By Noam Sandweiss-Back and Dan Jones
During Yom Kippur, we atone and seek forgiveness for our transgressions. For Jews, both observant and less so, the day carries a special weight of obligation and solemnity. For many, including ourselves, we were taught to understand Yom Kippur in this way: ten days after Rosh Hashanah, it is the sabbath of sabbaths, our holiest day and last chance for repentance. As children, we watched the adults of our lives as they sought the pardon of their loved ones and, perhaps, that too of God. And yet, while our attention is often on personal atonement made in public, our tradition suggests that the confessions we make and the resolution we seek during Yom Kippur have a much broader scope and substance.
It is on Yom Kippur, after all, that we discover the Viddui, the confessional prayer recited every night and before death, entirely anew. Rather than address our wrongdoings silently and individually, we beat our chests as we declare them out-loud and in the first-person plural — “for the wrong that we have done before you…”. That we are responsible for the wrongs that we have committed is evident enough, but we must also ask: what is the content of our communal transgressions? The resonance of many fists meeting chests demands that we look further to understand what it means to atone in the shadow of Yom Kippur, or what the Torah refers to as “Yom Ha’kippurim”; to wrestle with the ways we have deviated from the path laid out by our forebearers and by God.
The roots of Yom Kippur are closely tied to the priestly and Temple traditions of Leviticus. It is in Leviticus 16 that the rituals of Yom Kippur are fully described, which center on animal sacrifice and clearing away the residue of sin from the holy site of worship of the Israelites, as well as confessing all the sins of the community and “putting them on the head” of a goat, which is then sent out into the wilderness. The day is described as a sabbath of sabbaths (shabbat shabbaton): a day to “humble/afflict yourselves” and on which everyone ceases all manner of work.
There is another practice associated with the holiday, described in Leviticus 25, this time in the context of the Levitical shemitah and jubilee laws. The shemitah refers to a cycle in which every seven years, “the land shall have a sabbath of sabbaths” (another shabbat shabbaton). Sowing fields and pruning vines is forbidden and everyone — free, enslaved, bonded laborers, and even cattle and other animals — are called to live off of what the land produces. All are to share in the abundance of the world. After counting off “seven weeks of years,” on Yom Kippur of that fiftieth year we are instructed to sound the shofar and “proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you…” (Lev. 25:10).
On this day, debt slaves are to be freed and people who had to sell their land in order to survive, or who took out a mortgage and were foreclosed on, are to be restored to their homes. And God makes it clear why this must be so: “For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants: they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt.” (Lev. 25:55). Here, we are reminded of the freedom that is at the core of our covenant with God; that we were emancipated from a system and theology of domination and that we now serve a God concerned with liberation and the reordering of society around the needs of those who have been dispossessed and made poor.
These two central practices of Yom Kippur appear so different from one another, but together they communicate a powerful idea of what atonement meant in biblical times and what it must mean for us today. Foremost is the immense scope of each of these observances. Yom Kippur is not a day for narrow and private thinking nor is it concerned with petty or individual wrongs. The sins of the whole community are not the simple sum of the sins of its individuals; there are other rituals in Leviticus for making atonement for personal transgressions. In Leviticus 16, the ritual is about nothing less than making space in our community for the presence of the divine to dwell among us in peace. It is about recognizing the sins of an entire people and committing ourselves to returning to righteousness — to the ways of God. Yom Kippur is a day to indict the whole community.
And in Leviticus 25, we see that Yom Kippur is also a day to give life to the most elevated and concentrated expression of the sabbath. It is the shabbat shabbaton. It is the day of not only rest, but of release: of liberty throughout the land for all of its inhabitants and of a radical redistribution of economic power. On this day, we make right that which has gone wrong, on the largest scale. The Yom Kippur of Leviticus 25 articulates God’s jealousy and indignation: how dare another make of someone a servant, when the only lord is God? If Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year, then holy is the land with no servants and no masters. What we encounter here is a foundational expression of a societal program of justice that, in our faithfulness to God, we are beholden to.
Together, these traditions teach us about the real stakes of transgression and atonement: Yom Kippur is a gigantic day, having in its vision the actions and the fate of the entire society. In it we find both great hope and warning. We see the possibility of kippur— “to cover”, “to appease”, “to atone” — through the kind of fundamental social change required of us to turn away from sin and restore the social order of God. But, in Leviticus 26, directly after the shemitah and jubilee laws, we are also told by God of the consequences of our failure to “keep My Sabbaths and venerate My sanctuary” – two of the fundamental themes of Yom Kippur. Our world will be turned upside-down and we will live in desolation and waste. And yet even here, we are assured that in the wake of destruction, we can choose to confess our sins and make amends for our wrongdoing. These are the stakes and the results of our actions, which come to us in their sharpest form on Yom Kippur.
