Yom Kipur Day of Atonement
by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
The Torah says of Yom Kipur, “For this day will atone for you, to cleanse you of your sins and you will be purified before God.” (Leviticus 16.30). The Torah also says that this is a day to atone only for those sins we have committed against God, not against other people. If we have offended or wronged another human being, we can only atone by putting it right with that person directly.
We are also told we can atone anytime. We can repent every day of the year. And if we are sincere, we will be forgiven. Once upon a time, we marked atonement by bringing a sacrifice, now it is by restoration and charity. So why do we have a special Day of Atonement?
Yom Kipur in the Bible was primarily a national event and only then, a personal one. It was the one day when everyone, the nation as a whole, stood before God and reaffirmed its identity. To this day Yom Kipur is the one day when the majority of Jews come together. Not necessarily to worship God, important as that might be, but to experience the mystical energy of togetherness.
The actual term for atonement, Kapara, literally means to replace, to renew. This is a day devoted to change. We can become a better nation. The language of the prayers we recite is not about us as individuals as much as us as a community. It is not “I have sinned” but “We have sinned.” It is Zeman Kapara Letoldotam, a time of atonement for the generations. And not Yom Teshuva, a Day of Repentance, which is for the individual.
Regardless of our differences, in politics, religious or national commitment, we celebrate this day of reflection, introspection with a determination to do and be better. It is our spiritual Independence Day. Not independence as a civil state, or from an oppressor, not political freedom, but a day for the nation to look at itself and feel unity, however briefly.
If only everywhere there was such a day, of reconciliation, of commitment to ideals, to find a way of celebrating togetherness instead of the current hatred, polarization, and antagonism. Perhaps in our efforts to stress the values of the Torah and coming together as a nation, we can hope that others might find a way to do the same thing.
May your fast be an easy and positive experience and one that leads to a better year.
Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.