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Parshat Tetzaveh: Priestly garments, atonement, and the mantle of responsibility

Adar 5783 | March 2023


The midrash informs us that each garment the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) is obligated to wear when serving in the Temple atoned for a different sin:

“Rabbi Anani bar Sason said: Why is the section on priestly vestments juxtaposed to the section on sacrificial offerings? To tell you that just as sacrificial offerings atone, so too the priestly vestments atone.”[1]

The midrash continues to list the specific sin each article atones with prooftexts. The tunic atones for bloodshed, mitznefet (turban) for haughtiness (in thought), breastplate for (wrongful) judgments, ephod (apron) for idol worship, robe for lashon hara (malicious speech), tzitz (miter) for haughty acts.

No Atonement without teshuva

Many commentaries question how these vestments could atone for such sins, as it seems to contradict the principle that there is no kapara (atonement) without teshuva (repentance/return), as illustrated by a gemara in Yoma:[2]

“Rabbi Yishmael expounded: There are three (distinctions for kapara), and teshuva is part of each one. One who neglects a positive commandment and returns is forgiven before they move from their spot… One who violates a prohibition and does teshuva – the teshuva suspends [the punishment] and Yom Kippur atones… If one violates [a mitzvah punishable by] death by heaven or earthly courts and does teshuva – teshuva and Yom Kippur suspends [the punishment] and suffering cleanses…

But someone who has caused chilul Hashem (desecration of God’s name) – the power of teshuva can’t suspend [the sentence], Yom Kippur can’t atone, and suffering can’t cleanse. Rather all these suspend and death cleanses…”

According to Rabbi Yishmael there is no atonement or absolution without teshuva. Indeed, Rambam brings this midrashic explanation in Hilkhot Teshuva, Laws of Repentance. Yom Kippur, suffering, and death can’t atone without teshuva. Torah scholars have long debated if there is a specific commandment to do teshuva for one’s sins. Ramban and Seforno explain that teshuva is “the mitzvah” in the verse “This mitzvah that I command you today is not extraordinary or beyond your reach… it is very close to you, in your mouth and hearts, [it’s within you] to do it.”[3] Others explain that there is no independent obligation to do teshuva.[4]

Halakhot of teshuva

Rambam is unique, in his Sefer HaMitzvot he does not list teshuva as a mitzvah, but he does list vidui – confession.[5] Yet Rambam also dedicates an entire section of Mishneh Torah to Hilkhot Teshuva. Rambam begins by stating “This includes one positive mitzvah, that a sinner returns from their sin before God and confesses.” In the times of the Temple and Sanhedrin a person would confess when bringing a sin offering or before receiving a punishment from the court. We no longer have sacrifices, lashes, or the death penalty, but Rambam explains that vidui as part of the teshuva process is a mitzvah in and of itself.

Rav Soloveitchik explains that there is a mitzvah to do teshuva, but because teshuva is ongoing process Rambam lists the physical act of vidui because it is a necessary part of the greater continuous psychological teshuva he calls “service performed in the heart.”[6]

There are many philosophical treatises to help people realize they need to “do teshuva” or understand why teshuva works, Rambam is one of the few who codifies these ideas and presents “Halakhot of Teshuva.” There are several steps that are integral to the process. If someone sins against another person they must make restitution before anything else. For sins against God and against human beings a person must do vidui – verbally acknowledge their wrongdoing, preferably in detail – and then internally resolve not to repeat the transgression and make a verbal commitment to that effect.[7] The process of teshuva is not fully completed until the person restrains themselves from transgressing in the same situation.[8]

If teshuva is integral to kapara, and often insufficient on its own, how can Rabbi Anani bar Sason claim the clothing of the Kohen Gadol atones for anything, let alone sins as grave as bloodshed and idol worship?

Areivut – mutual responsibility

One of the more novel resolutions to this question is offered by HaShlah HaKadosh.[9] He explains that individual kapara always needs individual teshuva. When our sages teach that the clothing of the Kohen Gadol or the day of Yom Kippur can bring kapara they are not speaking about kapara for the individual who performed the action, but rather kapara for the rest of Israel who made the sin possible.  Our sages teach us that the Jewish People can be punished for the sins of their fellow, since “kol Yisrael areivim zeh la’zeh” – all of Israel is responsible (lit. guarantors) for each other.[10]

Our mutual responsibility is reinforced throughout Torah, Halakha, and Jewish history. One of the more poignant illustrations of this principle is found in a midrash that relates:

“All of Israel is called one life… and if one of them sins – everyone is responsible for one another. To what is this comparable? People who are traveling in a boat, and one of them takes a drill and starts drilling under himself. They said to him: You fool! You are drilling under yourself, but the water is coming in and we are all lost!”[11]

What is the extent of this responsibility?

Rashi in Sanhedrin explains that while the Jewish People were in the desert they were only responsible for sins that were publicly known, but when they entered the Land of Israel and made the covenant at Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival they became liable for private sins as well. This idea is reflected in the events that unfolded after this covenant, when Israel was defeated in their initial Battle for Ai due to the sins of one man.[12]

Seemingly, it is not sufficient to react appropriately when we see our fellow Jew behaving badly in public, we must actively attend to underlying issues so they don’t fester beneath the surface and eventually erupt. We must heed warning signs and act to prevent bad behavior.

When the body of someone who was violently killed is found and the murderer is unknown there is a detailed list of actions that must be done so that “the innocent blood does not remain in the midst of Your People, Israel, and we will atone for the blood.”[13] These words are recited by the leaders of the nearest city after they wash their hands over the blood and declare, “Our hands did not shed this blood and our eyes did not see.” Although they did not kill the person or witness the murder, they are responsible for all that happens around them – to make sure that vulnerable people are protected, and dangerous people are contained.[14] Interestingly, the gemara doesn’t teach that the victim must be Jewish, only that the body is found near a Jewish city.[15] We must actively prevent our fellow Jews from doing wrong and our fellow humans from injury.

