Chapter 16

1 Atonement: In order to understand the difference between repentance/forgiveness and atonement, we can make use of a very simple example: When a child is playing ball in the yard and the ball flies through his home’s window pane and breaks it, his parents must initiate three general courses of didactic action:

  1. They must make sure the child knows that this is improper behavior and that he should ask to be forgiven in order to avoid punishment. If he broke the window accidentally, then all he must demonstrate is that he will be more careful from now on. If he broke it intentionally, for the thrill, then he must be taught that this is not civilized behavior and he must demonstrate that he regrets what he did and resolves not to ever do it again. If he knew that breaking windows is not civilized behavior and broke it maliciously or rebelliously, i.e., not (only) for the thrill but in order to vex his parents, he must likewise be taught that this behavior is counterproductive, and he must demonstrate that he regrets what he did and resolves not to ever do it again.

Once they are assured that the child has repented—i.e., admitted guilt, apologized, and resolved not to repeat the behavior—the parents can forgive him, i.e., forego punishing him.

  1. They must make the child bear the consequences of his actions, i.e., he must pay for replacing the window. This is atonement. Understandably, the greater the damage done—i.e., the bigger the window or the more expensive the grade of glass—the greater the atonement required.
  2. They must motivate the child to try to restore the innocence that characterized their relationship before the incident. This is usually accomplished by a propitiatory statement or gift presented by the child to the parents. This is reconciliation. If the child expresses this remorse appropriately, the parents may elect not only to forgive him and forget the incident but to pay for the window themselves.

Analogously, when a person transgresses one of God’s commandments, the intensity of repentance and extent of atonement called for are in accordance with the seriousness of the offense. The full spectrum of the various shades of repentance, forgiveness, atonement, and reconciliation are reflected in the Torah’s system of atonement, particularly that of Yom Kippur, as will be seen.

4 He must wear only four garments: The eight garments worn year-round by the high priest atone for the entire Jewish people with regard to eight specific aberrations of attitude or behavior:1

· The headgear (the regular priests’ hats and the high priest’s turban) atones for haughtiness, as indicated by the fact that adds height to the priest wearing it.

· The sash atones for sinful thoughts; it is therefore tied just under the heart.

· The tunic atones for murders which were witnessed but for which the murderer cannot be tried, because he was not properly warned beforehand. (Witnessed and warned murder is atoned for by the execution of the murderer; unwitnessed murder is atoned for by the rite of the decapitated calf, which will be described later.2) This sin is atoned for by the tunic because the tunic recalls how Joseph’s brothers sought to kill him on account of his tunic and used his blood-stained tunic to deceive Jacob into believing he had been killed.3

· The trousers, the purpose of which is to cover the reproductive organ, atone for carnal sins.

· The breastplate atones for miscarriage of justice; it is therefore called “the breastplate of judgment.”4

· The ephod atones for idolatry.

· The robe atones for public slander, since when the priest wearing it walks, the bells and pomegranates attached to it make an audible sound. (In contrast, the incense, which is offered up inside the Sanctuary, with no witnesses, atones for private slander.)

· The Forehead-plate atones for brazenness, since a person’s forehead crumples when he assumes a “headstrong” attitude of insolence.

Of these, the four basic priestly garments—both those worn by regular priests the year-round and those worn by the high priest on Yom Kippur—allude to the basic array of the soul’s faculties:

· The headgear alludes to the presence of keter (supra-rational delight and will) in chochmah (insight). Novel insight, drawn from the supra-rational faculties of the soul, is possible only when we are ready to abandon preconceptions and assume an attitude of non-self-awareness (bitul). The headgear, being the antidote to haughtiness, thus prepares us for new revelations of chochmah.

· The sash alludes to binah (“understanding”), or rational intellect, through which the transcendent insight of chochmah is processed and made part of our way of thinking, only after which it can remake us as new, more refined individuals. It is therefore used to tie the garments to the body, alluding to the notion of bringing external, transcendent consciousness into ourselves. Its location next to the heart alludes how understanding and integrating new insight is meant to remake the whole person, just as the heart pumps blood throughout the entire body. The sash therefore atones for misuse of the intellect by sinful thinking.

