The Secret of Yom Kippur’s Atonement

On Yom Kippur, the everlasting covenant between God and Israel is revealed, independent of our deeds, and continues despite sins * A central place in the service of the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur is atonement of the Kodesh by way of the goat chosen by lot for God – this atonement is also important and relevant today* The values ​​revealed in the Holy of Holies reflected in the Ark, the Tablets, and the Kaporet is belief in God through the holiness of Israel, Torah, and love * Consequently, on Yom Kippur we should awaken to reflect on how to improve these matters: our attitude to Am Yisrael in all its diversities, Torah study, love of humanity, raising families, and settling the Land of Israel, on which all holiness rests

The foundation of Yom Kippur is in the brit (covenant) of love between God and His nation, Israel. Its origin is based in the brit God made with our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, which took place through the mitzvah of brit milah (circumcision), was strengthened in the Exodus from Egypt, and sealed in the Giving of the Torah. This brit was revealed in particular on Yom Kippur, the day on which God completely forgave Israel for the Sin of the Golden Calf, and then, once again, gave Israel the Torah in the second Tablets and commanded to build the Mishkan (Tabernacle) so his Shechinah (Divine Presence) could dwell among them (Pirkei De’Rabbi Eliezer 46; Tanchuma, Teruma 5, Ki Tisa 31). For generations as well, we were commanded to observe the service of Yom Kippur, in which the brit of love between God and Israel is revealed, and thus, Israel’s iniquities are atoned.

The Brit Is Not Dependent on Deeds

The brit does not depend on external circumstances, but rather on Divine choice, namely, that God chose his Nation of Israel as his Am Segula (a treasure out of all peoples), and created a special neshama (soul) for Israel which longs for Tikun Olam (perfection of the world) by means of revealing the Ohr HaEloki (Divine Light). As the Torah says: “You are a nation consecrated to God your Lord. God your Lord chose you to be His special people among all the nations on the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 7:6). And as written in Tehillim: “Because the Lord chose Jacob as his own, God chose Israel as his treasured possession” (Psalms: 135:4). Therefore, even if Israel incurs immeasurable sins, the Divine brit will not be breached, as it is written: “The Lord will not reject his people; he will not abandon his very own possession” (Psalms 94:14).

Rules of Law and the Brit on Yom Kippur

In general, the world is governed according to the rules of law that God determined at the Creation of the World, namely, that the world would function according to the deeds of man: if they choose good – blessing will increase, and if they choose bad, blessing will diminish, and troubles will increase. Seemingly, according to this if Israel sins beyond a certain limit – they will destroy the entire world. However, on Yom Kippur, the Gates of Heaven are opened, the Uppermost Divine governance is revealed, Israel’s sins are forgiven at their root, and in merit of this, the world continues to exist and advance towards its redemption. As it is written in the Torah: “This is because on this day you shall have all your sins atoned, so that you will be cleansed. Before God you will be cleansed of all your sins” (Leviticus 16:30). Nevertheless, the rules of law are not cancelled, and for every sin and wrongdoing that is not perfected by teshuva (repentance), punishment will come. If the sins increase and multiply – the punishments will be unbearable; nonetheless, through them Israel is perfected and purified. Thus, even if Israel does not do teshuva, by virtue of the brit revealed on Yom Kippur, the Geulah (Redemption) God promised to our forefathers and us will transpire, but it will come by way of suffering. The more teshuva we do and choose well, by virtue of the kedusha (holiness) of Yom Kippur, we will merit bringing the Geulah closer in a pleasant way of teshuva and binyan (building). Each individual as well – the more teshuva one does on Yom Kippur, the more kedusha, kapara (atonement), and bracha (blessing) he will draw upon himself in his personal life throughout the year by means of revealing the Light of Israel.

