by Rabbi Alexander
The hallmark of Yom Kippur, and the main motif in almost all of our prayers on this day, is teshuvah, the sincere regret of our past misdeeds and the resolution to never repeat them again.
The hallmark of Yom Kippur, and the main motif in almost all of our prayers on this day, is teshuvah, the sincere regret of our past misdeeds and the resolution to never repeat them again. Tractate Yoma, the portion of the Talmud that covers all aspects of the unique day of Yom Kippur, ends with some interesting statements defining and explaining the value of teshuvah. The last of these is a passage by Rabbi Akiva:
"Happy are you, Israel! Before Whom are you purified,
Your Father in Heaven! As the verse says, 'I will sprinkle pure
Further, the verse says,
In the Torah's laws of ritual purity and impurity, there are two basic methods of purification, reflected in the two verses that Rabbi Akiva quotes: sprinkling of water mixed with the ashes of the red heifer, and immersion in a mikveh. However, there are two important differences between them. Firstly, only sprinkling, not immersion in a mikveh, can remove the most severe form of impurity - that which results from contact ith a dead human body. Secondly, while a person can immerse himself in a mikveh on his own, it takes the cooperation of a second person for purification-by-sprinkling to be accomplished.
These, then, represent two different forms of teshuvah for two different types of people. A person may be affected by various "impurities" of sin, yet still have an obvious connection to Hashem. Worse of is a person who may seemingly be so disconnected from Gd, the source of life, that he appears to be spiritually "dead".
The first kind of person needs only the Divine "mikveh" for purification from those various sins. This person can walk into the mikveh unaided. He needs only that the mikveh should be there, and this, as the second verse tells us, Gd graciously provides - "The mikveh of Israel is Hashem." But that will not help for the second person, who is "impure by contact with the dead". For such a case, Hashem Himself must take the initiative to let the person's intrinsic connection with Him be openly displayed, and so He takes an active role, as we find in the first verse, "I will sprinkle pure water upon you." And, because this second case reflects the deep-down unassailable relationship between Gd and the Jewish people - a child-to-parent relationship that not even sin can destroy - Rabbi Akiva places that verse first.
We may note one more nuance in Rabbi Akiva's words. Why does he tell us that "a mikveh purifies the impure" - after all, who else should a mikveh purify? Surely not those who are already pure!
The answer is that it is possible to be impure from several sources at the same time, only some of which may be removable by immersion in a mikveh. As mentioned before, a mikveh cannot purify someone from the impurity resulting from contact with a dead body. Therefore, a person can exit the mikveh purified of one impurity while still carrying others. In other words, the mikveh has "purified the impure".
Rabbi Akiva is teaching us that teshuvah, like immersion, is not an "all-or-nothing" deal. A person might come to Hashem and say: "I know that I have committed a lot of sins, but I don't have the energy or the time to do teshuvah for all of them at once. But I am able to do teshuvah for a couple of those sins, the ones which bother me most." Will Hashem accept such a teshuvah-by-parts? Yes! Rabbi Akiva tells us: Hashem is so eager to receive our teshuvah that He is willing to accept even the slightest bit of it - as long as it is sincere! "Just as a mikveh purifies the impure" - even if afterwards he is still impure in a dozen other ways - "so Hashem purifies the Jewish people" to the extent that we seek that purity by doing teshuvah.
Rabbi Alexander Heppenheimer, a graduate of Yeshivas Tomchei Tmimim of Brooklyn, writes from Atlanta.
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