· The tunic alludes to the emotions, which correspond to the torso and its limbs—which the tunic covers:

o chesed (“loving-kindness) corresponds to the right arm;

o gevurah (“might,” “severity”) corresponds to the left arm;

o tiferet (“beauty,” “harmony”) corresponds to the torso;

o netzach (“victory,” “perseverance”) corresponds to the right leg;

o hod (“splendor,” “acknowledgment”) corresponds to the left leg;

o yesod (“foundation,” “loyalty”) corresponds to the procreative organ.

The test of whether an intellectual insight (chochmah) has been properly processed (binah) is if refines our emotions, helping us subjugate our innate animal nature to our higher, human nature. Metaphorically, then, murder alludes to the slaying of our human-self by our animal-self, which results when the intellect does not affect the emotions.5

· The trousers, unlike the tunic, do not extend down the full length of the body; they extend only from the waist to the thighs, for they are worn in order to modestly cover the procreative organ. They therefore allude to the proper relationship with our feminine side, malchut (“kingdom”), our powers of expression—thought, speech, and action—by which we aim to control and influence reality in accordance with our fully-processed new insight. This relationship must be characterized by modesty, i.e., humility in assessing our ability to influence reality, lest overconfidence lead us to attempt to rectify aspects of reality we are not equipped to rectify. As we have already noted in several contexts,6 this presumptuousness can backfire, causing us to succumb to the enticements of materiality rather than elevate the material world as we intended. Carnal sin is the epitome of such misuse of our creative powers; the trousers therefore atone for this type of sin.

These four garments, as the verse continues, “are holy garments,” meaning that the entire array of our soul’s faculties must be “holy,” i.e., oriented toward God and harnessed in the service of our ongoing Divine mission, transforming the world into God’s home by propagating and disseminating Divine consciousness, which, as noted, depends upon our willingness and ability to negate our sense of self.

The garments but also be “made solely out of linen.” We have noted before7 how, in contrast to other cultivated crops, the flax plant yields one stalk per seed, and that this alludes to the simple, intrinsic oneness of God. In the present context, the requirement that the Yom Kippur priestly garments be made out of linen indicates that our simple faith in God’s oneness, i.e., how He is in exclusive control of all reality, must permeate all the faculties of our soul. This ensures that the creative process beginning with insight and proceeding through intellect, emotions, and expression will develop properly and be fulfilled optimally.

Although all of us possess the full array of soul-faculties alluded to by the four priestly garments, these garments also allude to four types of people, each of which chiefly manifests one of these soul-faculties:

· The headgear (keter and chochmah) alludes to creative, inventive types.

· The sash (binah) alludes to intellectual, analytic types.

· The tunic (emotions) alludes to emotional types.

· The trousers (malchut) allude to industrious types, whose chief interest lies in palpable accomplishment, driving the world to its ultimate rectification.

All four types of people must learn to inform their pursuits with faith in God. Clearly, the sophistication of their faith in God will vary in accordance with their innate propensities and gifts. (This is alluded to by the fact that the adjective “linen” in this verse is repeated for each of the four garments instead of being mentioned once in connection with them all together.) Nonetheless, just as the high priest cannot perform the Yom Kippur rites unless he is wearing all four garments, the collective body of the Jewish people requires all four types of people to manifest their faith in God, each according to their innate propensities. Only then are we assured of full, collective atonement: reinstatement with God.

Similarly, each of us manifests one or another of these four personality types at various times in our lives. The lesson here is that we must learn how to bring God’s presence into our lives in whatever phase of life we are in.