The Goat and Atonement for the Holy Sanctuary

The main atonement of Yom Kippur is achieved by the two goats drawn by lots – one for God, and the other for Azazel. What is amazing is that the goat for Azazel atoned for all of Israel’s sins and that of the Kohanim (Priests), whereas the goat for God was meant to atone solely for Israel’s transgressions in Mikdash (the Holy Temple), and the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) would also sacrifice a young bull for a sin offering to atone for the transgressions of the Kohanim in the Mikdash. Why was the bull and the goat whose blood was sprinkled in the Kodesh HaKodeshim (Holy of Holies) and afterwards in the Kodesh (Inner Sanctuary), intended only to atone for iniquities of the Mikdash, whereas the goat for Azazel alone atoned for all the remaining sins?

This however represents a very important idea: the root of all sins stems from our failing to fully identify with the sacred values. Consequently, atonement is mainly dependent on the tikun (repairing) of our relation to sacred values, and after this pivotal tikun is made, of its own accord it becomes clear that all of the sins are superficial, and one can release himself from them with relative ease. And this is why we were commanded to atone for all the rest of the sins with the goat sent to Azazel – to desolation.

Teshuva to the Values of the Mikdash

Therefore, the main effort of teshuva on Yom Kippur is to return to the system of Divine values ​​revealed in the Mikdash, according to their proper and balanced order. The Mikdash was divided into two parts – the inner third is the Kodesh HaKodeshim (Holy of Holies), and the remaining two-thirds is the Kodesh (Inner Sanctuary).

Inside the Kodesh HaKodeshim were placed the Aron HaBrit (Ark of the Covenant) containing the Luchot (Tablets of the Covenant) and the Torah; the significance the Kodesh HaKodeshim is the revelation of the brit between God and Israel by way of the Torah.

Inside the Kodesh there were three vessels: the Shulchan (the Table of Showbread), the Menorah (Candelabra), and the Mizbayach HaZahav (the Golden Altar). The Shulchan symbolizes the sacred value of all the types of work that people perform for yishuv ha’olam (the settlement of the world), the Menorah symbolizes the sacred value of all the wisdom in the world, and the Mizbayach HaZahav symbolizes the service of the heart in all of Israel’s prayers. Due to a lack of space, I will only deal with the values ​​revealed in the Kodesh HaKodeshim.

Kodesh HaKodeshim

Inside the Kodesh HaKodeshim was the Aron HaBrit which contained the Luchot HaBrit and the Torah given to Moses from Sinai, and by this, the connection of the brit between God and His Nation Israel was revealed.

Above the Aron was the Kaporet HaZahav (the golden lid of the Aron), and on it were the two cherubs which expressed the brit of ahava (covenant of love) between God and Israel, which is the root of all love in the world. Thus, the principal values ​​revealed in the Kodesh HaKodeshim are the emunah (belief) revealed by the holiness of Israel, the Torah, and love.

The first foundation of the revealing of emunah is the holiness of Israel, God’s nation, as we have learned in the book “The Kuzari,” that emunah is revealed in the world through Am Yisrael (the People of Israel). Indeed, this is what we say in Birkat HaTorah (the blessing of the Torah): “Who chose us from among all the peoples, and (thus) gave us his Torah.” And since on Yom Kippur the holiness of the Kodesh HaKodeshim is revealed, in which the holiness of Israel is revealed, on Yom Kippur we should awaken to the love of all of Israel, in all its groupings and factions. Therefore, the Yom Kippur prayer is performed in complete unity, including all of God’s beloved sons, tzadikim (righteous) and avarya’nim (sinners) alike.

The Torah

The second foundation is the Torah, and therefore on Yom Kippur, every Jew should connect more intensely and eagerly to Torah, and accept upon himself to increase and deepen his Torah study throughout the year. In particular on Shabbatot and Yamim Tovim which are intended for Torah study, as our Sages said: “Shabbat and Yom Tov were given solely to study Torah on them” (Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat 15: 3). For throughout the week, the people of Israel must spend a great deal of time engaging in sacred values rooted in holiness, namely, in all the works rooted in the Shulchan, and in all the studies of wisdom rooted in the Menorah. But on Shabbat, Torah study should be increased, along with the oneg (pleasure) of sleeping and eating – may’ain Olam HaBa (a taste of the World to Come) – and by doing so, draw enlightenment to the practical side of life. This advice is worthwhile particularly for people who are engaged in yishuvo shel ha’olam (welfare of society), upon whose study of Torah on Shabbat rests Tikun Olam and its redemption.

