of Atonement to procure atonement, nor suffering to finish it, but all of them together suspend the punishment and only death finishes it…
Rambam (Hilkhot Teshuva 1:2) cites this Gemara, stating that the se’ir ha-mishtale’ach (scapegoat) provides atonement for all sins accompanied by repentance; but if one does not repent, the se’ir provides atonement only for kallot. He then provides a definition of kallot and chamurot:
Which are the light sins, and which are the severe ones? The severe sins are those for which one is liable for execution by the court or for karet (excision). False and unnecessary oaths are also considered severe sins, even though they are not [punished by] karet. [The violation of] the other prohibitions, and [the failure to perform] positive commandments that are not punishable by karet, are considered light [sins].
Rambam explains that kallot are everything short of sins punished by karet or death, as well as false oaths, which entail a chillul ha-Shem. There is not a continuum of sin, but rather two groups starkly separated in terms of atonement. The group of kallot achieves atonement by means of the scapegoat alone, even without repentance; and where there is repentance, kallot receive atonement immediately, while chamurot must wait.
Are we to regard kallot and chamurot as fundamentally different categories, as would seem implicit in the Mishna and Rambam, or as different points along a spectrum of severity, along the lines of the Gemara (Yoma 83a) that distinguishes between the different foods to feed someone on Yom Kippur? We can get guidance on this from a striking statement of the Ramban.
RAMBAN: TWO ELEMENTS OF ATONEMENT
Regarding a person who brings a korban ola, a freewill offering wholly burnt on the altar, the verse (Vayikra 1:4) says, “Ve-nirtza lo lechapper alav – It shall be favorably accepted, to atone for him.” Chazal ask: we know for which sins a chatat (sin-offering) or asham (guilt-offering) atone, but for which sins does an ola atone? Rashi (ad loc.) quotes the answer found in Torat Kohanim (4, 5):
For what kind of sins does [the freewill burnt-offering] effect atonement? Should you say, for sins [where the punishment if willfully committed] is excision, or any of the [four] deaths imposed by a court, or death by the hands of Heaven, or lashes – the punishment for all these sins is already stated, [and atonement is effected by those punishments, and not by this offering]! You must conclude that [the freewill burnt-offering] effects atonement only for transgressions of a positive commandment, and for the violation of a negative commandment that is juxtaposed to a positive commandment.
Ramban (ad loc.) explains why Chazal were motivated to give this explanation. Regarding capital crimes and sins entailing karet, the Torah specified the punishments for willful commission and the sacrifices brought for unwillful commission. Regarding sins punished by lashes or by death at the hands of Heaven (if committed willfully), the Torah does not mention that any sacrifice needs to be brought for unwillful commission. Since it does not make sense for the Torah to mention the punishments for willful and unwillful commission of some sins, and the punishment only for willful commission of other sins, Ramban concludes that, regarding the latter category, “there is no burden of sin at all if they are committed unwillfully, and they do not need any atonement.” We are left with a third category – transgressions of a positive commandment and violation of a negative commandment juxtaposed to a positive one – for which the Torah mentions no punishment even for willful commission. Since it is impossible that no atonement is needed for willful commission of these sins, Chazal conclude that the olat nedava, freewill burnt offering, atones for these.
Ramban himself goes beyond this approach:
It is possible to say that because, in the case of the freewill offering, [God] did not use the expression “to make atonement for him concerning the error which he committed” (as He said with reference to the offering brought for other sins committed unwillfully), and instead He said, “it shall be favorably accepted,” it appeared to our Rabbis that [the burnt-offering] effects atonement for those who willfully commit certain sins, seeing that these persons are not [hitherto] “favorably accepted” by Him. For he who commits a sin unwillfully is yet, in spite of the sin, considered “favorably accepted” by God. If, then, [the burnt-offering procures atonement for willful sinners,] it must refer to those who willfully transgress a positive commandment or a negative commandment that is juxtaposed to a positive commandment. For regarding these transgressions, no punishment is mentioned in the Torah; yet, [clearly,] those who violate them are not pleasing to God, because they have violated His commandment. How, then, shall these people become favorably accepted by their Master? By bringing this gift [i.e., the olat nedava].
In other words, if person sins in error (be-shogeg), he is nevertheless favored by God (retzui Hashem); but if he sins intentionally (be-mezid), he is not favored. Therefore, the verse “ve-nirtza lo, it shall be favorably accepted” cannot refer to sin committed be-shogeg, for such a person is retzui Hashem even without bringing an offering. The verse must, then, refer to one who sins intentionally. Since we already know the punishments meted out to those who sin intentionally, it must be that the verse refers to an intentional sinner who receives no punishment but is nevertheless not favored by God, i.e., those who transgress a positive commandment or a negative commandment that is juxtaposed to a positive commandment.