Although the actual Yom Kippur rites could only be performed by one individual (the high priest) in one place (the Temple) once a year (Yom Kippur), the lesson is meant, of course, to be universally and constantly relevant. Repentance is possible at any time, in all situations, and always leads us both to our own, personal redemptions and further toward the world’s collective Redemption.8

6 For his household, i.e., his wife: This verse implies that the high priest must be married in order for his performance of the rites of Yom Kippur to be valid, and such is indeed the case.9 Furthermore, as we will see,10 it is incumbent upon the high priest to leave the Temple after completing the Yom Kippur rites and return directly home to his wife, this being the final, culminating conclusion to the intense spiritual work of the day. The purpose of entering the Holy of Holies and attaining the high levels of Divine consciousness he experiences on Yom Kippur is not the experience itself but the transmission of this inspiration into everyday, mundane life, personified by his wife. The woman is, as we have seen, the personification of the drive to make the world into God’s home; therefore, only by bringing his Divine inspiration to her, enabling her to thereby develop and expand her own Divine consciousness, can he consummately influence the world.

Furthermore, the high priest must affirm this intent at the very beginning of the Yom Kippur rites, in order to ensure that the entire series of intense spiritual rites are performed with this specific goal in mind.

Inasmuch as the high priest’s rites on Yom Kippur are meant to instruct us how to renew our relationship with God, it follows that this concern for “domestic harmony” (shalom bayit) between husband and wife (as well as between the male and female aspects of each of us individually) is fundamental to this process. This means that in our marriages, the husband’s responsibility for domestic harmony includes his responsibility to provide for his wife’s maximal spiritual development. And in our personal lives, we must all strive to harmonize the spiritual side of life, exemplified by the male propensity toward abstraction, with the physical side of life, exemplified by the female propensity toward concretization, each side inspiring and balancing the other.11

8 Aaron must place lots upon the two he-goats: A lot is used either when it is impossible to choose logically between two alternatives (on account of their being equally meritorious) or when it is possible to choose logically but it has been decided not to rely on logic to determine the choice. In both these cases, the intellect willfully submits to “chance,” i.e., Divine providence. Moreover, the use of a lot indicates a readiness not only to disregard intellect in favor of providence but to submit the will to providence as well—we decide that we will “want” whatever decision is reached by the lot.

The requirement to draw a lot between the two goats of Yom Kippur is intended to indicate that the process of repentance, the essence of Yom Kippur, transcends logic. The arbitrariness of the lot is emphasized by the fact that ideally, the two goats should be of similar appearance, height, and monetary value; but if two identical goats cannot be procured, the lot may be drawn using dissimilar goats, reflecting the case where the decision to choose via lot rather than logic is made even though it is possible to choose using logic.12

Thus, when God requires us to draw a lot, He is informing us that the process in question requires a revelation of Divinity that transcends not only the logic (i.e., the rules of nature) that He has embedded into the fabric of created reality, but also His will that gave rise to the logic that governs created reality.

We have already noted13 how repentance in general involves transcending logic, both from our perspective and from God’s perspective: In order to truly repent, we must remold ourselves in accordance with an intensity of relationship with God that we did not previously consider to be required of us logically; in order to accept our repentance, God must override the logical system of reward and punishment according to which He designed the world to function. It is this revelation of God’s essence, transcending both the logical order of nature and the very will according to which He created the world, that is revealed through repentance in general and the observance of Yom Kippur in particular.14

13 He must place the incense upon the fire, before God: As has been noted previously,15 incense is offered up on the Inner Altar, which parallels the inner dimension of the heart—i.e., our Divine soul, which is constantly bound to its Divine source—and serves to reveal and intensify this bond. In contrast, the sacrifices offered up on the Outer Altar are designed to elevate the outer dimension of the heart—our human/animal soul—to Divinity.

