Ask the Rabbi: How Do We Atone for Sins Without the Temple?

The Question:

If the Beis HaMigdash (temple) is no longer standing, how can you atone for sins? — A.R.

The Answer:

This question of “atonement” is widely misunderstood, and should be clarified in general.

The holy Hebrew language is very rich in technical terms describing various categories of violations or transgressions, all of which are bewilderingly translatable as “sin.” Perhaps the most common generic term, covering all categories, is the word ‘avon, formed on a root whose fundamental meaning is “to be bent, warped, crooked.” Thus a “sin” is something that causes a warping of the metaphysical fabric that underpins the physical universe in which we live and the social fabric of our society at the same time.

This established, then, how is it possible to straighten out what has become bent, warped, and crooked?

Both the term kippur, widely translated as “atonement,” and the related term kappara reflect on the culmination of a long process for which the proper term is tëshuva. Though often translated “repentance,” the root meaning of the word is “return, come back.” Tëshuva, then, is a return to a previous, pristine state in which the warp or snag in the universe’s fabric does not exist.

The process of tëshuva begins with the recognition that one has done something wrong and the acknowledgment of that wrong act. Having acknowledged it, one must proceed to regret that the act was performed. The next stage is to seek to make amends or restoration, if possible, depending upon the nature of the sin; in any case, to seek forgiveness from the aggrieved party, whether we are dealing with a transgression against another person or with a transgression against G-d alone. One must then resolve firmly never to do again what one has done, such that, when the opportunity to do such a thing again presents itself, one resists the temptation.

It must be emphasized that if one has committed some transgression against another human being, restoration must be offered and forgiveness sought from the aggrieved person. The holiday of Yom haKippurim, the “Day of Atonements,” only works for those things which are affronts to G-d, and then only works if it comes as the culmination of the process of tëshuva, for which the preceding month of Elul is set aside.

Only after all of that does kippur enter into the picture.

The Talmud tells us that éyn mitha bëlo chét’ vë’éyn yissurin bëlo ‘avon (“there is no death without transgression and no suffering without sin,” Shabbath 55a). Even for a sin of negligence, a chét’ (one of those technical terms mentioned above), the consequence is death.

The actual meaning of the word kippur becomes clear when we note that a more basic form of the root underlies the word kofer. Kofer occurs in Exodus XXX, 1-16 in reference to the half-sheqel donation, which is described as kofer nafsho la-Shem: “a ransom of one’s love to Ha-Shem.” A ransom is something offered en lieu of something else. Kippur is the verbal noun of a factitive verb which establishes a state of “ransomedness,” if I may coin a term. This is accomplished by substituting an animal for a human life. The underlying principle (to use the example of a chét’) is that a sin of negligence has occurred because, for a brief moment, one has abdicated one’s responsibility to exercise conscious control over one’s animal nature. The sacrifice of the animal comes in place of one’s own physical life.

This is alluded in the most common word for “sacrifice” in the holy language, qorban, whose root meaning is “approach, be near, close.” The purpose of qorbanoth is to re-establish the previous state of closeness to Ha-Shem which existed before the performance of the chét’. It comes as the culmination of the process of tëshuva, and is simply a pointless exercise without it.

The entire process of tëshuva is possible only because the universe is fundamentally discontinuous. Every morning, devout Jews refer to G-d as hamëchaddésh bëtuvo bëchol yom tamid ma‘asé bëréshith (“He Who renews in His goodness every day, constantly, the act of Creation”). Every day the universe is created anew, and we have the ability to take advantage of this new re-creation to disown the transgressions of the past. To undertake the process of tëshuva, and thus to restore the fabric of the universe to a state in which the warp has not occurred and does not exist, if we but will it, and act accordingly.

We now come upon an understanding of our question: In the absence of the Temple, what do we do now? We can no longer bring the relevant animal qorbanoth.

The Talmud (Ta‘anith 27b) tells us that Avraham asked this question at the time he entered into the covenant known as the Bërith béyn habëtharim, the “covenant between the halves” (cf. Genesis XV). He first asked what his descendants would be able to do to correct sins, and was informed that they should take kosher animals just as he had done for this covenant and offer them as qorbanoth.

He then said that he foresaw a time when there would not be a Temple; what would they be able to do then? And G-d replied that, in that time, they would still be able to recite the passages mandating and describing the qorbanoth; if they at least did that, as the culmination of the entire process of tëshuva, it would be accepted as a kappara. This also finds allusion in the words of the prophet Hoshéa’, when he says of tëshuva: Nëshallëma parim sëfatheinu, “We shall pay cattle [with] our lips,” XIV, 3).

And so we read those passages and meditate upon them every morning and every afternoon, as part of the order of daily prayer.