"This shall be an eternal statute [in Hebrew, "chok"] for you...on the tenth day of the seventh month you must afflict yourselves and not do any work...on this you shall have all your sins atoned so that you shall be purified before G‑d...A Shabbat of Shabbats..." (Lev. 16:29-31)

The Torah wishes to teach that G‑d doesn't want man merely to afflict himself (i.e. fast, etc.) but rather wants complete repentance. Self-castigation is of no intrinsic value, cannot take the place of repentance, and is only a means to an end, the end being character rehabilitation.

G‑d, having described a variety of animal sacrifices, points out that man himself must also afflict himself in some way. G‑d does not want man to think, however, that His interest is served by man afflicting himself, such as denying himself food and drink. He wishes that man would restrain himself "as an eternal statute", i.e. on an ongoing basis, all year round, lifelong. In that event, special rituals leading to repentance would not ever be needed! In order to achieve this purification, the average person requires the afflictions…

If such were man's lifestyle, then these rituals would become a "chok", a term for incomprehensible statutes (i.e. irrational), since they would be unnecessary in practice, man not having any need to induce repentance by means of self affliction. Man would then be assured of complete atonement for any errors he had committed, without the need for such legislation. The occurrence of the very day of Yom Kippur would suffice for him to purify himself of his own accord, not only in public, but also in his heart - "before G‑d", i.e. something visible only to G‑d Himself. In such a scenario, Yom Kippur will become merely a "Shabbat of Shabbats", a heightened Shabbat experience, due to the forgiveness this particular Shabbat brings in its wake. On the other hand, "afflicting yourselves", will become merely a formality, an ongoing statute, devoid of significance for you.

There is a distinction between atonement and purification. The former occurs by the grace of G‑d, the latter by dint of one's own efforts. Although Yom Kippur brings with it atonement (i.e. forgiveness), its ultimate objective is that you "purify yourselves before G‑d", inside and out - by your own efforts.

In order to achieve this purification, the average person requires the afflictions, a part of the Torah legislation. It is true that by its very nature, Yom Kippur is a Shabbat of Shabbats, a heightened Shabbat experience, a day of rest and rejoicing for the forgiveness attained. Nonetheless, the legislation to submit to afflictions is an ongoing one, "an eternal statute". Although G‑d could have insisted on a variety of acts of affliction, He requires this only "once a year" (Lev. 16:34).

[Translated and adapted by Eliyahu Munk.]