Interfaith Voices: Repair, not forgive is the message of Yom Kippur | Religion

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An important passage from the Mishnah, the first major work of rabbinic literature from the beginning of the 3rd century CE, reads: “For transgressions between a person and God, Yom Kippur atones; however, for transgressions between one person and another, Yom Kippur will not atone until one appeases the other. Basically, this text describes the role of God in the process as fairly straightforward.

In the Talmud, the generations of rabbinical commentaries that followed the Mishnah, it is understood that all it takes to be forgiven by God are words, an expression of contrition made in good faith and a commitment to change the offensive behavior. But when it comes to interactions with other people, things get a lot more complicated.

The Mishnah considers appeasing the other person to be essential. But the Talmud follows and emphasizes that humans are fickle by nature; it may not even be possible to appease them properly. This is especially true when the transgression is of a personal nature, such as an insult or a slight, not something that can be physically repaired or made up for with money.

Therefore, obtaining forgiveness is not the essence of atonement. Jewish tradition understands atonement, kapparah in Hebrew, not as erasing wrongdoing or blotting out the slate, but as properly repairing the damage that has been done. If the relationship between two people is like a wall, and one has breached that wall by hurting the other person, then atonement is like filling and patching that hole. The Hebrew root from which kapparah is derived actually means “to cover”.


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