Repentance and Character Transformation
Following a detailed description of the Yom Kippur temple service, we encounter the following verse: “For on this day He shall provide atonement for you to purify you; from all your sins before Hashem shall you be purified” (Leviticus 16:30). Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik points out that this verse highlights the two primary functions of Yom Kippur; atonement and purification. “For on this day he shall provide atonement for you to purify you”.
Sin affects the transgressor in two ways; it compels a consequence, and stains the personality. Every civil law is matched by a proportional consequence for disobeying it. A sin works similarly. In fact, the severity of a sin is evaluated by the severity of its consequence. The consequence of a sin is what we call Onesh (עונש), which is generally translated as punishment.
But a technical consequence is only one stratum. Sin also affects the transgressor on a much deeper and personal level. Our personalities are shaped by our actions. When we sin, our personalities are left stained. The first time a child lies, the child loses some of his or her innocence. Similarly, we change when we sin. When we sin we regress. We regress from materialising our human potential, and from the original and natural majestic beauty of our humanity. Tumah (טומאה), or what we call impurity, is the point to which this regression generated by sin leads us.
If sin causes Onesh (עונש) and Tumah (טומאה), then the subsequent healing process must address them both. This is the basis for the two primary functions of Yom Kippur; atonement and purification. Atonement liberates the sinner from the inevitable Onesh (עונש). Purification reverses the regression process which consequently results in Tumah (טומאה).
There is however a fundamental difference between atonement and purification. Whereas atonement is a technical process, achieved by ritual service, purification is a process of self-development, personal improvement, individual growth, and spiritual empowerment.
Real and genuine repentance is thus a lifelong rigorous process of purification. Constant critical self-reflection which generates endless personal improvement is the only accurate definition of repentance. The ability to embark on such a journey is what intrinsically makes us human in its glorious sense.
 ON REPENTANCE, From the oral discourses of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, written and edited by Dr Pinchas H. Peli