Judaism: Why Must I Say "I'm Sorry"?
Judaism is anything but easy. While most nations celebrate their New Year with drinking, partying and staying up late, we spend our New Year coronating God as king of the world, while we also engage in an extended process of self-evaluation and introspection. The entire period culminates with…that's right, a day of fasting spent entirely in shul.
Moreover, Teshuvah can be quite complicated. While repentance suffices for the sins I committed against God, the same cannot be said for the sins I committed against someone else. The Mishnah in Yoma (8:7) tells us that, עבירות שבין אדם למקום, יום הכיפורים מכפר – "Yom Kippur atones for sins between man and God". (Of course, you have to repent for Yom Kippur to work its magic.) But what about עבירות בין אדם לחבירו – "sins between man and his fellow man? Teshuvah is not enough. For these sins, we must do more.
The Mishnah tells us: Yom Kippur does not atone for [sins] between man and his fellow man until he appeases his friend. Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria extrapolated this idea from the following verse: 'From all your sins, before God, you shall be purified." (Vayikra 16:30) Yom Kippur atones for sins between man and God. [But] Yom Kippur does not atone for [sins] between man and his fellow man until he appeases his friend.
Indeed, Rambam (Hilchot Teshuvah 2:9) adopts this approach in Mishneh Torah, stating that you must first appease the victim of your sin before Yom Kippur can offer atonement.
We've always taken this fact for granted. After all, it makes intuitive sense, at least at first. How can God forgive you if you haven't even apologized to the person you hurt? And yet, the more I think about it, the less sense it seems to make. Why indeed should I have to apologize to the person I hurt? Let's assume that I stole money from a neighbor. I feel terrible about it, and vow never to repeat my sin. Moreover, I return the money, leaving an anonymous envelope full of cash on his doorstep. I've made him whole. I confessed my sin to God, and will truly never commit that sin again.
Why should I have to then go to the neighbor and confess? Why should my atonement hinge on his goodwill (or lack thereof), state of mind, and sensitivity?
Moreover, it's not so clear that the verse that Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria quotes says what we think it says. The verse he quotes says,
For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins shall you be clean before the Lord.
Read the last phrase again: "From all your sins shall you be clean before the Lord." It doesn't say "some". It says "all." This would seem to go against both the Mishnah and the Rambam. Yet, the translation really hinges on how you read the verse, and where you pause during the reading. I'll explain:
Option 1: If you read the phrase: מִכֹּל חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם, לִפְנֵי ה', תִּטְהָרוּ (with a pause after the word חטאתיכם), then the phrase means "from all your sins shall you be clean before the Lord."
Option 2: If you read it without a pause after the first two words the meaning changes dramatically: מִכֹּל חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם לִפְנֵי ה', תִּטְהָרוּ – "from all your sins [committed] before the Lord, you shall be clean."
Which reading is grammatically correct? When we check the trop (טעמי המקרא),
מִכֹּל֙ חַטֹּ֣אתֵיכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֥י ה֖' תִּטְהָֽרוּ
we see that there's a zakef katan – a small pause – after the words מכל חטאתיכם. Option 1 is correct. The Torah seems not to distinguish between different types of sins. At least according to the simple text, Yom Kippur offers atonement whether we apologize or not.
This, I believe, is why the Mishnah notes that Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria extrapolated this idea from the verse. It's not the simple meaning. The Mishnah says so explicitly. The Mishnah continues:
Rabbi Akiva says: Fortunate are you O Israel! Before whom do you purify yourselves? [And] who purifies you? Your Father in Heaven! As it is said: “I will sprinkle upon you pure water and you shall become purified” (Ezekiel 36:25), and it is further said: “The hope of Israel is the Lord” (Jeremiah 17:13), just as a mikvah purifies the defiled, so too, does the Holy one Blessed is He, purify Israel.
It's a famous quote, and a beautiful idea. But is it just a nice ending to the Masechet (it is the last Mishnah of Yoma), or is Rabbi Akiva chiming in on the previous issue? One could suggest that Rabbi Akiva is in fact arguing with Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria, and suggesting that Yom Kippur purifies everyone, for every sin – regardless of what category the sin falls in. In fact, this is exactly what the Sefer Meor Einayim (quoted by the Tosfot Yom Hakippurim) suggests:
"I saw in the book Meor Einayim who explained that Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria held that God does not offer atonement to someone with sins between himself and his fellow man – even for the sins he committed against God. Rabbi Akiva argues with him and it is his opinion that God atones even for sins committed against one's fellow man, even though he did not appease his friend. And [Meor Einayim's] words are not clear to me."
While the Tosfot Yom Hakippurim (and Rambam and pretty much everyone else) disagrees with Meor Einayim, the opinion is fascinating. Why indeed should my atonement hinge not only my asking for, but my receiving my friend's forgiveness? It's not enough just to ask; I have to actually make strenuous efforts to secure his forgiveness. Why is it so important that the person I hurt forgive me?
This is a great question to ask ourselves as we struggle to pick up the phone, call and offer a sincere apology before Yom Kippur.