Parshat Nitsavim: Teshuvah, Kappara and Independence
In Parashat Nitzavim (Devarim / Deuteronomy 29:9), the Torah states, “You are standing today, all of you, before the Lord your God …” Verse 10 goes on to list several different categories of people within the Jewish nation, from the heads of the tribes to the water drawers, standing before God.
Verse 11 indicates that all of these different types of people are “passing into the Brit (covenant) of the Lord your God.” This asserts that the community must connect to God and the mitzvot of the Torah directly. Moshe (Moses) cannot serve as an intermediary; every person has to enter into the Covenant directly.
The concept of a direct connection to God and the Covenant is further emphasized: “For this commandment which I command you this day, it is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in Heaven that you should not say: Who shall go up for us to Heaven, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it? [30:11-12]”
A relationship with God is not far away from you, and every person has the potential to have that relationship without an intermediary.
This idea of standing before God directly also plays out during the upcoming period of the Yamim Nora’im, particularly on Yom Kippur.
At a 1973 lecture at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik asked what the main difference is between how kappara (atonement) is achieved today versus the way it was achieved in the times of the Beit Hamikdash, the ancient Temple in Jerusalem?
Rabbi Soloveitchik based his answer on Rambam’s Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah (Laws of Repentance) Chapter 1, which points out that kappara was accomplished in Temple times through korbanot (sacrifices). However, if the sacrifices were not accompanied by teshuvah (repentance), kappara was not attained.
Today, without a Temple and sacrifices, the only thing that achieves kappara is repentance. Teshuvah, once a condition to achieving atonement, is now the sole means of doing so. As a result, one could argue that today our experience of teshuvah is more intense and direct.
Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel points out in his book, Linvuchey Ha-Tekufah / Light for an Age of Confusion, that one of the fantastic things about the Jewish approach to repentance and atonement is that it is carried out directly by the individual. No intermediary stands between the penitent and the person they wronged or before God.
Rabbi Amiel writes: “Repentance originates in the infinite intellect that transcends time and nature. One principle directs it: Nothing stands in the way of the will. … One can instantly transform one’s self, leaping from the deepest pit to the highest Heaven … human beings can transform themselves at any moment, renewing themselves at will to become new people.”
He continues in this vein, saying that when we transform ourselves, it is akin to being reborn, almost as if we have given birth to ourselves.
Both Rabbi Amiel and Rabbi Soloveitchik understood the idea that atonement is to be achieved without an intermediary. As much as the experience of atonement is more direct today, and we are not expecting a Kohen Gadol (High Priest) to make atonement for us, there is sometimes a tendency in some modern day synagogues to replace the intermediary of the Kohen Gadol with the intermediary of a rabbi or cantor.
Even in synagogues that are more participatory, where congregants are less dependent on a rabbi and cantor, the service itself can become an intermediary. To be sure, the service is integral to helping facilitate teshuvah, and the rabbi and cantor can be excellent guides in our teshuvah process. However, none of this can replace the experience of standing before those whom we have wronged, or to stand before God and asking forgiveness.
It is interesting we live in a DIY (Do It Yourself) society. People today are more directly involved in every aspect of their lives. We make our own investments and do our banking online. We can get directly involved in journalism and politics through social media such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.
The same direct involvement that people have in business, journalism, and politics needs to be applied to the teshuvah process on the Yamim Nora’im, and to Judaism in general. As we engage in the process of repentance, let us do so directly, without any intermediaries.
It is my blessing that this approach of direct involvement spills over into every aspect of our spiritual experiences in life. Shanah Tovah.