Atonement Through Kindness

Starting in the Jewish month of Elul, Jews have been involved in a process of introspection and inner-refinement. The Jewish new year is focused around becoming a better person and rediscovering our life’s mission. We spend much time reflecting and clarifying which characteristics need repair. Yet, despite the much needed intention we give ourselves during this holiday season, Yom Kippur at its core redirects our attention towards helping others with acts of love and kindness.

The Rambam writes in Hilchot Teshuvah (laws of repentance) that an individual should attempt to see an act of tzedakah has having the potential to save the entire world from destruction. “…If man performs one mitzvah, he tips his balance and that of the entire world to the side of merit and brings deliverance and salvation to himself and others. For these reasons, it is customary for all of Israel to give profusely to charity, perform many good needs, and be occupied with mitzvot from Rosh HaShanah until Yom Kippur to a greater extent that during the remainder of the year.” Even as the world seems so broken and chaotic a dollar to the needy or a helping hand to an elder can begin its repair.

On a day where we desperately seek atonement, acts of chesed (kindness) provide us with a practical way to achieve it. Judaism believes deeply in the connection between atonement and chesed. The Midrash (Avot de-Rabbi Natan) teaches that Rabbi Joshua once saw the Temple in ruins and cried out, “Woe to us that this place is ruins, the place where atonement was made for Israel’s iniquities.’ Rabbi Yohanan said to him: “My son, do not grieve, for we have another means of atonement which is no less effective. What is it? It is deeds of living-kindness…” In other words, acts of kindness have become the main substitute for sacrifices. In the same way that priest of the Temple were meticulous about the order and procedures surrounding the sacrifices, so too we must do the same in the way we help others.

The Talmud (Rosh HaShanah 16b) states that four things rend the evil decree against a person: They include charity, crying out to God, changing one’s name, and changing one’s behavior. We reiterate this in our liturgy by chanting, “Repentance! Prayer! Charity! These charges eradicate the evil of the edict.”  There is also an ancient custom of “Kaparot” done before Yom Kippur where one transfers all his iniquities to a chicken and then waves it around his head. After performing the ritual, Jews also had a custom of giving the chicken to the poor or selling the chicken and giving that money to the poor. Either way, atonement is intrinsically linked to helping the poor.

For many Jews, the central commandment of Yom Kippur is the fast. However, the Haftorah that we read on Yom Kippur informs us that God desires much more than just a fast. Isaiah says, “Can such be the fast I choose, a day when man merely afflicts himself? Can it be merely bowing one’s head like a bulrush and spreading sackcloth and ashes? Do you call this a fast and a day of favor to Hashem? Surely, this is the fast I choose: To break open the shackles of wickedness, to undo the bonds of injustice, and to let the oppressed go free, and annul all perversion. Surely you should break bread for the hungry, and bring the moaning poor to your home; when you see a naked person, clothe him…”

As we approach the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, we have the opportunity to recommit ourselves to Judaism’s central charge of bringing mercy, lovingkindness, and peace upon the world.

About the Author
Jonathan Leener is the rabbi of Base BKLYN in Crown Heights.