May 30, 2024
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Yom Kippur and the Faith in Future Collective Teshuva

Yom Kippur inspires reflections about personal repentance as well as national atonement. We plead for personal deliverance just as we voice our hopes for our ultimate return to Yerushalayim and the restoration of a Yom Kippur experience centered in the mikdash. Our solemn day of prayer concludes with these dreams being bellowed: L’shanah haba’ah b’Yerushalayim ha’bnuyah. The day is comprised of personal contrition and national dreams.

The two great teachers of Rebbi Akiva—Rebbi Eliezer ben Horkenos and Rebbi Yehoshua ben Chananya—engaged in an interesting and fateful dispute cited by the Talmud in Sanhedrin (97). Rebbi Yehoshua asserted that human history isn’t open-ended. Redemption is inevitable even if Jews do not commit comprehensive and authentic teshuva. Indeed, genuine teshuva can impact the pace and trajectory of history and accelerate a redemptive arch that is less apocalyptic. However, the terminus of national redemption will be realized even without wholesale teshuva, and the scenario of redemption exists independent of teshuva.

Surprisingly, Rebbi Eliezer adopted a more alarming position: final redemption is entirely contingent upon a prior national teshuva. If the Jewish people awaken and return to their God, redemption will transpire. If this repentance doesn’t occur, Jews—and indeed all of humanity—will remain unredeemed. This strident position seems incongruent with our conventional view of history casting redemption as an inevitable finale to human history.

Fortunately, most authorities adopt Rebbi Yehoshua’s assertion that final redemption isn’t conditional upon mass repentance. Less heartening is the position of the Rambam (Hilchot Teshuva perek 7 halacha 5), who consents with Rebbi Eliezer’s position, which views redemption as contingent upon prior teshuva. How does this affect our vision of a Jewish future and our experience of Yom Kippur?

While the Rambam cites Rebbi Eliezer’s opinion, he does attach an important addendum: “Our prophets have already guaranteed that the Jewish people will ultimately engage in national teshuva and immediately be redeemed.” Indeed, teshuva is a necessary precondition for redemption—the world cannot be Divinely reoriented until humanity perfects itself morally and religiously. However, this process of moral and religious improvement isn’t relegated solely to human faculty; Hashem will introduce game-changing events to assure a mass turning of hearts back to religion. This Divinely triggered overhaul will serve as a prelude to the Messianic historical transformation—the return of Jews to their homeland and the introduction of an era of universal welfare.

This corollary of the Rambam lodges an interesting challenge to the modern Jew. As we assemble on Yom Kippur in our places of tefillah, we take great pride in the resurgent energy of religion and the passionate commitment to Torah and mitzvot which has pervaded many segments of Jewish society, both in Israel and abroad. It is easy to narrow our field of vision and celebrate the ardent commitment of those in our immediate precincts. However, many Jews remain distanced or even disaffected with their religion—disinterested in Yom Kippur or, even if attuned to the day, entirely diffident to heartfelt teshuva. Our fates are intertwined with theirs—in the absence of their repentance, our redemption is delayed. The Rambam’s position underscores just how interdependent every Jew is on Yom Kippur!

Ultimately, this Rambam challenges our faith in teshuva and our conviction regarding the reclaimability of every Jew. Despite our substantial efforts to inspire Jews to greater religious affiliation, empirically, it is difficult to envision a mass repentance or return of so many “detached” Jews. Part of the challenge of Yom Kippur is to bolster our deep belief in the prospect of this future teshuva. Do we allow our empiricism to convince ourselves of the improbability of a mass teshuva or do we maintain an inalienable belief in the inevitability of a supernatural shift to awaken slumbering hearts and advance the conclusion of history? Yom Kippur demands this bold vision just as it mandates personal confession, remorse and pledges of behavioral improvement. It demands that we pray for those who cannot or would not, and even if their hearts seemed unstirred, not to abandon belief in their retrievability and their inclusion in our common destiny. On the one hand, Yom Kippur has verticality—we delve into our deep introspective selves looking to identify authentic religious character while expunging our impurities. However, it also possesses a panoramic dimension—mandating that we envision the sweeping entirety of our nation and demanding that we believe, beyond belief, in their inevitable teshuva.

This hope and vision is not an added ingredient to the core of Yom Kippur but instead its main feature. To us, Yom Kippur conjures associations of personal meditation, private introspection and reserved self-analysis. By contrast, in the days of the Mikdash Yom Kippur was a more collective experience; throngs of people attended the Mikdash ceremonies—primarily as spectators. Without question they prayed and fasted, but all eyes were riveted upon the high priest as he progressed through his vaunted Yom Kippur ceremonies clad in angelic white robes and entering the Kodesh Hakodoshim, or inner sanctum, four times. All hearts were pinned upon one small red ribbon which—when transformed into snowy white conveyed the desired news: God had accepted his children’s request for teshuva. The experience was far more national and collective than our private individualistic experience. In fact, according to some opinions this general repentance was delivered even to those who didn’t engage in authentic personal teshuva. Of course, Judaism doesn’t subscribe to the notion of vicarious atonement and atonement can’t be achieved without personal warrant. Yet, forgiveness was offered to Jews who didn’t engage in heartfelt repentance merely because they experienced this day in deep identification with Jewish nationhood and ultimately with Jewish future. By participating in the collective Yom Kippur experience (either through physical attendance in the Mikdash or even deep identification from afar), a person was granted forgiveness along with his nation. Though he hasn’t engaged in a personal process, his teshuva isn’t vicarious. God forgives individuals just as he offers overall forgiveness to his beloved people. Even if a person fails at the former he can be included in the latter by deepening the level of national affinity.

Yom Kippur is an odyssey of personal emotions: remorse, guilt, mortification, hope, commitment to change and, of course fervent prayer. Despite our best efforts, we inevitably fall short of a complete and genuine teshuva. Though we may not achieve our full personal absolution we take solace in the national teshuva which Hashem provides to the Jewish nation and of which we are beneficiaries. Without a Mikdash it is more difficult to identify with this collective experience. We have no physical location in which the general Jewish population assembles to jointly experience Yom Kippur. Instead, it is upon our imaginations to recreate the collectivism of this day. Reinforcing our belief in that future mass repentance and the consequent redemption is a fantastic way to experience Yom Kippur at a collective level. Praying for those who won’t pray, but who one day will be part of our national arch is our manner of virtually attending the Mikdash and receiving the Divine teshuva offered to the Jewish people.

Gmar Chatimah Tovah.

By Moshe Taragin


Rabbi Moshe Taragin is a rebbe at Yeshivat Har Etzion located in Gush Etzion, where he resides.

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