As we have seen, Yom Kippur reveals the inviolable connection between God and Israel. This connection leads to communal atonement and purification, even without repentance. As a result, the world continues to exist and advances toward redemption. However, the Gemara records a dispute as to how this relates to the atonement of the individual. R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi maintains that an individual is forgiven without repentance, while the other Sages maintain that repentance is a prerequisite for Yom Kippur’s atonement (Yoma 85b).
According to R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi, the fundamental atonement of Yom Kippur extends to each and every Jew, even if he neither repents nor observes the day. Since he has undergone the day, he is absolved from punishments such as karet or death at the hands of heaven. (See Keritot 7a.) This is because the atonement is the result of divine fiat, rooted in the eternal connection between God and His people Israel. Therefore, even if someone declares that he does not want Yom Kippur to atone for him, he is forgiven against his will. For a person cannot say to his king, “I do not want you to rule over me” (y. Shevu’ot 1:6). God has decided to forgive the sins of the Jews on Yom Kippur, and so it is.
However, it is clear that even according to R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi, when a person sins, he damages his soul. This prevents him from drawing close to God and taking pleasure in the glory of the Shekhina in this world and the next. The extent of the distance depends on the extent of the damage. In the absence of repentance or suffering, this damage is not erased even after he undergoes Yom Kippur.
It is important to be aware that there are three types of suffering in this world: The first type of suffering is meant to purify a person and purge him of his sins. The second type of suffering is meant as a wake-up call, encouraging a person to repent and directing him toward the right path. Fundamentally, these types of suffering are motivated by love. R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi and the other Sages do not disagree about them. R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi agrees that these types of suffering will not be obviated by Yom Kippur, since their purpose is to help people. The more a person purifies himself by repenting on Yom Kippur, the more able he is to avoid these, as they are rendered unnecessary.
The third type of suffering is meant to punish and stems from divine justice. God created good and evil. He created forces of good, empowering them to reward those who perform mitzvot, and He created forces of evil, empowering them to punish sinners. There are many detailed rules pertaining to the punishments, all in accordance with the severity of the sin. It is true that these punishments also purify a person and may even direct him toward the proper path. However, their primary purpose is to carry out justice, punishing sinners who damage the world and the honor of heaven. Even though sometimes a delay in punishment would allow a person time to repent and correct his failings, that is irrelevant if the rules of justice demand that he be punished. What is good for him is no longer part of the equation. Rather, he is punished in accordance with strict justice.
According to R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi, this type of suffering is obviated on Yom Kippur even without repentance. If a person is deserving of heavenly punishment, undergoing Yom Kippur erases it. He can turn over a new leaf, and he is not held accountable for his earlier sins. He is subject only to those punishments that will be most helpful for his correction and purification – about which there is no disagreement between R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi and the other Sages.
Additionally, R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi agrees that if someone denies one of the three fundamentals of faith, Yom Kippur does not atone for him and does not save him from the third type of suffering, as we read, “Because he has spurned the word of the Lord and violated His commandment, that person shall be cut off – he bears his guilt” (Bamidbar 15:31). Those deemed to be denying fundamentals of faith are: A) One who casts off the yoke of heaven, meaning he denies the God of Israel; B) one who misrepresents the Torah, meaning he dares to falsify and degrade it; C) one who violates the covenant of circumcision, meaning he does not circumcise his son or tries to hide the fact that he himself is circumcised. In other words, Yom Kippur does not atone for someone who denies God, misrepresents the Torah, or denies his Jewish identity (Yoma 85b; Shevu’ot 13a).
The first two types of suffering, which come to atone, purify, and inspire repentance, are addressed in Sha’arei Teshuva 2:3-5 and Derekh Hashem 2:3, 5. It seems clear that R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi would agree that Yom Kippur does not eliminate these two types of suffering, since they are meant to help people. Along these lines, Tosafot Yeshanim state that R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi would agree that Yom Kippur does not bring about complete atonement if it is not accompanied by repentance (Yoma 85b, s.v. “teshuva”). R. David Pardo says something similar as well (Ḥasdei David, Tosefta Yoma 4:8). He explains that according to R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi, the atonement of Yom Kippur obviates punishment in this world, but not in the next, as punishment in the next world is necessary for purification.
The third type of suffering is the work of the accusing angel (satan) and his forces of evil, which God created in order to eliminate evil from the world. In the heavenly court, they testify to people’s evil deeds and demand that they be punished. Thus, Zohar explains that the prosecutor has the power to block the shefa at the beginning of the year and to demand justice. God provided the Jews with a strategy to combat this – blowing the shofar (Zohar, Ra’aya Mehemna III 98b). Mabit in Beit Elokim (Sha’ar Ha-teshuva 9) writes something similar, as does R. Ḥayim of Volozhin in Nefesh Ha-ḥayim 1:12.
On the collective level, it would also seem that everything that happens to the holy Jewish people always serves to purify them and improve the world. This is true even when the Jews are being tormented and it seems that God has deserted them. This is true even when the suffering seems like vengeance being exacted by a very unforgiving justice that does not distinguish between the righteous and the wicked. All of it is rooted in mercy and compassion; its goal is to purify and improve. This idea can explain the root of the suffering of an individual Jew as well.