04. Atonement on Yom Kippur and the Covenant with Israel

Yom Kippur is founded upon the covenant that God forged with our forefathers Avraham, Yitzḥak, and Yaakov, sustained through the mitzva of circumcision, strengthened when God delivered Israel from Egypt, and sealed when God gave us the Torah. The continued existence of the world depends on this covenant, as the Sages say, “God made a condition with creation and said, ‘If Israel accepts the Torah, you will continue to exist; if not, I will return the world to chaos’” (Shabbat 88a). This is because the entire purpose of creation is for Israel to reveal God’s word, as we read, “This people I formed for Myself that they might declare My praise” (Yeshayahu 43:21). Similarly, the Sages say, “The heavens and the earth were created only in the merit of Israel” (Vayikra Rabba 36:4).

This covenant was revealed to the Jews on Yom Kippur, when God completely forgave the sin of the Golden Calf and renewed His covenant with Israel by giving them the second set of Tablets and commanding them to build the Mishkan so that His presence could dwell in their midst (Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer 46; Tanḥuma, Teruma §8 and Ki Tisa §31).

This covenant is not dependent upon the deeds of Israel. Rather, it is linked to the unique soul with which God endowed Israel, a soul that, at its root, longs to improve the world by revealing divine light. This is the meaning of the verse, “For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God; of all the peoples on earth, the Lord your God chose you to be His treasured people” (Devarim 7:6). Similarly, we read, “For the Lord has chosen Yaakov for Himself, Israel, as His treasured possession” (Tehilim 135:4). Therefore, no matter how much Israel sins, the covenant will never be invalidated, as we read, “For the Lord will not forsake His people; He will not abandon His very own” (ibid. 94:14), and “For the sake of His great name, the Lord will never abandon His people, seeing that the Lord undertook to make you His people” (1 Shmuel 12:22).

However, if Israel sins they are punished with terrible suffering, and the more they sin the more terrible and severe the punishments are. This is in order to purify them and lead them to repent. But the Jews will never be able to abrogate the divine covenant. As we read:

And what you have in mind shall never come to pass – when you say, “We will be like the nations, like the families of the lands, worshiping wood and stone.” As I live – declares the Lord God – I will reign over you with a strong hand, and with an outstretched arm and overflowing fury. With a strong hand and an outstretched arm and overflowing fury I will bring you out from the peoples and gather you from the lands where you are scattered, and I will bring you into the wilderness of the peoples; and there I will enter into judgment with you face to face…. I will make you pass under the shepherd’s staff, and I will bring you into the bond of the covenant. (Yeḥezkel 20:32-27).

In general, the world is governed by the principles of justice, for God ordained at the time of the world’s creation that the world would be governed according to people’s actions. When they choose good, goodness is increased; when they choose evil, goodness is minimized and suffering increases. Based on this, it would seem that if sin were to increase beyond a certain point, it would destroy the world. Yom Kippur precludes this; the gates of heaven are opened, supernal divine rule is revealed, the sins of Israel are forgiven at their roots, and the world endures and progresses toward its ultimate redemption. Nevertheless, the rule of justice is not abrogated. Any sin or iniquity that was not corrected through repentance is punished. If the sins are great and many, the punishments will be very hard to bear, but they will improve and refine Israel. This is explained in the Torah, Nevi’im (the Prophets), and the Sages: Even if Israel does not repent, the promised redemption will arrive. The choice is ours whether it will arrive speedily and joyfully or (God forbid) at the end of a long, hard road of terrible suffering.

Since the atonement of Yom Kippur is rooted in the uniqueness of Israel, all the prayers and confessions we recite are in the plural. They are collective, asking God to forgive our sins, draw us closer to His service, and reveal His presence to us so that we can reveal His glory and guidance to the world. As a result, blessing flows in the world to the Jewish people, to each individual Jew, and to all the earth’s inhabitants.

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