In this context, the burning of the incense on Yom Kippur in the Holy of Holies—the innermost part of the Sanctuary, more interior than even the Inner Altar—reflects the revelation on this day of the innermost dimension of the Divine soul itself. When this aspect of the Divine soul is revealed, our spiritual nature takes over our physicality, transforming us into quasi-angelic beings who have no need for food or drink. Thus, the various forms of “affliction” we are enjoined to observe on Yom Kippur,16 rather than punish us, are meant to express our metamorphosis into spiritual beings on this day. As Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev is quoted as saying regarding the injunctions to fast on Tisha b’Av (the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple) and Yom Kippur, “There is no need for us to be commanded to fast on these days, for on Tisha b’Av, who can eat!? And on Yom Kippur, who needs to eat?!”17

17 No person may be in the Tent of Meeting when Aaron comes in to effect atonement in the Holy of Holies: According to the Talmud,18 this implies that even angels are not allowed to be present in the Holy of Holies when the incense is offered up. What this means is that the dynamic of repentance that occurs when our inner, Divine essence is manifest—as happens when the incense is offered up in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur—is totally beyond the ken of angels. Inasmuch as angels are personifications of Divine energies present within creation, their identities are fixed; they cannot change. Repentance, in contrast, is a reversal of the supposedly “fixed” laws of nature, including the laws normally governing the spiritual nature of life, for through repentance it is possible for a person to ascend—instantaneously!—from the lowest spiritual depths to the most exalted spiritual heights.

Thus, when we said above19 that on Yom Kippur we become quasi-angelic, this was only with regard to our ascent over our physical natures; in terms of our spiritual growth, we surpass the capability of the angels whenever we renew and remake ourselves through repentance.20

23 These four garments must not be used ever again: The reason for this rule is that sincere repentance transforms the penitent into a new person, as we have mentioned previously.21 Inasmuch as the essence of Yom Kippur is repentance, the garments used to perform the Yom Kippur rites should be new each year, in order to reflect the transformative nature of proper repentance.22

30 This aspect of atonement: As stated above, the he-goat sent to Azazel, in general, only atones without the individual’s repentance for “lighter” sins—active commandments and negative commandments punishable by lashes, etc.—whereas for “heavier” sins—capital offenses or those punishable by excision—it only atones if the individual also repents. In contrast, the atonement afforded by the day of Yom Kippur itself atones for all sins, even without repentance.

This difference is due to the fact that, as stated, the he-goat atones for the specific sins themselves; as such, the seriousness of the offense—the seriousness of the sin’s affect on the world—is a relevant factor against which the ability of the rite of the he-goat to effect atonement must be considered. It can overcome the effect of the “lighter” sins by itself; to overcome the “heavier” sins, it needs the additional force of repentance.

In contrast, the holiness of Yom Kippur atones, as stated, for the effect of the sin on the individual, wiping him or her clean of the effect of sin. Rather than excising the sin from the person, so to speak, Yom Kippur lifts the person out of the mire of sin. Therefore, the particulars of the sin or sins is not so relevant; all that is required is for the individual to yearn to be reconciled with God in a general sense and express this desire by observing the holiday properly.

The reason that Yom Kippur has this effect is because the day itself reveals the intrinsic connection between every Jew—by virtue of his or her Divine soul—and God. This connection of essence to essence preexisted Creation and even now continues to exist outside the context of Creation, and therefore transcends all limitations of time and space. It is thus equally immune to both enhancement and corruption by any action taken in the physical world; in the context of this connection, transgressions and their effects are irrelevant. Thus, the very day of Yom Kippur, when this intrinsic connection is revealed, serves to wipe the slate clean of all sin.23

A Closer Look

[30] Other, less radical forms of atonement: In the absence of the Tabernacle (or Temple) and its rites, the methods of atonement designated specifically for Temple- or sacrifice-related transgressions become inapplicable. The mechanisms of atonement for transgressing commandments that remain relevant in non-Temple times are as follows:24

· For neglecting to perform an active commandment, repentance suffices; no further atonement is required.

o The exceptions to this are the two active commandments (the Passover sacrifice and circumcision) whose neglect incurs the punishment of excision (see below).

o Optional atonement may be initiated by the individual, similar to an ascent-offering in Temple times.25

· For transgressing a passive commandment other than those listed below, repentance suspends punishment26 until Yom Kippur; if the individual then observes Yom Kippur properly, he is absolved from any further punishment.

