Seliḥa (“forgiveness” or “pardon”). Meḥila (also “forgiveness” or “pardon”). Kappara (atonement).
These are the results we strive to achieve on Yom Kippur.
However, it is not entirely clear that they are really three different things. The question is especially acute for seliḥa and meḥila. My claim today is that seliḥa, meḥila and kappara are indeed different, despite the extensive overlap between them.
When I asked our local linguists about this, they answered that the word "seliḥa" comes from the Bible while "meḥila" comes rabbinic literature but there is no difference in meaning. Avshalom Kor gave the same explanation on the radio. Who am I to disagree? However, I kept searching and found a fine distinction in the Even-Shoshan dictionary where one meaning of "seliḥa" is "waiving a sinner’s punishment." "Meḥila" has the added meaning of "yielded something that was his due." I think these definitions hint at a distinction between seliḥa and meḥila.
Seliḥa: Escaping punishment is a result of the teshuva (repentance) process. The classical components of this process are soul-searching, confession, making amends – if possible – and a sincere intention not repeat the same act. These elements are at the heart of today’s liturgy. On the way to seliḥa, we concentrate on ourselves, look inward to see what we did wrong and take personal responsibility for our actions. Confession is the verbal expression of personal responsibility but it must be expressed actively by attempting to repair the damage done. Rabbi Yaakov Medan (Yeshivat Har Etzion) adds another aspect: abstract intention not sin again is insufficient. We must make a concrete plan for improvement. To the standard confession, he adds: "I have sinned and am taking these steps to ensure that I do not sin again."
For seliḥa, soul-searching and personal responsibility, we focus on ourselves. This is an essential component in the process of teshuva, necessary but not sufficient.
Therefore, there is also the element of meḥila. A common use of the word meḥila in modern Hebrew refers to a dignitary who forgoes the status or honors he would otherwise enjoy. Here, we focus not ourselves but on our place within our family, community, workplace and society as a whole. This is not just a matter of class or rank; even in a completely egalitarian society, if there were such a thing, each person must understand and acknowledge his or her position in relation to others. This is not a simple task. It requires a delicate balance: We need to recognize that the world does not revolve around ourselves and that our perspective is not the only one. But even if we are only one of many, our deeds can have an important influence on others, both near and far. Even things that seem minor at the time can and do have far-reaching consequences. It is an ongoing process. Relationships are ever-changing and different situations require different behavior even towards the same people. The balance is delicate and we must re-calibrate it often.
Meḥila concentrates on the self as part of a system. We are no longer focused only ourselves but on the bigger picture and strive to find the balance between ourselves and the others with whom we live. We begin with ourselves but move outward. This, too, is a necessary but insufficient component of the teshuva process.
The Hebrew root meaning of kappara-atonement refers to a protective cover. Kappara is the effort to repair the breakdown in the world caused by our actions, beyond the simple compensation that is part of the process leading to forgiveness. Actually, there is no reason to think such atonement possible. There are many things that cannot be repaired. Yet the Torah teaches that atonement is possible. This morning in the Torah and later in the Musaf Service, we read about the way atonement was achieved in the Tabernacle and the Temple, with sacrifices and dispatching a scapegoat to cleanse the holy places of the defilement caused by the people’s sins. Of this cult, only the High Priest’s confession of sin relates to our understanding of repentance and purification on Yom Kippur. I do not understand how sacrifices and scapegoats achieved atonement and the question is not really relevant to us, today. How can we achieve atonement in the world without the Temple?
This question was asked immediately after the destruction. Once Rabbi Yoḥanan Ben Zakai was walking in Jerusalem with Rabbi Yehoshua. When they saw the ruins of the Temple, Rabbi Joshua cried: "Oy, the Temple that atoned for the sins of Israel has been destroyed!"
Rabbi Yoḥanan reassured him: "My son, do not be dismayed. We have another form of atonement that is its equal. Gemillut ḥasadim (deeds of loving-kindness) as it is written: For I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6). (Avot D’Rabbi Natan, version A, section 4:5).
On first hearing, Rabbi Yoḥanan’s declaration sounds revolutionary. Is it? Yes and no.
The position of the prophets who scolded the people for trusting in empty forms of worship – Hosea whom Rabbi Yoḥanan quotes, Isaiah whom we read in the Haftarah and others – was known but not the dominant opinion while the Temple stood. After the destruction, Rabbi Yoḥanan, who led the people’s rehabilitation, emphasized the prophetic vision that considers social justice a key component in religious life. What began as a challenge to social conventions was institutionalized when the order of public readings for Yom Kippur was established. In order to stress the importance of gemillut ḥasadim in the process of atonement, we read:
Is not this the fast I (God) want? Free people from all who cruelly oppresses them, let the oppressed go free, break every chain, share your food with the hungry, take the homeless into your home. Clothe the naked when you see him. Do not ignore a needy relative” (Is. 58:6-7).
Here we leave our inner world and reach outward, we focus on others and what we can give.
The term "gemillut ḥasadim " includes a wide variety of acts - supplying food, clothing and a roof for the needy, visiting the sick, comforting mourners, accompanying the deceased and much more. It is undoubtedly an area where everyone can find a suitable role.
Rabbi Simlai taught that the Torah begins and ends with gemillut ḥasadim. In the beginning, God makes leather garments for Adam and Eve to wear, even though they have sinned. At the end, He buries Moses in the valley in Moab (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 14a).
It is important to note that the Almighty Himself dirties His hands, so to speak, both sewing and burying the dead. For gemillut ḥasadim, the doing itself is important. Without minimizing the importance of tzedaka (charity) – financial contributions – gemillut ḥasadim has added value. What we do with our hands touches both the other person and our own heart and soul more deeply than writing a check. Gemillut ḥasadim simultaneously improves both the lot of the recipient (and the world as a whole) and makes the giver more aware and sensitive to troubles that exist in the larger world and near to home. Although intended to repair the world, gemillut ḥasadim also leads to self-repair, since heightened sensitivity to others can help restrain the urge to sin. This duality gives gemillut ḥasadim its atoning power.
With kappara, our focus is on others. It, too, is a necessary but insufficient condition for teshuva. It is not disconnected from seliḥa and meḥila but rather enriches them.
Our focus shifts from inward soul-searching, to our position within society and moves on to the needs of other people. This process does not follow a fixed order or predictable path, rather it is flexible, and shaped by many factors within and around us. The balances are delicate, the search is never-ending, we need not complete the task but we not free to desist from it.
Gmar ḥatima tova – May we be inscribed for a good year.
Kehillat Hod veHadar 5770
[This translation is dedicated to the memory of Muriel Goldhammer.]