Ramban’s comment is remarkable in two respects. First, it invites the obvious question which R. Meir Dan Plotzki asked (Kli Chemda, Vayetze 38b): Are we to understand that someone who sins be-shogeg is retzui Hashem, and that he does not require repentance or atonement? Second, we know that one must offer a chatat (sin-offering) if one unintentionally commits a sin that would be punished with karet if it were performed intentionally. But if we adopt what seems to be Ramban’s assumption, that an unintentional sinner does not require atonement because he is retzui Hashem, then why does someone who unintentionally transgresses a sin punishable by karet have to bring a sin-offering? Isn’t he retzui Hashem?
There are two possible explanations of Ramban’s comment. One is that the second question answers the first. The extent to which we would say that negligence is culpable depends on how serious the infraction is. If it is a relatively minor matter, so that even if done willfully it isn’t much of a sin, then it can be overlooked if it is done through negligence. Yet a graver infraction entails a greater degree of responsibility and culpability, and one would not be considered a retzui Hashem if he committed these acts unwillfully.
I believe we can offer another explanation if we take into account a different purpose of the sacrifice, apart from its function in regaining divine favor for the sinner. Ramban draws a sharp line between kallot and chamurot. When committed unwillfully, ordinary prohibitions (chayvei lavin) do not require kappara. However, severe prohibitions (chayvei keritot u-mita), which would require karet or death if committed intentionally, require kappara even when committed unintentionally. This distinction has important implications.
With regard to kallot, i.e., chayvei lavin, the seriousness of the aveira has less to do with the nature of the deed than with the character with person who is sinning. In his willful confrontation with the Almighty, he chose to prioritize his own desire over God’s. Leaving aside certain moral considerations, it is not the deed that needs to be redeemed, but the person. Consequently, if the person has not been pervaded by sinful desire and instead committed the deed be-shogeg, in error, he himself does not require redemption, and remains a retzui Hashem. However, with regard to chamurot, i.e., chayvei keritot, it is not only the person who requires redemption; the event needs to be redeemed, and the world within which that sin has been committed needs to be redeemed.
We need, therefore, to consider the nature of teshuva in two separate contexts. There is the teshuva of kallot, with regard to which what is critical and central is the redemption and purgation of the self. With regard to chamurot, however, it is not sufficient that a person repent and thereby regain the status of retzui Hashem; rather, a korban is required to cleanse the social and metaphysical orders of the consequences of that sin. The quality of an aveira chamura is that it defiles – not only in the sense that every sin defiles through the sinner’s subjective disobedience, but it also defiles objectively. Therefore, this objective defilement needs to be confronted. The teshuva of chamurot thus needs to be considered both in terms of one’s personal redemption, and in terms of righting that which a person has defiled.
NULLIFYING MAN’S WILL BEFORE GOD’S
Coming back to our original question of Rambam’s approach vs. R. Yona’s, are we to think of sin as a uniform phenomenon, or are we to differentiate and classify both categories and circumstances of sin? This question applies to avodat Hashem generally and teshuva particularly. I think the answer is clear: we need both Rambam’s formulation and R. Yona’s.
On the one hand, there is a common denominator to all sins, and we need to confront this if we want to improve ourselves. Every time a person fails in the realm of Torah, Halakha and morality, he stands before the question of what kind of person he is and what kind of life he leads. Does he give preference to his own will or to God’s? Does he think in egocentric or theocentric terms? Every time a person is confronted by God’s will, Prospero’s question arises: “My foot, my tutor?” (The Tempest, Act 1, Scene 2) – will he be led by his head or by his foot?
At this plane, when one considers the question of nullifying one’s will before God’s (see Avot 2:4), the differentiations of kallot and chamurot fall away. All sins, in this sense, are severe. In his Life of Solon (XVII, 4), Plutarch writes: “Draco himself, when asked why he had decreed the death penalty for the great majority of offenses, replied that he considered the minor ones deserved it, and for the major ones no heavier punishment was left.” There is substance to this approach. The Yerushalmi (Makkot 2:6) recounts, “Prophecy was asked, ‘A sinner – what is his punishment?’ She answered, ‘The soul that sins shall die’ (Yechezkel 18:4, 20).” No question is raised as to which sin it was, whether major or minor, kallot or chamurot. If a person sheds the role of metzuveh (one who commanded) and instead usurps the role of metzaveh (commander), that is the ultimate rebellion! Though sometimes the severity is mitigated by circumstances, and some sins are committed through weakness rather than rebellion, nevertheless, the bottom line is one gave preference to one’s own will over that of the Almighty.
In this sense, when a person confronts not just a particular aveira but the critical existential question of whose will is to prevail, his or God’s, the proper confession is simply, “Chatati, aviti, pashati lefanekha!” I stood before You, I was at that juncture, and I took the wrong turn. This is one aspect of teshuva.