· For transgressing a passive commandment punishable by excision or death administered by the court, repentance and the observance of Yom Kippur suspend and reduce punishment; Divinely orchestrated suffering (either before or after Yom Kippur27) completes whatever atonement is still needed.

· If the individual did not undergo the necessary procedures for atonement before he dies, his death can atone if he repents beforehand. If he does not, he is purged of his sins in the first phase of his afterlife, Purgatory.

It is possible to preempt prospective Divinely imposed suffering with self-imposed suffering, particularly fasting.28 Fasting can also substitute for the voluntary ascent-offering that was often offered up after basic atonement had been completed in order to renew the individual’s relationship with God.29 When the individual is not strong enough to fast without jeopardizing his health or impairing his ability to go about his life normally—which nowadays is the rule30—charity can substitute for fasting.

In these contexts, the observance of Yom Kippur does constitute part of the atonement process for specific sins, besides its more general role of atoning for the effect of sin on the psyche of the sinner so he or she can re-enter into a renewed relationship with God.31

This entire discussion of culpability for sin applies only to a person who was aware of the full import of his actions when he committed the transgression. A person who was raised unaware of the Torah’s system of commandments and the legal weight they carry is not held responsible for his lack of observance. Nonetheless, he still needs to atone for the specific categories of sins he committed. For example, repentance together with one sin-offering—or in non-Temple times, repentance together with observing one Yom Kippur—suffices to atone for all the Sabbaths he did not observe, no matter their number.32


[30] You will be purified before God: The notion that repentance in general and the repentance of Yom Kippur in particular transcend the order of creation is alluded to by the Torah’s statement that on Yom Kippur “you will be purified before God of all your sins.”33 The Name of God used in this phrase is the Name Havayah, which takes the form of the Hebrew word meaning “He will bring into being.” Its four letters are thus seen to represent the Divine creative process as reflected in the full array of the sefirot:34 the yud, the smallest letter in the alphabet, represents the seminal point of insight (chochmah); the three lines of the hei represent the three-dimensional expansion of chochmah into a full-fledged theoretical construct, which occurs in binah; the vav, whose numerical value is 6, represents the six emotions from chesed to yesod; and the latter hei represents the three modes of expression (thought, speech, and action) of malchut. The sefirah of keter (God’s will to create) is alluded to by the upper tip of the yud. In this context, the expression “before God” in this verse refers the levels of Divinity that precede creation and therefore transcend the created order.35

Chapter 17

11 Upon the Altar to atone for your souls: As we have seen previously,36 blood, being warm, signifies the enthusiasm; the fact that we are forbidden to consume blood but are required to sprinkle it on the Altar means that we must be enthusiastic not about our material needs but about our Divine mission. In the words of the Psalms,37 “If you eat of the toil of your hands, you will be happy and it will be well with you,” meaning that we will succeed in life only if we immerse just our hands (which may include our practical intellect) in our work, but not our heads and hearts. When over-enthusiasm for the materiality of life leads us to transgress God’s will, part of the atonement process is applying the blood of the required sin-offering to the Altar.

As we have seen (and will see further), there are two types of sin-offerings: those whose blood is applied to the Inner Altar (the sin-offerings of the high priest,38 of the Sanhedrin,39 and for Yom Kippur40) and those whose blood is applied to the Outer Altar (all others). The remainder of the blood of all sacrifices is poured out onto the base of the Outer Altar, but only the blood of “inner” sin-offerings is poured out onto west side of the base; that of all other sacrifices is poured out onto the south side.

Allegorically, “inner” sin-offerings correspond to “inner” sins, i.e., improper thoughts, which are known only to God. The leftover blood of these offerings is therefore poured out on the western side of the Altar, the side facing the Sanctuary, which is denoted by the Torah as being “before God.” In contrast, “outer” sin-offerings correspond to “outer” sins, i.e., improper speech and deeds. The leftover blood of these offerings is poured out on the south side of the Altar, for the southern direction is associated (in the northern hemisphere) with warmer temperatures, and it is the “heat” of enthusiasm for materiality that leads to most sins, as mentioned above.

