The Double Purpose of Yom Kippur

We must be cleansed from the polluting effects of sin.

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We find the first instance of Kapparah in the story of the sin of Cain (Genesis 4:7). "If you shall do better," God admonishes Cain, "the punishment will be carried over," and if you do not, "sin (punishment) crouches at the opening." The punishment is linked, understandably, to the sinful act. The Bible also speaks of the removal of sin . The prophet Nathan said to King David (11 Samuel 12:4): "The Lord has also removed your sin, you shall not die."

The medieval Bible commentator, Rashi, while explaining the verse in Genesis 32:21, observed that "whenever the term kap­parah is used in connection with a matter of trespass and sin ... it has the connotation of wiping away and removal." That is to say, a barrier is set up through which punishment may not pass.

By means of teshuvah (repentance) and kapparah (acquittal) man puts a protective covering between himself and the punishment for his sin. According to Rashi, the words "kapparah" (acquittal) and "kofer" (indemnity payment) are derived from the same Hebrew root ["kfr”] and have a common signification. Punishment is not a self‑negating phenomenon--an indemnity must be offered and paid in order to withdraw the liability claim. That indemnity payment is made through teshuvah (repentance) itself. Kapparah (acquittal) is the result of the payment of this "ransom" which releases and redeems man from punishment.

All this concerns the liability incurred by the sinner. The moment acquittal is granted and punishment wiped from the books, man's liability is terminated.

However, sin also has a polluting quality. The Jewish view recognizes a state of "impurity of sin" (tum’at ha‑het). The entire Bible abounds in references to this idea of self‑pollution, con­tamination, rolling about in the mire of sin. This impurity makes its mark on the sinner's personality. Sin, as it were, removes the divine halo from man's head, impairing his spiritual integrity. In addition to the frequent appearance of this idea in Scriptures and in the homiletical teachings of the Aggadah, we also find many concrete references to the "impurity of sin" in the halakha (Jewish Law).

An Israelite who has transgressed suffers a reversal in his legal status. Should a man commit a prohibited act and be charged with stripes or capital punishment, not only does he have to pay the penalty for his sins, he is also discredited as a witness in a court of Jewish Law. This does not constitute further punishment but is rather indicative of a change in his personal status. As a result of sin, man is not the same person he was before.

Every man is presumed acceptable as a credible witness. Natural truthfulness is, to my way of thinking, an integral part of man's character. The moment a person sins he lessens his own worth, brings himself down, and becomes spiritually defective, thus forgoing his former status. Sin deprives man of his natural privileges and unique human attributes. He is subjected to a complete transformation as his original personality departs and another one replaces it. This is not a form of punishment, or a fine, and is not imposed in a spirit of anger, wrath, or vindictiveness. It is a "metaphysical" corruption of the human personality, of the divine image of man.

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Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik was one of the most important Orthodox thinkers of the 20th century. He delivered an annual lecture on repentance that was a highly anticipated event for Modern Orthodox Jews in America.