These consequences — what happens when we deviate from the path of God, desecrate the sabbath and the sanctuary and all they represent, and refuse to make atonement — should sound familiar to us today. We live in a time of unprecedented abundance and yet we are also confronted with escalating suffering, violence, war, poverty and hunger, displacement, and ecological devastation. Looking at the teachings of our ancestors, it could be said that we are living in the midst of God’s anger. And if that is the case, then Yom Kippur is a day to ask ourselves how we can turn back that anger and find guidance on what it would mean to really atone. The possibility of atonement is always held out for us, if we would only listen and understand the depth and nature of our transgressions.
This is the heart of Yom Kippur, and in the Torah and among our prophets we find more teachings that we can hold onto closely and that can help to reorient us as we navigate the crises of our time and seek to understand the meanings of communal sin and atonement.
One is the Exodus teaching on the golden calf. Our sages tell us that after the Israelites melt down their precious metals and abandon God, Moses goes back to Mount Sinai and returns with the second set of tablets, on the 10th day of Tishrei — Yom Kippur. And in the story itself, as Moses makes his way back to God to ask for forgiveness after smashing the golden idol, he says to the gathered Israelites: “You have been guilty of a great sin. Yet I will now go up to the Lord; perhaps I may cover over [from the same root as kippur] your sin” (Exodus 32:30).
And what is this “great sin,” which demands atonement? Moses describes it to God in the next verse as “making for themselves a god of gold.” And why is this such a great sin? The prophet Isaiah teaches us:
Their land is full of silver and gold,
There is no limit to their treasures;
Their land is full of horses,
There is no limit to their chariots.
And their land is full of idols;
They bow down to the work of their hands,
To what their own fingers have wrought. (Isaiah 2:7-9)
This is the great sin of idolatry: not just the act of making a god out of gold but, in the process, of making gold into God. In Hebrew, there is one word – avodah – for both worship and service/servitude. Bowing down to idols means a rejection of the divine and a worshiping/serving of treasure, war and the instruments of war. It means worshipping the production of wealth instead of putting the work of humanity at the service of a program of justice and freedom. This was the practice in Egypt under Pharaoh and in Canaan under the oppressive kings against whom ancient Israel forged itself. And this is the sin of capitalism and global imperialism today: worshiping wealth and reducing the world’s people to servants of wealth.
The consequences of this sin are violence and suffering. In fact, when Moses first discovers the golden calf, God threatens to wipe out the whole people and start over. After destroying the idol himself, Moses intervenes and affirms for us the hope and possibility of atonement, saying to God: “Now if you will forgive their sin well and good; but if not, erase me from the record which You have written!” (Ex 32:32). Even still, though God relents from completely wiping out the Israelites, the divine presence is withheld from the Israelite camp until the covenant is renewed and accepted by the people. According to the sages, this is what happens on the day of Yom Kippur. And the very next thing the Israelites do is give up all of their wealth — their gold, silver, and copper, their fine cloths and animal skins, their valuable woods, oils, spices, incense, and precious stones — not to create a new idol to worship, but to create a dwelling for their new Law and for the divine at the very center of their life: the ark of the Tabernacle and its enclosure. And these are the very same sacred objects that are the focus of the Yom Kippur cleansing and confessional rituals in Leviticus 16.
This gives another layer of meaning to those rituals and to our own observance of Yom Kippur today. When we atone on Yom Kippur, when we ask ourselves how we can possibly turn back God’s anger, we find that it is indeed possible, but only if we grind up golden idols and make our world a place where the divine can dwell among us. And that is about how we structure our society, organize our labor, and honor the abundance of the world through the abolition of poverty and injustice. If Yom Kippur is the highest day for keeping the sabbath and venerating God’s sanctuary, then it is also for rejecting the servitude of one person to another or of humanity to wealth, and proclaiming release to the poor. It is the day to confess our sins, cast them out to the wilderness, and recommit the works of humanity to the service of God’s presence in our world: the presence of justice.
This lesson, about the core meaning of our atonement, is hidden in plain sight during the beginning of Yom Kippur. The haftarah reading for the morning service, Isaiah 58, is a second teaching for those of us seeking to understand what “kippur” demands of us today. In it we read:
Cry with full throat, without restraint;
Raise your voice like a ram’s horn!
Declare to my people their transgression,
To the House of Jacob their sin
To be sure, they seek Me daily,
Eager to learn My ways
Like a nation that does what is right
That has not abandoned the laws of its God
They ask Me for the right way
They are eager for the nearness of God
“Why, when we fasted, did You not see?
When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?”
