Yesterday, we noted Chazal’s famous comment in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Bikkurim 3:3) that one’s sins are forgiven on his or her wedding day. The Yerushalmi derived this concept from the fact that when the Torah tells of Esav’s marriage to Bosmat, it calls her “Machalat,” which alludes to the mechila (forgiveness) earned when one marries. As we saw, Rav Avraham Danzig (author of Chayei Adam), in his work Tosefot Chayim (132:58), insisted that this applies only if one performs teshuva. The occasion of one’s wedding day is an auspicious time for forgiveness, but it is achieved only if the bride and groom repent; it cannot provide atonement without teshuva.
The Tolna Rebbe cited a clever proof to this contention in the name of the Beit Yisrael ((Rav Yisrael Alter, the fifth Gerer Rebbe, 1894-1977). The opening Mishna of Masekhet Yoma brings the view of Rabbi Yehuda that before Yom Kippur, a woman was designated as a wife for the kohen gadol in case the kohen gadol’s present wife died. Rabbi Yehuda explained that the kohen gadol on Yom Kippur offered a sacrifice to atone for himself and his wife (“ve-khiper ba’ado u-ve’ad beito” – Vayikra 16:6), and therefore he had to be married on Yom Kippur. Hence, it was necessary to choose a woman before Yom Kippur as the kohen gadol’s potential spouse, so the kohen would still be married if his wife died. The Yerushalmi, as cited by Tosefot (Yoma 13b), explains this to mean that if the kohen gadol’s wife died on Yom Kippur, the kohen gadol would right away marry the second woman so that he could continue the Yom Kippur service as a married man. The Beit Yisrael noted that even in such a case, when the kohen gadol marries on Yom Kippur, he must nevertheless bring a sin-offering to atone for him and his new wife. Although the occasion of a wedding brings atonement, an atonement sacrifice is needed. Evidently, the Beit Yisrael observed, the atonement earned on one’s wedding day is not guaranteed, as it is contingent upon proper repentance, and thus a sacrifice was necessary even in such a case.
The Tolna Rebbe concluded by commenting that this claim of the Chayei Adam and the Beit Yisrael reflects the fact that atonement cannot be achieved “magically,” without a sincere and significant process of introspection and internal change. Spiritual achievement is impossible without investing work and effort. There is no simple, magical cure for spiritual ills. Even though certain occasions are more auspicious for earning forgiveness or other spiritual benefits, these depend on our hard work. There is no substitute for struggle and effort, and putting in the work to grow and improve.