Love Your Neighbor as Yourself

The third foundation is love, for emunat Yisrael (the faith of Israel) is the belief of yichud (unity), and the expression of unity-based faith in life, is through the love of all humanity. For that reason, Rabbi Akiva said: “Love your neighbor as yourself – this is a great rule in the Torah” (Leviticus 19:18, Sifra, ibid), for through love between man and his fellow man, Divine Unity is revealed on a small scale.

Seeing as love of humanity expresses emunat ha’yichud revealed in the Kodesh HaKodeshim, anyone who has sinned against his friend throughout the year should reconcile him before Yom Kippur, as our Sages said: “Yom HaKippurim does not effect atonement, until one has pacified his fellow” (Mishnah, Yoma 85b).

Family Values ​​in the Kodesh HaKodeshim

The culmination of the love of humanity is revealed in the brit and love between husband and wife – this was symbolized by the cherubim, which were placed in the Kodesh HaKodeshim on the Aron HaBrit in the form of a man and woman in their devotion and love (Baba Batra 99a) to imply there is a parallel between the love between husband and wife, and that of the relationship between God and Israel, as it is written: “As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you” (Isaiah 62: 5).

Thus, it is understandable why, while the Temple existed, after the service of the Kohen Gadol was completed in the Beit HaMikdash, the daughters of Jerusalem would go out to dance in the vineyards, and find their matches with the young men of Israel (Mishna Taanit 26b). For after the Kohen Gadol had entered the Kodesh HaKodeshim where the holiness of love and marriage is revealed, it was fitting to substaniate matches of love and holiness. As our Sages said, when a man and woman merit living in love and faithfulness, the Shechina (Divine Presence) dwells between them.

Today, however, when the Beit HaMikdash is destroyed, we do not feel worthy to engage in matchmaking on Yom Kippur. But nevertheless, since the holiness of Yom Kippur is connected to the sanctity of the Jewish family, it is proper for every single man and woman to pray on this day for his or her match, and to repent for the faults hindering them. Often, bad character traits, such as pride and lust prevent one from finding their suitable match. On Yom Kippur, the day on which a person’s pure soul is revealed, young men and women can consider more accurately  about their aspirations in life and about the match that truly suits them, the person with whom they can lovingly fulfill Torah and mitzvot, and together increase joy and life.

Married spouses also need to repent on Yom Kippur for all times they did not properly love and make each other happy, and pray that they merit to be reunited with love and joy so the Shechina dwell between them, and merit raising sons and daughters engaged in Torah and mitzvot.

Settlement of the Land

Another important foundation is revealed in the Kodesh HaKodeshim – namely, the holiness of the Land of Israel, because the holiness of the entire location upon which the Temple was built stems from the holiness of the Land of Israel. This is what our Sages said: “Settling the Land of Israel is equal to all the mitzvot in the Torah” (Tosefta, Avodah Zarah, 4: 3; Sifre, Re’eh 53). Consequently, the revealing of emunah depends on the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz (the settlement of the Land), as our Sages said: “Whoever lives in the Land of Israel may be considered to have a God” (Ketubot 110b). Therefore, every Jew should awaken on Yom Kippur to contribute their part to the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz.

For lack of space I was unable to explain the values ​​revealed in the Kodesh; in essence, work is symbolized by the Shulchan, wisdom by the Menorah, prayer by the Mizbayach HaZahav, and mesirut nefesh (self-sacrifice) is symbolized by the Mizbayach HaChitzon (the Outer Altar) – through which the sacred values ​​are properly revealed. To merit complete teshuva and Geulah, we must give all the values ​​the correct and respectable place.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew. To read the article in Hebrew, click here:

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