Because on your fast day
You see to your business
And oppress all your laborers!
Because you fast in strife and contention,
And you strike with a wicked fist!
Your fasting today is not such
As to make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast I desire,
A day for men to starve
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush
And lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call that a fast,
A day when the Lord is favorable?
No, this is that fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.
It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to ignore your own kin.
Then shall your light burst through like the dawn
And your healing spring up quickly;
Your Vindicator shall march before you,
The Presence of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then, when you call, the LORD will answer;
When you cry, He will say: Here I am.
If you banish the yoke from your midst,
The menacing hand, and evil speech,
And you offer your compassion to the hungry
And satisfy the famished creature-
Then shall your light shine in darkness,
And your gloom shall be like noonday. (Isaiah 58:1-12).
Here, the school of Isaiah uses some of the exact same language as the editors of Leviticus, criticizing a rote, narrow, and spiritualistic interpretation of the rituals of Yom Kippur and demanding that we reconsider what it means to worship, serve, and come near to God. The root word for humbled/afflicted, used both here and in Leviticus 16, is anah. And the word translated here as “bodies” and in Leviticus 16 as “self,” is the word nefesh, which can be translated many ways, but here should be taken as referring to the totality of a person: their emotions, appetites, body, and soul. Their life and being.
It is on the morning of our contemporary Yom Kippur that Isaiah tells us what kind of humbling of our being is required of us to make atonement: “Give to the hungry your nefesh; and the nefesh of the afflicted [from anah], satisfy.” We read the haftorah and remind ourselves that fasting and going through the motions of ancient rituals is not enough. Yom Kippur is not a day to clear our conscience through confession and the commitment to do better in the future. Yom Kippur is a day to humble/afflict ourselves by giving our whole being to the afflicted. And what does that really mean except to “unlock the fetters of wickedness and untie the cords of the yoke. To let the oppressed go free…”? We seek and find atonement not through words and self-deprivation, but by building a society that rejects the theology of idol worship: a society that lives the values of shabbat and shabbat shabbaton. “Then, when you call, the LORD will answer; When you cry, He will say: Here I am.” (Isaiah 58:9)
This is an existential challenge to both the oppressive systems that structure our lives and to the ways that we as a society address oppression. When Isaiah invokes the giving of nefesh, it is about far more than charity: it is about a binding of life to life, about a social solidarity that is centered around the lives of those most afflicted. What Isaiah implores of us is a revolution of our values and practices and a complete reorientation of the substance and direction of our communal lives. This is a radical grounding for our atonement and it is echoes through the ages the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who, in our own recent past, questioned society’s relationship and response to hunger, homelessness, and poverty:
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth…and say “This is not just.”
“A Time to Break Silence,” Riverside Church, New York City, April 4, 1967
When Rev. Dr. King spoke these words, he and community leaders from across the country were at the beginning of a revolutionary and often forgotten political project: The Poor People’s Campaign. This was an attempt to organize the bottom of society, across lines of race and other division, into a power that could be a new and unsettling force in the nation. And it reflected the vision of Rev. Dr. King and his own articulation of the giving of nefesh — perhaps even his own understanding of atonement itself:
I choose to identify with the underprivileged. I choose to identify with the poor. I choose to give my life for the hungry. I choose to give my life for those who have been left out… This is the way I’m going. If it means suffering a little bit, I’m going that way… If it means dying for them, I’m going that way
Cited in Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero by Vincent Harding
Choosing to identify with the poor, for Rev. Dr. King, was not motivated by a vague sense of compassion, but from an understanding of what it would take to restructure society around the needs of the many and of who would necessarily be the leading force in that restructuring. In Rev. Dr. King’s time this was the poor and dispossessed, who lived in deep suffering and “had little or nothing to lose” within the existing world order. The same is no doubt true today.
When we talk about the kind of fasting God desires of us today, it means giving ourselves to the 140 million people who are poor or low-income in this nation, the richest in the history of the world. In just the last few years alone, we have been confronted with a relentless program of austerity; the dissolution of already weakened programs for the poor; an unprecedented tax cut for the rich; attacks on the right to vote and to protest; physical and policy violence against women, communities of color and immigrants, and our own Jewish communities; endless wars abroad and the threat of more; and the hottest years on record coupled with ever-stronger storms, the poisoning of poor communities across the country, and failing utilities. And undergirding these daily crises is a structural crisis of capital that threatens billions more around the world.
Within the social ruptures that this instability has wrought have re-emerged many old evils, including anti-semitism. The Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh and other acts of violence against Jews have ripped open the tender scar-tissue of the traumas of our near-past. We are witness to a rhetoric and politics that are reminiscent of, when not directly borrowing from, old regimes of violence and prejudice, and which have only magnified the ongoing terror and struggle of working-class Jews, Jews of color, and others in our communities in this country and around the world.