DETAIL AND RELATIONSHIP
But it is not the only one. Teshuva entails a plethora of aspects because sin is multifaceted. At least five different aspects of sin can be singled out. One is the wrong per se, the choice of doing evil. Second is the fact that the evil a person has done transgresses the will of God; over and above murder being murder, it is also something which God has proscribed. Third, one must consider the ramifications of sin, the contamination of the self, the defilement and impurity. Fourth, defying God’s will is a “personal” affront to Him; it is spitting in His face, so to speak. That being the case, there is a fifth result: one’s relationship to God has been impaired. Sin opens a chasm or sets up a barrier between oneself and the Almighty. “Your iniquities have separated between you and your God” (Yishayahu 59:2).
If a person wants to engage in teshuva, he needs to relate to all these elements and affect a tikkun (repair) in each. There needs to be a tikkun ha-chet (repair of the sin), a tikkun of one’s relationship with God, and a tikkun of the self. Each of these three types of tikkun should be examined independently, and in order to do so, we need to distinguish between two veins of teshuva: teshuva from and teshuva to. The former is exemplified by the verses, “Turn, turn from your evil ways” (Yechezkel 33:11), and “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts” (Yishayahu 55:7). The latter is exemplified by verses that discuss not what a person is leaving, but where he is headed: “Return to Me, and I will return to You” (Hoshea 14:2), and “Israel, return to the Lord Your God” (Malakhi 3:7).
Tikkun ha-chet is a matter of “turn[ing] from your evil ways.” As such, one must consider, along the lines of R. Yona, the gravity and specifics of his sin, and, as Ramban implied, how to repair the damage which the sin brought upon the world. This requires great attention to detail.
There are religious traditions and schools of thought that not only neglect attention to detail, but even scorn it. The Lutheran tradition, for example, believes that one is so suffused with sin that the only thing to do is to try to make peace with God, whether actively or passively, waiting for divine grace or seeking it. But acting to fix minor or major failings is not relevant. Some call this a “religious,” as opposed to a “moral,” view of divine service, where “religious” refers to focusing upon one’s relationship with God, and “moral” refers to the righting of wrongs. If one adopts this focus, then indeed one does not need to differentiate. Neither the quality nor the quantity of sin is as important as the existence of barrier between God and oneself, and one must focus on transcending that barrier, pleading for grace, throwing oneself at God’s mercy.
There is something to be said for an approach that does not content itself solely with picking up the pieces, with trying to adjust and repair, but rather seeks rehabilitation by establishing anew a bridge to the Almighty – a bridge allowing one to find his way to God, and enabling God to come to him. Yet, though we understand that one cannot focus solely on detail in avodat Hashem generally, and in teshuva particularly, surely we believe that there is a “moral” element of teshuva and of avodat Hashem, a need to right the wrong and terminate its perpetuation. Our whole conception of avodat Hashem rests upon two pillars: an awareness of the overpowering importance of our relationship with God – “But as for me, the nearness of God is my good” (Tehillim 73:28); “As the hart yearns for water brooks, so my soul yearns for You, O God” (Tehillim 42:2) – and, at the same time, attention to a disciplined life and its minute details, which suffuses the world of Halakha.
We reject totally the view that when one pursues the overarching relationship and the quest for intimacy and rehabilitation, all of the minutiae simply disappear into insignificance. On the other hand, we also reject the view that only the specific actions and details – weighted, graded, comprehended properly – will suffice. We do not – we dare not – focus exclusively on one of these two pillars. Our world is built in a multi-faceted and multi-planed way by relating to and integrating both aspects. The ability to relate to God is the most fundamental and basic aspect of human existence, and also its overarching, ultimate, beatific attainment. At the same time, the attention to detail, to every se’if katan, and the ability to integrate the poetry and the prose of avodat Hashem, is central to our conception and our experience.
This dual focus is, consequently, central to our view of teshuva. The teshuva of chamurot, which concentrates on actions and the desire to right them, requires that we weigh, grade, prioritize, and emphasize. The teshuva of kallot, which concentrates not on what we have done but on trying to reestablish our relationship with God, allows a focus on overarching goals, expressed in universal categories and uniform viddui. (I refer to kallot and chamurot not as types of sin, but rather as signifying different approaches to teshuva.)
While tikkun ha-chet and tikkun of one’s damaged relationship with God are characterized by different approaches to teshuva – the chamurot mode and the kallot mode, respectively – the two approaches interact and coalesce in the third element of repair, namely, tikkun of the self which has been contaminated by sin. To repair and purify oneself means to reaffirm and reestablish one’s relationship with God, as well as a spiritual and moral purgation that takes into account actions and details.
