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For this day (Yom Kippur) will atone for you - will purify you, from all your sins before G-dů It is a Sabbath of complete rest for you, and you shall afflict yourselves; it is an eternal decree (16:30-31).
The opening section of Acharei Mot details the elaborate procedures of the once-a-year occasion when the Kohen Gadol - the High Priest - entered the innermost, holiest sanctuary. It finishes by specifying that the annual occasion is on Yom Kippur, that Yom Kippur is the day on which G-d forgives, and that the Israelites are required to afflict themselves though fasting and by observing the other abstinences of that day. It does not refer to Yom Kippur by name, but instead as Shabbat Shabbaton, a Sabbath of complete rest.
The Sforno observes that the words chukat olam, an eternal decree, are used three times. This is to teach three essentials about Yom Kippur. Firstly, Yom Kippur demands fasting and not being allowed to work, even when there is a Temple service. Secondly, Yom Kippur must be observed even when a Temple service is not possible. Thirdly, Yom Kippur can always effect forgiveness, even when the Temple is no longer standing.
Only He can judge the sincerity of teshuva - the process of repentance. That is a reason that Yom Kippur is framed with Shabbat Shabbaton. Shabbat Shabbaton is being completely cut off from worldly occupations. That allows undivided attention, to plan and to take the first steps to teshuva, to self-improvement. The Sforno emphasizes that teshuva is the primary purpose of Yom Kippur. The Kohen Gadol and the Avodat Yom Kippurim - Yom Kippur Temple Service - enable G-d to be receptive to individuals' teshuva. But they do not fully effect kappara - atonement. The right frame of mind for that to happen has to be within the individual.
Elsewhere, the Torah declares that the person that does not fast (literally, self-afflict) on Yom Kippur shall "be cut off from his people", but if the person undermines the Shabbat Shabbaton and works on Yom Kippur, G-d will "destroy that soul from among its people" (23:29-30). The Sforno explains that the second is a much harsher judgment that the first. Eating on Yom Kippur reflects personal weakness, a lack of self-control. But working on Yom Kippur rejects the Shabbat Shabbaton, as an act of contempt towards the Creator.
It can also be that working on Yom Kippur carries the additional dimension of making teshuva impossible on that once-a-year occasion. For it is the not-working element that makes it possible for an individual to turn the mind to focus on past failings and resolve to improve on them in the future.
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Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
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