The eleventh of the 13 principles of faith as articulated by Maimonides, states that G-d rewards those who keep His commandments and punishes those who transgress them. This concept is often used to misconstrue G-d as “vengeful” by other religions. But nothing could be further from the truth. Imagine a parent who allows his or her child to do as the child pleases, with no guidance or boundaries. Now, imagine the parent who watches carefully over his or her child, setting up parameters for what is allowed and what is not, what is safe and what is not, for what is befitting and what is not. Which is the more conscientious parent? Obviously the second parent.
A healthy parent balances the natural love he or she has for the child with the firmness needed to make sure the child grows up right. He or she provides positive reinforcement for good choices, and negative reinforcement for poor choices, ensuring that the child will learn from the consequences of his or her actions. Parents who absolve their children of all responsibility for their behavior are not being loving; they are being negligent. On the other hand, parents who do not given their children the opportunity to make amends, to restore trust, and to rebuild relationships are depriving their children of opportunity that G-d readily extends to His children.
G-d has bestowed His Kindness upon us by making teshuvah (repentance) and kapparah (atonement) possible.
In the Torah, the principle of atonement stands as a beacon of hope and clarity. This principle emphasizes that the path to forgiveness is not only achievable but also direct, with no need for intermediaries, as we find in other faiths. It is a concept that underscores the deep, parental relationship between the Divine and each individual and highlights the critical role of personal responsibility in the journey of atonement.
We find that one of the foundational messages is that no one is beyond the reach of G-d’s mercy.
In the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 55:6), we find the exhortation: “Seek Hashem when He can be found; call upon Him when He is near.” The verse is often used to describe the months of Elul and Tishrei, when repentance is given more emphasis. Interestingly, a verse in Psalms (139:8), states, “if I ascend to the heavens, You are there, and if I make my bed in hell, You are there”. This expands the scope of G-d’s Prescence: He is everywhere, at all times. These verses encapsulate the essence of direct access to G-d for forgiveness. It reminds us that Divine forgiveness is available when we sincerely seek it.
Moreover, Leviticus 18:5 proclaims that “a man [Ha-Adam] does [the statutes and laws], he shall live through them.” Notice the use of “man” rather than “Israelite” in this context. It emphasizes that these moral guidelines are accessible to all, transcending distinctions of faith or background. For Jews, it entails the 613 mitzvot, while for non-Jews, it encompasses the Noahide path—the universal moral code that comprises the commandments and ethics incumbent upon all peoples. These principles serve as the foundation for personal responsibility in living a righteous life.
In discussing Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, the Talmud emphasizes that it is a day of atonement for those who genuinely repent. To be sure, it underscores that atonement is not merely a ritualistic act but a sincere transformation of the heart. The Talmud also clarifies that Yom Kippur atones for sins against G-d and not for sins against fellow human beings, unless the injured party has been appeased. Now is the time to put things right.
The Torah and Talmud collectively emphasize that while G-d’s forgiveness is readily accessible, personal responsibility plays an integral role in the process of atonement. We must recognize our wrongdoings, express sincere remorse, and actively commit to self-improvement and reconciliation.
In a world marked by intermediaries and complex bureaucracies, the Torah’s message of direct atonement stands as a testament to the individual’s agency and accountability. It reminds us that, as active participants in the process, we have the power to effect change in our lives and relationships.
As we contemplate these teachings during moments of reflection and self-examination, let us remember the profound truth they convey: G-d’s mercy knows no bounds, and atonement is attainable for all who earnestly seek it. This combination of personal responsibility and direct Divine forgiveness serves as a guiding light, empowering us to strive for ethical living, personal growth, and ultimately, a deeper connection with the Divine.
Blessings for the New Year.
Good Shabbos! Shabbat Shalom!
By Rabbi Tani Burton
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