We often think of this mutual responsibility as the reason for our collective punishments, but it is so much more than that. It’s at the root of our covenantal relationship with God. We are obligated to establish a righteous justice system, to protect the vulnerable members of our community, provide for the poor, return lost objects, help unload other people’s donkeys, and love our fellow like ourselves. We are obligated to speak out when we see a Jew misbehaving and to come forward if we have testimony relevant in a court case.[16] And we can fulfill mitzvot for each other – blow shofar or recite prayers or blessings on their behalf.[17]

Atoning for neglecting our responsibility

The gemara in Sota relates that Israel made multiple covenants with God in the desert and again when they entered the Land of Israel. After a dispute in calculating how many covenants were made the gemara explains that the sages agree that these covenants establish the Jewish People as areivim (guarantors) for one another, but Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi adds that we are also guarantors for guarantors. Meaning that we are not merely responsible for the behavior of our fellow Jews, we are also responsible to ensure our fellow Jews are fulfilling their responsibility for their fellow Jews.[18]

If we neglect these responsibilities bad things will happen – by Jewish people who brazenly sin in public, to Jewish people because of sins done in private, or any of the horrible things that have been and will be done, to us or by us or to us by us, if we don’t mend our ways.

At some point we can no longer claim “our hands did not spill this blood and our eyes did not see.” As Rambam teaches, one of the first steps in teshuva is to acknowledge our wrongdoing and take responsibility. Rambam takes two chapters in Hilkhot Teshuva to relate the philosophy of free choice, because there is no space for teshuva if we do not acknowledge we have the power to choose differently and affect change.

When our dereliction of duty results in injury to a person or persons we must use the justice system to make whatever restitution possible. We must verbally detail our wrongdoings, make an honest assessment of our own faults, regardless of the faults of others. Then we must commit not to repeat our mistakes. To do this we must understand what led to them – to search within ourselves for the roots of this evil, where we went wrong and how we can begin to make it right.

We must be especially careful to prevent chilul Hashem (desecration of God’s name), as the midrash in Yoma teaches that no amount of teshuva can atone for this. The gemara gives several examples for what constitutes chilul Hashem. Some are specific, such as a Torah scholar buying meat on a tab instead of paying immediately. Even though there is no wrongdoing, if people do not understand that his actions are proper it is a chilul Hashem. Others are more general, “Anyone whose reputation embarasses his friends,” and “if people say, ‘May his Master forgive him for his actions.’”[19]

Abaye illustrates the particular chilul Hashem people who have a reputation for studying from Torah scholars can cause if they “do not deal faithfully and speak pleasantly with people. What do people say about him: ‘Woe is to this person who studied Torah… see how corrupt his actions are and how ugly his ways…” Rambam also applies this to such a person who is argumentative, aggressive, and angry.[20]

Individual and collective vidui

On Yom Kippur vidui is performed twice in each prayer – once as individuals and once with the congregation. The text of vidui is said as a collective, and we take responsibility for our own sins and the sins of our fellow Jews. But when it comes to detailing our sins we speak in the singular, in our personal conversation with God – we own our actions and our part in others’ actions. And we resolve not to repeat our mistakes.

With God’s help, the next time we are faced with a similar situation we will not repeat our mistakes. We will complete our teshuva. “You will return to the Lord, your God, and you and your children will harken to His commands that I command you today with all your heart and all your soul. And the Lord, your God, will return your captives and take you back in love…”[21]

[1] TB Erchin 16a

[2] TB Yoma 86a. The English terms for kapara – atonement and teshuva – repentance are misleading. Kapara comes from the root k.p.r. which also means cover and protection – perhaps is not wiped away, but it is covered over so one is no longer liable for punishment, or the sinner is protected from punishment. Teshuva comes from the root sh.u.v. – return, which can be understood as returning to God, to the proper path, or to one’s authentic self, before the sin distanced us from our Creator.

[3] Devarim 30:11-14, and commentaries there.

[4] Minchat Chinuch 364, Metzudat David Taamei HaMitzvot Mitzvah 5

[5] Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvot Aseh 73)

[6] On Repentance, Chapter 1

[7] Hilkhot Teshuva 1:1-2, 2:3

[8] Ibid 2:1

[9] Shnei Luchot HaBrit, Rosh Hashana, Torah Or 56

[10] TB Sanhedrin 27b, Sifra Bechukotai 7:5

[11] Otzar Hamidrashim Yelamdenu, pg 225

[12] Sanhedrin 43a, Rashi “Ad she’avru et HaYarden; Yehoshua Chapters 6-7; Devarim 29

[13] Devarim 21:7

[14] Rashi verse 7

[15] TB Sota 45b

[16] Vayikra 19:17, Vayikra 5:1, Sefer HaChinuch Mitzvah 122

[17] TB Rosh Hashana 29a, Rashi there, Aruch HaShulchan OC 271:6

[18] TB Sota 37b

[19] TB Yoma 86a

[20] Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah 5

[21] Devarim 30:1-2

Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman

Debbie Zimmerman graduated from the first cohort of Hilkhata – Matan’s Advanced Halakhic Institute and is a Halakhic Responder. She is a multi-disciplinary Jewish educator, with over a decade of experience in adolescent and adult education. After completing a BA in Social Work, Debbie studied Tanakh in the Master’s Program for Bible in Matan and Talmud in Beit Morasha.