[The sages say:] Yom Kippur atones only for those who repent. Rabbi [Judah HaNassi] says: Yom Kippur atones whether one repents or one does not repent. …Talmud, Shevuot 13a
On Yom Kippur, the day itself atones… as it is written, For on this day, it shall atone for you. …Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 1:3
So Yom Kippur is over already — at least here in Israel, and my friends in America won’t be on the computer before Yom Kippur ends. But I was thinking about a teaching I was reminded of today, that on Yom Kippur the day itself atones whether or not you do teshuvah. As you can see from the above sources, even though the sages in the Babylonian Talmud said that Yom Kippur only atones for those who repent, Maimonides in his guide to Jewish Law, the Mishneh Torah, goes with the opinion of Yehuda HaNassi, who said the day atones whether one repents or not.
This is really an amazing teaching. Why on earth would Yehudah HaNassi have come up with a statement like that? How would that work out?
It’s actually a brilliant idea. On Yom Kippur, everyone is granted atonement. Everyone is given a fresh chance. Right now, this minute, I’m writing this just as the holiday has gone out, no one is a sinner. Everyone can start over right now, this second. No one should be judgmental about anyone else, at least for a little while, because we’ve all been forgiven.
So if the day itself atones, why bother with fasting, praying, and doing teshuvah (repentance)? Why go through all that trouble?
We need the fasting, praying, and repentance so that we’ll be able to take advantage of the fresh start that we’ve been granted. If we don’t make a supreme effort, that fresh chance will be wasted. On the 11th of Tishrei, the day after Yom Kippur, if we go back to our old bad habits, whatever they may be, we will have lost out. We will have missed out on the clean slate that we were given and we will have started messing it up right away again. And with each new failure in the new year, we’re pushing ourselves out of the “Book of Life” that we’ve been written in.
Change is hard. It doesn’t happen with just a simple resolution to do better. Change usually comes in the wake of a broken heart, hence all the efforts on this holiday to get through our thick skins.
It’s a new year. You’ve been forgiven. Will you take advantage of it?
G’mar chatimah tovah, may you be sealed for a good year (the actual “sealing” is traditionally held to happen at the end of Sukkot)