In the ancient world, one of the ways in which people expiated their sins was through child sacrifice. Followers of the god Molech performed their child sacrifices in a valley right outside of Jerusalem, a valley known as the Valley of Gehenom. (In fact, it is from the abhorrent rites performed in this valley that the Jewish name and concept of hell derived.) Within the Jewish tradition itself, there are many scholars who view akedat Yitzhak, the binding of Isaac, as either an attempt at child sacrifice or a polemic against it. Clearly, the notion that one gained atonement through human sacrifice was prevalent in the ancient Middle East. But, with the possible exception of the akedah, the binding of Isaac, Jews have been neither proponents nor practitioners of human sacrifice as a means to either repentance or atonement.
Yet, in Biblical times, it was difficult, if not impossible, to get away from the notion of sacrifice altogether. So, the ancient Israelites did not dispense with sacrifices. Instead, we credit ourselves, and G-d, for a major religious innovation – the institution of animal sacrifices. In fact, we developed quite an elaborate system of animal sacrifices. There were different offerings to be brought for different occasions. The animals had to be unblemished. An entire economic system sprung up around the Temple. Since many people did not want to chance bringing animals for sacrifices from far away, many merchants set up shop in the Jerusalem environs. For example, in Beit Guvrin, just outside of Jerusalem, a huge dove-cote was carved out of an underground cave. Pilgrims coming to the Temple in Jerusalem could stop here to buy the birds they needed for their sacrifices. While details on how to acquire animals for sacrifices are not recorded in the Torah, descriptions of the rest of the process are. The Torah provides instruction to the Cohanim, the priests, on how to how exactly to perform these sacrifices, including what to wear and what to think. It also tells those bringing the sacrifices how to go about it – what to bring, how much, and when. In fact, we read a sampling of these instructions today.
Given the heavy emphasis on animal sacrifices as the way to communicate with G-d and to achieve expiation of one’s sins, it is no wonder that with the destruction of the Temple, the site of these sacrifices, the Israelites were devastated. Without a place to bring the designated sacrifices, how would they ever atone for their sins? How would they ever be able to get back into G-d’s good graces?
In the Talmud, in tractate Megillah, one possible solution is offered up. The Rabbis depict G-d as saying that reading the passages in the Torah about the sacrifices can stand in for doing the sacrifices themselves. So, while the Israelites no longer had a Temple, they did still have the Torah, and they could read about the sacrifices. Yet, to the best of my knowledge, unlike the sacrifices themselves, readings of the selected passages were never offered up as individual offerings. Rather, they were read communally at set times, much as we do today.
So, the problem of how an individual might go about doing repentance, atoning, or receiving expiation from sins still remained. At least as early as the end of the Second Temple period, the sacrifices were not offered alone, but were often accompanied by prayers. For example, according to the Mishna, the biblical passages that make up the Shma were recited in the Temple along with the twice-daily Tamid offering.
Even more significantly, beginning sometime between the time of the first and second Temples, another religious institution had begun to spring up – the Beit Kenesset. Literally, a Beit Kenesset is a house of gathering. While the Temple remained the center of Jewish ritual and spiritual life as long as it stood, the Beit Kenesset provided an alternative location for Torah study and prayers, two activities that gained in importance following the destruction of the Temple. In diaspora communities without access to the Temple in Jerusalem, passages such as the Shma were recited in the Beit Kenesset at times corresponding to the times when the Tamid sacrifice had been offered in the Temple. By the time of the Mishnah, it was understood that the Men of the Great Assembly instituted that Jews both in Judea and in the Diaspora were required to pray three times a day (morning, afternoon and evening), and include in their prayers at least the recitation of certain biblical passages such as the Shma.
Prayer therefore came to replace animal sacrifices which had, in turn replaced human sacrifices. Yet, there is a huge difference between prayer and sacrifice. Sacrifice is active and public. It requires you to go out and do something. Not only do you have to acknowledge that you have done something wrong and that you want to do better in the future, but you actually have to go out and do something about it. You need to spend your hard-earned money on the animal for the sacrifice. You need to take time out of your busy schedule to bring the animal to the Temple and wait for it to be received. And you need to publicly acknowledge what you are doing. You need to admit your guilt and culpability not just to yourself, but also to the priest, and possibly even to anyone else who might also be there at the time. Prayer, on the other hand, is much more passive and private. No one else need ever know the content of your prayer. You can pray so quietly that even the person standing next to you can’t hear. You can pray when you are alone in a room and no one else can see. And you can complete a prayer in a lot less time than it takes to get an animal all the way to the Temple.
True tshuvah, true repentance, seems like it should require a lot more than just a quick prayer or silent vow to do better next time. The great 12th century Rabbi Moses Maimonides, otherwise known as the Rambam, agreed. He did not think that true repentance could be achieved until one found oneself in the exact same situation with the same temptations and made a different choice. I think of what Rambam said as being like the situation faced by drug addicts. Many drug addicts reach a point at which they recognize that they need help and that what they are doing is wrong and not good for them. So, they do something active. They try to quit on their own or they check into a drug rehab. But the true test of whether the drug addict has kicked the habit is not whether he or she can stay clean and remain off of drugs while in the rehab. The true test comes when the addict leaves the protection of the rehab and goes back to the same environment from which he or she came before. It is only when a drug addict is walking the same streets, taking to the same friends, and being faced with the same choices as before that one can tell whether a true transformation, a true tshuva has taken place. If the drug addict can be in the same old environment and refrain from taking drugs, then he or she has truly done tshuva, has truly repented of his or her old ways. And while he may not have said it explicitly, I think that Rambam realized that such a transformation hardly ever occurs just on the basis of prayer alone.
