(based on sections of lectures in Al HaTeshuva by Rav Yoseif Dov Soloveitchik) 

What is the essence of the forgiveness that is granted on Yom HaKippurim? Is it forgiveness that is granted to individuals, in that each person comes before Hashem to atone for his own sins, thus resulting in a significant multitude of distinct personalities asking for forgiveness? Or, is it not directed at the individual qua individual, but rather is it perhaps directed at the Jewish people as a whole? Is it possible that the individuals only attain full atonement by way of the fact that the entire nation is forgiven for its collective sins? Each person identifies with the whole, and thus each person is forgiven by way of the whole.

 The answer to this question might be found in the wording of the blessing made on the holiness of the day that is recited on Yom HaKippurim: "Blessed are You...the King Who pardons and forgives our iniquities and the iniquities of His people, the Family of Israel, and removes our sins every single year, King over all the world, who sanctifies Israel and the Day of Atonement."

When the blessing says "King Who pardons and forgives our iniquities," it refers to the sins that we commit as individuals. If that is the case, why does it then go on to say "and the iniquities of His people, the Family of Israel "? This seemingly extra line indicates that there is a dual nature to the atonement on Yom HaKippurim - one aspect which focuses on the individual, and thus each individual is able to attain forgiveness and purification by appearing before Hashem, and a second aspect which focuses on the whole, on the nation as if it were one integrated unit which also appears before Hashem.

However, there is another detail in the wording of the blessing that is intriguing. Even though the first half of the blessing repeats itself, once speaking about the individual and once speaking about the nation as a whole, this doubling of the language of the text is absent from the second half of the blessing. There it says that Hashem "removes our sins every single year," yet there is no mention of the removal of the sins of the group! This question is made stronger by the exact wording used. In the first half of the blessing Hashem is said to forgive our avonot - iniquities, while in the second half He removes our ashamot - sins (literally, guilts). What is the difference between these two concepts?

Ramban, in his commentary to Vayikra 5:19, says that the term ashma is used for a sin that is so serious to the point where it brings destruction upon the sinner. According to him, the term ashma (sin) and the term shmama (destruction) stem from the same root. The only punishment for such a sin is destruction of the individual, and as such only an individual can commit such a sin. The entire nation, by contrast, cannot commit any sin which is viewed in such a serious light that there is no other punishment but total destruction.


Rambam makes a similar point. In Hilchot Teshuva 2:7 he writes that "Yom HaKippurim is the time of teshuva for all, for individuals and for the many, and it is the end (or the ultimate) of pardon and forgiveness for Israel." There are two elements here - the element of teshuva for many individuals, and the element of pardon and forgiveness for the entire nation as a nation.

This relates to some of the rituals on Yom HaKippurim, but does it relate to the practice of the goat that was thrown to Azazel in the time of the Beit HaMikdash? The answer is decidedly no. There is no aspect of the individual connected to this practice. Only the owners of the goat can achieve repentance through it, and since it is a communal sacrifice, only the community qua the community can be forgiven through it. This is underscored by Rambam when he writes that the goat to Azazel "since it serves as an atonement for all of Israel, the High Priest recites the vidui (confession) over it in terms referring to all of Israel.

Now we can also understand why Rambam says that the goat sent to Azazel works even without teshuva having been performed. When a sacrifice is personal, and the person bringing it has failed to repent, it falls under the category of "the sacrifices of the wicked are an abomination," (Mishlei 21:27) and thus there is no forgiveness. However, the goat sent to Azazel is not owned by one individual, but rather by the entire nation of Israel. The nation as a whole has its own distinct personality, separate from the individual personalities that compose it, and thus it cannot be turned into a rasha (wicked person). As such, this sacrifice will work to atone for any member of the community, so long as he remains attached to the nation, even if he fails to do teshuva for himself. However, a person who cuts himself off from the nation, meaning that he commits some sin that makes him liable to receive kareit (spiritual excision) or death by the courts, is not included in this national atonement and still has to do teshuva before he can be fully forgiven.

We can now perhaps better understand an interesting statement by Rabi Yehuda HaNasi in Yoma 85b. he states that "Yom HaKippurim atones for all sins in the Torah, both positive and negative, regardless of whether or not the person did teshuva." Seemingly, even if a person sins and persists in his rebellious ways, all is forgiven when Yom HaKippurim rolls around! How are we to understand this? The entire fact that Yom HaKippurim itself serves as an atonement only makes sense when we connect it with the concept of teshuva, and thus when there is no teshuva, how can there possibly be forgiveness?

This question has already been asked by Tosafot Yeshanim in Yoma. They ask why, according to Rabi Yehuda HaNasi, we say in our prayers that "as a result of our sins we were exiled from our land." If Yom HaKippurim atones for our sins regardless of our doing teshuva or not doing it, then our sins should never have caused us any punishment as great as exile! The answer given is that even according to Rabi Yehuda HaNasi, Yom HaKippurim cannot effect a complete repentance. What is complete repentance as opposed to incomplete repentance? This goes back to the idea that we have already expressed above. Yom HaKippurim is capable of achieving atonement for the Jews as a nation, but cannot serve in place of the teshuva that is incumbent upon each and every Jew to perform.

Thus, what Rabi Yehuda HaNasi holds is that just as every Jew had a share in the goat sent to Azazel, so too does every Jew have a stake in the enormity and all-encompassing nature of the day of Yom HaKippurim. All of the fasting and praying that is done on that day is done to achieve forgiveness for the individual. However, since there is also an aspect of communal forgiveness, even one who does not repent on Yom HaKippurim will attain some minimal level of forgiveness by way of his attachment to the nation as a whole.

However, there is a second view in the gemara. The Sages argue with Rabi Yehuda HaNasi and claim tat the day of Yom HaKippurim itself is not enough to grant forgiveness to the individual on any level. Just as the forgiveness for the individual is dependent on his doing teshuva, so too is it impossible for him to be forgiven along with the nation if he does not join them in doing teshuva. There is no dividing the various atonements that are granted on Yom HaKippurim - either a person is forgiven both as an individual and as part of the nation, or he is not forgiven at all. On the holiest day of the year, it is imperative that each person count himself among the multitudes of the people of Israel, for only through the collective force of the whole can one achieve full forgiveness and repentance.

Back to Chabura-Net's Home Page