05. The Power of Yom Kippur to Atone for the Individual

A spirit of purity and atonement extends to every Jew through the general holiness and atonement of Israel on Yom Kippur, enabling him to cling to God more strongly, free himself from the impurity of sins and iniquities, and repent. Accordingly, there is a distinct mitzva for each and every individual to repent on Yom Kippur, as we read, “For on this day, atonement shall be made for you to purify you of all your sins; you shall purify yourselves before the Lord” (Vayikra 16:30). The repentance and atonement of each individual is an extension of the collective atonement that this verse describes (Sha’arei Teshuva 4:17; MT, Laws of Repentance 2:7).

On Yom Kippur, repentance is more readily accepted than it is during the rest of the year. The severity of a sin depends upon the degree of wantonness with which it was done, which indicates how distant a person is from God and Torah. On Yom Kippur, when the gates of heaven are open, the covenant between God and the Jews is revealed, and the soul’s light shines brightly, it becomes clear that fundamentally every Jew wishes to be close to God, do His will, observe His mitzvot, be good, and study Torah. When he stumbles and sins, it is due to the seductions of the evil inclination, the daily grind, and material needs, all of which hide the divine light. Even if someone sins knowingly, the knowledge is not absolute, as he lacks awareness of his innermost desires. The more a person connects with the sanctity of the Jewish people as a whole on Yom Kippur, the more he uncovers his innermost desires, flowing from the root of his soul. This lessens the severity of his sins, iniquities, and transgressions. Knowing sins are reclassified as unknowing, and unknowing sins as though committed under duress. Therefore, it is easier for him to regret his sins and repent, undertaking to be better.

While the primary focus of Yom Kippur and its prayers is the Jewish people as a whole, this does not detract from the individual’s repentance. On the contrary, by tapping into the sanctity of klal Yisrael, the individual is able to fully repent. Similarly, the individual’s repentance for his sins need not detract from his prayers for the revelation of the Shekhina and the well-being of klal Yisrael, as each individual who returns to God increases the holiness and blessing of klal Yisrael.

Based on this, we can understand why the confessions we recite on Yom Kippur are in the plural even though no one has committed all the sins mentioned. For Yom Kippur is a day of atonement for the entire people. While each individual becomes closer to the root of his soul, he also becomes more connected with klal Yisrael, asking that everyone be granted atonement and forgiveness for their sins. Thus he repents for his personal sins (7:4 below).

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