וְכִפֶּ֣ר עַל־הַקֹּ֗דֶשׁ מִטֻּמְאֹת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וּמִפִּשְׁעֵיהֶ֖ם לְכָל־חַטֹּאתָ֑ם וְכֵ֤ן יַֽעֲשֶׂה֙ לְאֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֔ד הַשֹּׁכֵ֣ן אִתָּ֔ם בְּת֖וֹךְ טֻמְאֹתָֽם:
And he shall effect atonement upon the Holy from the defilements of the children of Israel and from their rebellions and all their unintentional sins. He shall do likewise to the Tent of Meeting, which dwells with them amidst their defilements.Leviticus 16:16
This week’s double Torah portion begins with the portion that is read in the Shacharit service of Yom Kippur. It is story of the Yom Kippur service in the temple and the basis for the entire Mishnah Yoma, as well as the Talmud tractate Yoma. The portion outlines the method that Israel and the Kohayn Gadol must use for atonement on Yom Kippur.
The term atonement is often misunderstood, and therefore often misused. Atonement is not forgiveness, it is not redemption, it is not salvation. Atonement may lead to all of these, but atonement itself is none of these.
Here then is the question; if Israel, or someone, brings an offering as an atonement for sin, is Hashem required to forgive them of the sin? Is Hashem required? This seems to be a ridiculous question. Hashem is not required to do anything, much less forgive anyone. Who, then, does Hashem forgive? The answer is simple, Hashem forgives anyone he wishes to forgive. Hashem may forgive someone who brings an offering, Hashem may forgive someone who does not bring an offering. Forgiveness and mercy are qualities of the Holy One, Blessed be He. How Hashem applies his mercy and grace is completely up to Hashem and His Will alone.
What, then, is a sacrifice of atonement? What purpose does serve? What does it do? If Hashem is not required to forgive someone’s sin, then what is the purpose of an atonement sacrifice? The answer is central to the understanding of the nature of atonement. The sacrifice of atonement is an act of obedience and contrition. The sacrifice acknowledges Hashem’s sovereignty, control, and mastery of the entire universe. This is the definition of atonement; atonement is an act acknowledging Hashem as our sovereign G-d. When atonement has been made, we have brought a sacrifice in obedience and contrition, that we accept Hashem’s omnipotent power over us and the entire universe.
Israel takes a day to obey and commemorate the sacrifice in contrition, acknowledging Hashem’s majestic sovereignty over us. We sing Avinu Malkeinu, our father, our King, and we remember and commemorate the sacrifices from this week’s Torah portion as an act of obedience and demonstration of our understanding that Hashem rules over all the earth. Shabbat shalom.