Now, although it is forbidden to consume blood, it is permitted to derive other forms of benefit from it, such as using it for fertilizer and the like. The Torah will indeed later state that the blood of slaughtered animals must be spilled “on the ground, like water,”41 intimating that it should ideally be put to positive use as fertilizer. Allegorically, this means that although we must aspire to complete indifference toward materiality, if we nonetheless become enthusiastic about some aspect of it, we may make use of the by-product of our enthusiasm. This escape clause, however, applies only on condition that we “spill it on the ground,” i.e., bear in mind that it is nothing more than “fertilizer,” a foul-smelling, repulsive, agent for further spiritual growth, possessing no intrinsic value and therefore belonging “on the ground,” i.e., not artificially elevated to any level of esteem. Furthermore, this “blood” must become “like water,” the cold, transparent, tasteless symbol of self-abnegation. In this way, the erstwhile forbidden blood can be transformed into foodstuffs that are permitted for consumption, meaning that the by-products of our misplaced enthusiasm can indirectly become transformed into forces for goodness and even Divinity.42

Chapter 18

5 In order to live by them: This phrase can also be read, “in order to imbue life-force within them,” implying that not only do God’s commandments enhance our lives; by observing them we bring them to life.43 For example, even the most meticulously crafted tefilin cannot accomplish their purpose—thereby effecting a positive change in reality—until a Jewish man wears them.

We are thus the catalyst that brings God’s plan for creation to fruition, through fulfilling His commandments. In order to “enliven” God’s commandments, we ourselves must be “alive,” i.e., healthy, strong, happy, enthusiastic, and optimistic.44


[5] Which a man must do in order to live by them: This phrase can be read, “For you will thus make them into the ‘man’ and, through them, enliven Me, God.” In Kabbalistic terminology,45 this means that when we perform God’s commandments, we draw Divine energy into them. Inasmuch as the commandments are configured in human form—the partzuf of Z’eir Anpin—the 248 active commandments being rooted in the limbs of this partzuf and the 365 restrictive commandments being rooted in its nerves and sinews,46 our performance of these commandments brings life-force into this matrix of Divine forces, through which God’s attributes are manifest in the world.47

A Closer Look

[9] The offspring of a forbidden marriage: It is, of course, forbidden for a couple to marry if they are not allowed to have marital relations. However, if they marry nonetheless, the status of their marriage (and the offspring resulting from their union) depends on the severity of the prohibition against their conducting marital relations:

· If relations are punishable by excision, the marriage has no validity; it is considered nonexistent, and no divorce is required to permit marriage to others. The offspring of such a union is considered illegitimate.

· If relations are not punishable by excision, the marriage is considered valid but illegal; the couple must divorce and marriage with others is not permitted until they do so. The offspring of such a marriage is, however, considered legitimate.48

30 You must safeguard My charge: This injunction includes the directive for the sages, as the authoritative successors to Moses and his Sanhedrin, to legislate precautionary measures intended to keep the people from transgressing any of the Torah’s explicit prohibitions. Thus, rabbinic enactments are sanctioned by the Torah itself and carry the full weight of Divine law.49 The fact that there are legal distinctions between the Torah’s explicit laws and those of rabbinic law does not imply the latter is any less important than the former.

This injunction also includes the directive for each of us to take our own, added precautions when we see that these are necessarily in order to avoid transgressing any of the Written or Oral Torah’s prohibitions. The guidelines for undertaking such precautions will be discussed later.50

The fact that the Torah encourages both these types of “safeguards” teaches us that we should never underestimate their importance. We have seen51 how we are by nature prone to overconfidence and therefore to overestimating our immunity to evil. It is therefore necessary for us to be constantly cognizant of our spiritual health, preferably by consulting regularly with a qualified spiritual counselor,52 to determine when additional stringencies are called for.53