Prayer is a good place to start. Repentance cannot occur without the self-reflection and self-examination that prayer helps us achieve. As we read the words of a prayer or learn the words of a new piece of Torah, they should help us to see both the path that we want to be taking and the ways in which we are failing to achieve our potential as Jews.
True atonement, however, cannot occur without some action on our part. It is commonly said that we remember only 10% of what we see, 20% of what we hear, and 70% or more of what we do. Or, as Confucius said, "I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand." Clearly, active engagement enhances memory. And in the case of atonement, we are trying to undo one memorized pattern of responses in favor of another, more positive response. Since Jews believe that, when it comes to sin, what matters is not the thought but the action, atonement needs to be the process of replacing one action with another.
How do we accomplish this active repentance? While the Temple stood, we brought different types of sacrifices for different things. A sin offering was not the same as a guilt offering or a thanksgiving offering. So, too, we need to our actions to match the repentance we are trying to do. In this regard, the practice of kapparot, while active, does not accomplish, in my mind, the same thing as true repentance. Swinging either a chicken or a bag of money around one’s head, even with the proceeds going to feed the poor, does not meet Maimonides criteria for repentance. There has been no confrontation with one’s own individual past deeds, no change in behavior that indicates a spiritual transformation.
Very often, in today’s American society, we settle for the quick fix. We don’t give ourselves the time to truly do the spiritual work needed to change who we are and how we move about in this world. Rather than truly examine ourselves and how we need to atone, we send mass emails asking our friends and family for forgiveness. We buy our way to atonement by purchasing a chicken to swing about our heads.
Yet, even in our bandaid-solution society, where we cover over major problems with ill-fitting quick fixes, there are examples of how one can truly make positive changes in one’s own life. On the t.v. show the Supernanny, for example, people really do make the effort to change destructive behavior patterns. They repent of past behaviors toward other members of their family, and they atone by incorporating the Supernanny’s often innovative solutions to remold their interactions with one another.
If only each of us could call on the spiritual Supernanny, the expert who could pinpoint exactly what it is that we need to repent for in our own lives and provide us the precise method by which we could achieve our desired results. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. It is up to each one of us to identify our own shortcomings, our own personal inadequacies of which we must repent. Once we have identified those areas of our lives that are in need of improvement, the next step is to identify what appropriate tshuva for that failing would look like. For example, if someone, let’s call her Sally, were to realize that she constantly spoke poorly of a neighbor, then Sally might actively repent by refraining from speaking poorly of her neighbor when the next opportunity presented herself. Or, she might actively search out positive things about her neighbor that she could mention to friends. On the other hand, Nate might realize that he failed to perform the mitzvah of visiting a sick person in the hospital. While it’s not a bad idea for Nate to apologize to his friend for not having visited, and such an apology might be necessary to maintain a good relationship with his friend, an apology alone does not constitute active tshuva. Perhaps Nate’s friend is still not fully mobile and would really be cheered up by a visit. In such a situation, if he still does not visit his friend, Nate has not actually repented. And if Nate’s friend is fully recovered and no longer needs visitors, there are other ways in which Nate can effect active repentance. He could visit other friends who are sick, or he could even visit members of the community whom he does not know well. However, if Nate were to start speaking well of his neighbor, that would not serve as atonement for not having visited his friend in the hospital. The two are unrelated.
Repentance needs to be in some way connected to the sin committed. But it is not enough to vow to do better next time. We each must set out to actively effect our own atonement. We do this through the performance of positive actions that mirror the sinful actions we did previously. And, as Jews, it is the lessons that we learn from praying and studying Torah that help to guide us on the proper path – illuminating the desired actions and outcomes and throwing into stark relief the moments when we sin, when we fall off the path. Then, when we have incorporated the appropriate course correction into our lives, we have achieved true, active repentance.
Doing active tshuva isn’t easy. It is much easier to pay for a chicken to swing above our heads as we perform the kapporet ritual. It is easier still to make a vow to ones-self to do better next time, with no real expectation that change will occur. And it is yet easier still to read the words in a prayerbook without understanding their meaning in the hopes that they will effect some magic expiation of sin. But empty prayer was never the solution, never the means to true repentance.
In ordaining the sacrifices as the means to expiate sin, G-d signaled to us that sin can only be cleansed by an active process of coming forward, of putting one’s self physically into the process of repentance. Reading the Torah passages about the details of the sacrifices does not take the place of action, but serves to remind each and every one of us that repentance is hard work. Repentance requires an investment of your money. Repentance requires an investment of your time, and it requires you to be physically present in the moment. And when you are willing to put your whole being into the effort to make a change, to correct a wrong, then G-d sees that effort and cannot help but grant the expiation for which you have worked so hard.