Between the Lines—Yom Kippur

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Andy Shugerman

BT Yoma 85b (Mishnah 8:9)

האומר, אחטא ואשוב, אחטא ואשוב, אין מספיקין בידו לעשות תשובה. אחטא ויום הכפורים מכפר, אין יום הכפורים מכפר

את זו דרש רבי אלעזר בן עזריה, (ויקרא טז) מכל חטאתיכם לפני יי תטהרו, עברות שביןאדם למקום, יום הכפורים מכפר. עברות שבין אדם לחברו, אין יום הכפורים מכפר, עד שירצה את חברו.

אמר רבי עקיבא, אשריכם ישראל, לפני מי אתם מטהרין, ומי מטהר אתכם, אביכם שבשמים, שנאמר, (יחזקאל לו) וזרקתי עליכם מים טהורים וטהרתם. ואומר, (ירמיה יז) מקוה ישראל יי, מה מקוה מטהר את הטמאים, אף הקדוש ברוך הוא מטהר את ישראל

If one says, "I shall sin and repent, sin and repent" — they give him no chance to do repentance. [If one says:] "I shall sin and the Day of Atonement will atone [for me], the Day of Atonement does not atone . . . "

R. Elazar b. Azariah taught this interpretation: "From all your sins you shall be made pure before the Lord (Lev. 16:30) — for transgressions between a person and the Everpresent One does the Day of Atonement atone, but for transgressions between a person and one's fellow, the Day of Atonement atones only if the person regains the other's goodwill."

R. Akiba said: "Happy are you, O Israel! Before whom are you made pure, and who purifies you? It is your Father who is in Heaven, as it says: And I will sprinkle pure water on you, and you will be made pure . . . (Ezek. 36:25). And it [further] says: O Lord, the hope [mikveh, lit. 'immersion pool'] of Israel (Jer. 17:13) — Just as the immersion pool purifies the impure, so does the Blessed Holy One purify Israel."

I can think of no better metaphor than mikveh for God's role during aseret y'mei teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance that lead up to and include Yom Kippur. The wordplay at the heart of Rabbi Akiba's midrash teaches us about the emotional, spiritual, and physical changes that must occur for us to become pure, for we must conjure a sense of hopefulness in order to undergo the personal transformation required to begin anew in 5771.

Before sharing my approach to mikveh, one interpretation of the mishnah above deserves attention. Moses Maimonides, or the Rambam (1135–1204), outlines in his Hilkhot Teshuvah a three-stage process as the core of repentance: (1) recognition of wrongdoing, (2) regret, and (3) commitment to change. These steps require a combination of rigorous honesty and courage in order for one to take responsibility for wrongdoing and its consequences and make amends. As a result of this undertaking, Maimonides writes that one can truly claim, "I am someone else and not the same person who committed those acts (Hilkhot Teshuvah 2:4)."

This year, as in many previous years, since becoming a ba'al teshuvah (born-again Jew), I will use two powerful water rituals to assist my becoming a new person in 5771. On Rosh Hashanah, I utilized the Tashlikh ceremony to declare my misdeeds in 5770 and to express remorse verbally and symbolically by tossing moldy bread into the ocean. On the day before Yom Kippur, I will return to the sea to immerse myself in those salty waters and to assert that I have at least begun a spiritual metamorphosis. In between those acts, I ask God to guide my prayers and my righteous giving so that I can demonstrate how my internal and external selves have pure intentions for the new year. This framework offers me hope-made-visible by turning the moldy bitterness of regret into the pure freshness of possibility, which I taste as salty and sweet.