The dynamics of anti-semitism shift according to time and place, and this changing reality can obscure its structural role. Across history, anti-semitism has been used to create a buffer class whose most privledged are used to consolidate the power of the ruling class in times of stability and who, as a whole, are demonized and made into a scapegoat in times of crisis. If Jews can be blamed for the failures of the system, then the system itself, as well as the ruling class, avoid exposure.
The recent right-wing obsession with the conspiracy theory that George Soros is somehow behind the massive flow of refugees from Central America, and more broadly that Jews are seeking to replace the white middle class with poor people of color, is a telling example of this aspect of anti-semitism united with white supremacy. It hides the reality of the violent offensive of global capitalism, carried out through the policies of the US state, around the world: causing hunger, displacement, the denial of democracy, and street violence in Central America and across the Global South on the one hand; and wage stagnation, endless debt, and downward mobility among growing sections of the US population, including historically privileged sections, on the other. Anti-semitism, in close relationship with white supremacy, binds the middle-income social base of the ruling class to capitalism, even as their conditions of life continue to worsen as a result of that system.
On Yom Kippur, we are called to understand the brokenness of our world, including growing anti-semitism, in terms of transgression and atonement. Not in the sense that Jews have somehow brought anti-semitism upon ourselves, but in the sense that a society that abandons God’s way of justice grows increasingly despesrate, hateful, and violent. We can’t see anti-semitism as somehow separate from the escalating crises in our whole society – crises that won’t be resolved except through atonement on the scale demanded by the teachings of Exodus, of Leviticus, and of Isaiah. This atonement demands that we reject the idols of capitalism and imperialism and grind them into dust; that we recommit our whole society to God’s program of justice and the values of shabbat shabbaton and jubilee; and that we seek a home for the divine presence in our world by giving our whole selves to the afflicted, breaking every yoke, and letting the oppressed go free.
That means unity with everyone who is used and pressed into servitude by this system, and above all the poor and dispossessed. Today, one leading example of this is the nascent unity being forged through the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival (PPC). Launched nearly two years ago, the PPC has picked up the unfinished work of Dr. King and his last campaign, and has begun to build a broad fusion movement to organize moral outrage around systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, militarism and the war economy, and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism. From Alaska to Arkansas, the Bronx to the Border, leaders with the PPC are working to break through the divisions of our communities and the silos of our particular issues, in order to form a united force, with the demands of the poor and dispossessed in the lead. This is about moving beyond the framework of “left” and “right” and instead grappling with the very structures that control the vast majority of the people in this country and around the world.
This is our real hope for atonement today – unity with the poor. Only this kind of movement can bring about the kind of change that will bring our society in line with God’s demands for justice. But there has also been in our communities the tendency to seek refuge in insularity and tribalism: attempts to address our hurt and fear by looking inward, by diagnosing our pain as a cause in itself, rather than as a symptom of a global structure of oppression – a structure increasingly in crisis and forced to lash out in order to protect itself.
This has taken its most extreme form in the Israeli nationalism that continues to quite successfully monopolize world Judaism. Here in America, we are told that Israel is where Jews should look for protection in these violent times, and that the Zionist political project is our best defense against anti-semitism. And this is supposed to justify the dispossession of millions of Palestinians, the denial of self-determination, of freedom, and even existence to an entire people. But this project has walked hand-in-hand with the idolatry of global capitalism; it is a significant part of the very edifice which must be restructured if we are to truly atone.
And perhaps what is the least understood is that Israeli nationalism and the Occupation, much like the militaristic and imperialist policies of the US, has also produced a domestic society that is overcome with startling need, poverty, and inequality. According to a recent study, almost one-quarter of Israelis are poor or nearly poor, including not just Arab-Israelis, but also laboring immigrant communities and many Jews (Mizrachi, Sephardic, and Ashkenazi). These measurements count only those who live below the official poverty line or 25% above it, a vastly limited calculus considering what it would actually take for people to live a stable life in a country that is paying low-wages, rapidly privatizing social services and programs, and hemming in the power of labor.
No project of insular Jewish solidarity can win atonement for the global transgressions and the oppressive systems of our world. In a time of God’s anger such as this, no amount of guns, missiles, and soldiers can protect us from the consequences. As Jews, we can and must choose to honor the teachings and aspirations of our forebearers, fight for a world that is safe for our children, and join in the collective search — our communal atonement —for a world free from oppression. We can always turn away from the worship of false idols and the tools of bondage and death and go and seek God where the divine always dwells: among the poor in the struggle for freedom.