Historically, we encounter two types of confession. The Gemara in Yoma (87b) speaks of various formulae of viddui stated by a number of Amoraim, and then the Gemara adds,
Mar Zutra said: [The preceding confessions are necessary] only when he did not say, “Aval anachnu chatanu, But we have sinned.” But if he had said “Aval anachnu chatanu,” no more is necessary. For Bar Hamdudi said, “Once I stood before Shmuel, who was sitting, and when the prayer leader came up and said ‘Aval anachnu chatanu,’ he rose.” We learn from here that those words are the quintessential viddui.
Aval anachnu chatanu: simple, uniform, undifferentiated confession. It is simply an acknowledgment, with bowed head, with shame and guilt, that we have gone astray. Whether our sin is minor or major, it is still a sin: “But we have sinned.”
Today, however, we have expanded this simple confession into an entire aleph-bet of sin: Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, etc. The Geonim added even more: a double aleph-bet of “Al chet,” concluding with a list of sins categorized according to the gravity of their punishment – “sins punishable by the court, sins punishable by karet,” etc. And if that isn’t enough, some people have taken each line of Al Chet and elaborated much further. Rambam’s viddui was enough for the Gemara, but Rabbeinu Yona’s viddui entered the mainstream of our life and our experience on Yom Kippur.
Yet that experience on Yom Kippur is itself differentiated. Broadly speaking, we stand on Yom Kippur with a dual sense and a dual charge. We stand with the Rambam, trying to eradicate the roots of sin, to eliminate the desire for sin, to uproot completely the inclination and tendency for sin. Reciting the viddui of Aval anachnu chatanu, we confront where we are and where the Almighty is, and try to reach out to Him, hoping that He will reach out to us. On the other hand, we stand with Rabbeinu Yona in following the advice of Eikha (3:40), “Let us search and examine our ways.” Detailing our sins one after another, we examine what we have done and how we have done it, weighing its severity, so that we know not just whether we are sinners, but exactly what kind of sinners we are. On Yom Kippur, we engage in a highly religious enterprise and a highly moral enterprise; that is Yom Kippur as a whole.
But at the end of the day, when we come to Ne’ila, we change our tune a bit. Starting on Erev Yom Kippur, through the first four prayer services, we say Aval anachnu chatanu and then we go through the whole list of Al chet. However, as dusk approaches and night begins to fall, when the conclusion of the day and its atonement is on the horizon, we turn to God and say: Master of the Universe, we have been working on ourselves all year, and especially since the beginning the Elul, weighing and measuring our sins; and all of Yom Kippur we have been striving and groping and hoping. But now, at the end of the day, we have only one thing left, and that is to cast our hopes and prayers upon You. We look to You after we have gone the extra mile, and maybe it isn’t enough. Now it is too late in the day, and we cannot involve ourselves again in this calculus, identifying and grading sins, pinning down each one. Now it is our very selves encountering You, and we implore You, we beg for Your forgiveness, for selicha, mechila, kappara!
At Ne’ila, we do not say Al chet, and content ourselves with saying Aval anachnu chatanu. We do so in the hope that what we have done over the course of the year, what we have done during Elul, during Selichot, during Aseret Yemei Teshuva, during the first four prayers of Yom Kippur – following Rabbeinu Yona, trying to right wrongs as best as we could, trying to grope and to inquire – makes us worthy and deserving of forgiveness. But now we look for something more: for tahara, purification – “Lifnei Hashem titharu, Before God you shall be purified” (Vayikra 16:30).
This purification has a dual character. When a person is purified in a mikveh, each part of him is immersed in the mikveh, and the whole of him is immersed in the mikveh. Similarly, on Yom Kippur we strive for tahara which comes from moral purgation, from the confrontation with sin, from the attempt to eradicate and overcome it. This is an aspect of tikkun atzmi and of tikkun ha-chet. We also strive for the tahara of “Mikveh Yisrael Hashem” (Yirmiyahu 17:13 – translated homiletically as “God is the mikveh of Israel”). This second type of tahara refers to our rehabilitation, to the reestablishment of our relationship with God, which springs not solely from below, but from above.
“Lifnei Hashem titharu,” Rabbeinu Yona said, means that there is a special mitzva to repent on Yom Kippur (Sha’arei Teshuva 4:17). Here we encounter purification as a charge, a mandate, which entails “Nachpesa derakhenu ve-nachkora,” the specific, detailed, calculating aspect of teshuva. Yet “Lifnei Hashem titharu” is also to be understood not as a charge or a mandate, but as a hope, aspiration and promise, that if we have confronted “mi-kol chatoteichem,” all our sins, then God, for His part, will proclaim, “Titharu, You shall be purified!”
Adapted by Rav Reuven Ziegler from a transcript by Rav Shlomo Brody. This Kinus Teshuva lecture was delivered at the Gruss Kollel in Jerusalem in Tishrei 5762 (2001).