The Sages made a surprising claim about the power of teshuvah:
“Great is repentance, for it brings healing to the world... When an individual repents, he is forgiven, and the entire world with him.” (Yoma 86b)
We understand that one who repents should be forgiven — but why should the entire world also be forgiven? In what way does teshuvah bring healing to the world?
There are deep, powerful ties that connect each individual soul to the rest of the universe. Not only are we influenced by the world, we also influence it. In Orot HaKodesh (vol. II, p. 351), Rav Kook described this connection as a “powerful underlying influence.” This is not merely mankind’s industrial and technological impact on the world, as we utilize fire, water, electricity, and other forces of nature to do our bidding.
“That is only a partial and superficial aspect of our impact on the world. The Kabbalists taught that the world’s essence, in all of its wholeness and scope, is bound to us with ties of subordination, accepting our influence. This understanding indicates that there is a fundamental integration between the nishmatiut [soul-quality] that operates in the world and our own nishmatiut.”
This inner connection and influence on the rest of the universe implies a heavy moral responsibility:
“How wonderful is the moral perspective that arises from this great responsibility — a responsibility for all of existence, for all worlds. We have the power to bring favor and light, life, joy, and honor in these worlds. This occurs when we follow the straight path, when we strengthen and gird ourselves with a pure fortitude and conquer paths of life that are good and admired, when we advance and go from strength to strength.
“Yet it is also in our power to bring pain to every good portion, when we debase our souls and corrupt our ways, when we darken our spiritual light and suspend our moral purity.” (Orot HaKodesh vol. III, p. 63)
Given our great responsibility for our actions, the Talmudic statement becomes clearer. Those who correct their ways repair not only the flaws in their own souls but also those aspects of the universe that they damaged. Their teshuvah truly “brings healing to the world.”
This dual responsibility — for the purity of our souls as well as the spiritual state of the entire universe — is hinted at in the final prayer of Yom Kippur. The Ne'ilah prayer, recited as Yom Kippur’s gates of forgiveness are closed, concludes with a special passage, אַתָּה נוֹתֵן יָד לַפּושְׁעִים (“You extend Your hand to transgressors”). In this prayer we confess that
“There is no end to the fire-offerings required of us, and countless are our guilt-offerings.”
What is the difference between these two phrases: “the fire-offerings required of us” (ishei-chovoteinu) and “our guilt-offerings” (nichochei-ashmateinu)?
Our moral defects and lapses have a detrimental effect on the soul, sullying it with the imprints of failure and sin. We seek to cleanse these stains and restore the soul to its previous state of purity.
To repair the damage we have caused to our own soul, we offer an olah offering before God. It is for this reason that the Torah commands us to bring an offering even if we have sinned unintentionally.1
This Ne'ilah prayer refers to these offerings as nichochei ashmateinu, “guilt-offerings.” This term indicates that our actions have tarnished the soul, as it says, “And the soul that was guilty (ashmah)” (Num. 5:6). These offerings are nichochim since they produce a “pleasing fragrance” as they cleanse the soul and enable it to once again draw close to God.
There is, however, a second aspect to our spiritual failures. In addition to defiling the soul, our sins also debase and pollute the universe. Even private failings have a negative impact on the moral and spiritual state of the universe. For this reason the Sages categorized the wicked as those “who destroy the world” (Avot 5:1).
The universe demands that we repair that which we have damaged. This repair is accomplished through teshuvah and offering a chatat offering. The Ne'ilah prayer refers to these offerings as ishei chovoteinu, “our required fire-offerings,” since they reflect our duty and obligation to correct that which we have damaged in the universe.
(Silver from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Olat Re’iyah vol. II, p. 364)
Illustration image: Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur. Maurycy Gottlieb, 1878.
1 So explained the Ramban in his commentary to
“The reason that one who sinned unintentionally brings an offering (korban) is because all transgressions bring disgrace to the soul, tainting it.... Therefore a soul that erred brings an offering, so that it may merit to become close (le-korvah) to its Creator.”