Yom Kippur is a day which often directs us inward. It prompts us to ask ourselves where we have succeeded and where we have failed, and how we want to do better going forward. This is the classic process of teshuvah: to return (shav) to our past, to repent, to correct and, hopefully, to achieve forgiveness.
The Torah, however, speaks of a different type of teshuvah: Vi’shavta ad Hashem Elokekha, “And you shall return to the Lord your God” (Deut. 30:20). Here, the focus is not on sin and its repair, but on return–not on forgiveness, but on atonement, from the Middle English “to be at one.” We yearn to return again to God, to be at one with ourselves and with the Divine.
How is this return achieved? The answer, found In the Torah’s description of the Yom Kippur service, is through cleansing. The focus of that service is the sprinkling of the blood in the Temple sanctuary. This sprinkling cleanses the Temple which has become impure as a result of our sins. Yom Kippur, then, is cleansing not ourselves, but the world around us, the world that we, through our actions or inactions, have allowed to become sullied, unjust, impure.
This is true both in our personal world and the world at large. On the personal scale, our sins and misdeeds, our insensitivities and inattention, may have hurt others. They may have impacted our marriage, our home life, our friendships. All of this needs to be cleansed and restored.
On a more global scale, there is so much that we need to purify: the air that we breathe, the vitriol that pollutes our discourse and prevents us from seeing our shared humanity, the structures of inequality and injustice that pervade our lives. With drive, dedication, and courage, we can and must work to achieve the return to God that we so badly need.
As the Kohen once a year had the opportunity to enter the Holy of Holies to be at one with God, we also have an opportunity on this day to begin to effect change: to look at things anew, to purify what has become polluted, and to create a more Godly society so that we, and the world, can be one with God.
The teshuvah that I ask us to work on this Yom Kippur is the teshuvah of returning to God and of restoring the world. Let our teshuvah be our concrete commitment to do our part to make both our personal world and the larger world clean and pure, to make these worlds ones that support and nurture life for all.
Gmar Chatimah Tovah!