Posted on

Parshat Acharei Mos: Communal Confession

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’sUnlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Vayikra’, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers

Communal Confession


As indicated in the previous study, the communal vidui, confession, recited by the Kohen Gadol over the se’ir hamishtaleiach is a central feature of this Yom Kippur Temple ritual:

And Aharon shall place his two hands upon the living he-goat and he shall confess upon it all of the iniquities of the children of Israel and all of their rebellious sins in all of their sins, and he shall place them upon the head of the he-goat and he shall send it at the hand of a designated man to the wilderness.


What is the implication of the confession uttered by the Kohen Gadol over the “sent goat” on behalf of the entire nation?

What role does this communal confession play in the atonement divinely granted on Yom Kippur? Aren’t confession and tshuva private, personal processes best experienced individually rather than communally?

How can an understanding of this vidui and of the phenomenon of confession, in general, shed further light on the mysterious ritual of the se’ir hamishtaleiach and on the pivotal concept of tshuva?

[Note: Although the term tshuva is popularly translated as “repentance,” the proper interpretation of the term is “return.” Repentance is only one step in the wrenching process of tshuva, which entails recognition of past transgressions, remorse over those transgressions and a commitment to future change (see also above, Acharei Mot 1, Context). Properly experienced, tshuva results in true behavioral change as we “return” to God and to our proper life path. For the sake of textual clarity, however, we will at times make use of the popular translation “repentance” in this study.]


This study departs from our usual structure. Rather than examining a wide range of approaches to a particular issue, we will explore the thoughts of one towering sage as interpreted, centuries later, by another.

During my rabbinic studies at Yeshiva University, I was privileged to attend the shiurim (Talmudic classes) of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, known to me and to so many others simply as the Rav. These many years later, I still find the experience difficult to describe. Never before, nor ever since, have I been as challenged intellectually as I was by the Rav.

In the Rav’s shiur, a phenomenon occurred that only occurs when Torah study is experienced at its best. The centuries melted away. With us in the classroom we felt the personal presence of the very sages, from time immemorial, whose writings we studied and with whom we “dialogued.”

Particularly striking, however, was the Rav’s relationship to the Rambam. I use the term relationship consciously. Although centuries separated these scholars, the Rav spoke of the Rambam as if he was speaking of, and even to, a cherished mentor and colleague. He analyzed every word of the Rambam’s legal code, the Mishneh Torah, maintaining that “Maimonides was very exact in his use of words as far as we know and did not indulge in flowery language. In light of this, we should be as scrupulous as possible when studying his code, the Mishneh Torah, in trying to learn the true significance of each word we read.”

What follows is a brief introduction to the Rambam’s thoughts surrounding the se’ir hamishtaleiach, as seen through the Rav’s eyes. This information is culled both from On Repentance: The Thought and Oral Discourses of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, edited by Pinchas Peli, as well as from my own personal recollections.


Before turning to the specific vidui associated with the se’ir hamishtaleiach, we must first examine the Rambam’s approach to the general phenomenon of confession and its place in Jewish thought and law. The Rambam opens his review of the laws of tshuva with the following halacha:

With regard to all the precepts in the Torah, whether positive commandments or negative ones, if a person transgresses one of them, either willfully or unknowingly, when he does tshuva and returns from his sin, it is his duty to confess before God, blessed be He…and this confession is an affirmative precept [my italics]…

Numerous later authorities raise two questions concerning the Rambam’s formulation of the tshuva process. Firstly, they ask, why doesn’t the Rambam depict tshuva in obligatory terms, choosing instead to state “when he [the sinner] does tshuva”? Secondly, the Rambam’s delineation of confession as a positive biblical precept seems counterintuitive. At first glance, they argue, confession would appear to be only a means to an end, a first step on the path towards the mitzva of full tshuva. Why, then, does the Rambam list confession itself as a mitzva?

Based on the Rambam’s words, therefore, some authorities arrive at a startling conclusion: while the Rambam believes that confession is a biblical obligation, he does not consider tshuva a mitzva at all. Return to God, they maintain, is in Maimonides’ view a self-understood rather than a commanded act. Intuitively, no member of the community of Israel would choose to remain immersed in sin without desiring to repent. God, therefore, affords us the opportunity to “restart” our lives through the gift of tshuva.

The Rav strenuously disagrees: “Can one really contemplate the possibility that confession be considered a precept while repentance is not? What would be the significance of confession without repentance?”

Numerous sources within the Torah, the Rav adds, plainly define tshuva as a mitzva. Furthermore, the Rambam’s own language on a number of occasions supports this view. Most tellingly, the very heading of the section in his Mishneh Torah that summarizes the laws of tshuva reads:

“The Laws of Return: One positive precept – that the sinner shall repent of his sin before the Lord and confess.”

Clearly, the Rambam views repentance – and not confession alone – as a mitzva. Why, then, does the Rambam, as noted above, focus so distinctly on the obligation of confession, going so far as to label confession itself an affirmative precept?

The answer, suggests the Rav, lies in the Rambam’s general categorization of biblical mitzvot into two distinct groups.

1. Those mitzvot whose fulfillment and practice are identical. One both performs and fulfills each of these mitzvot through a single physical act. Examples of this group include the taking of the four species on the holiday of Succot, the sacrifice of the korban Pesach and the counting of the Omer.

2. Those mitzvot whose practice and fulfillment are not identical. In these cases, “The precept cannot be fulfilled through the performance of…external acts alone; its true fulfillment lies within the realm of the heart.” The physical act connected to each of these mitzvot is designed to give rise to powerful inner feelings, thoughts and realizations. Only through these internal phenomena is the mitzva “fulfilled.”

Laws of mourning and rejoicing, the recitation of the Shma and the mitzva of prayer are all included in this second group of mitzvot, as is, maintains the Rav, the mitzva of tshuva. The verbal confession is the obligatory physical act designed to give rise to a heartfelt feeling of return.

The Rambam’s language in the Mishneh Torah, continues the Rav, now emerges as true to form. Whenever the Rambam deals with a mitzva whose performance is marked by external deed but whose fulfillment can only take place within the heart, he distinguishes between the two aspects of the mitzva in his codification of the law. In describing the laws themselves, the Rambam details only the actual performance, the concrete act associated with the mitzva. In his section headings, however, he defines the mitzva in its entirety, citing both physical performance and internal fulfillment.

The first halacha in the Rambam’s laws of tshuva thus focuses upon the physical action through which the mitzva of return is performed: the concrete act of verbal confession. As mentioned above, however, this entire section of law is introduced by a heading that reflects both tangible performance and psychic fulfillment: “The Laws of Return: One positive precept – that the sinner shall repent of his sin (fulfillment) before the Lord and confess (performance).”


A deeper question now emerges. Why does the Rambam consider the act of verbal confession so critical to the mitzva of the Return? Why can’t tshuva take place solely in one’s heart?

The Rav lists two main reasons why the Torah obligates a penitent to make confession.

1. Confession serves to complete the tshuva process. Verbalization forces the penitent to crystallize both his remorse over the past and his commitment to future change:

Feelings, emotions, thoughts and ideas become clear, and are grasped only after they are expressed in sentences mirroring a logical and grammatical structure. As long as one’s thoughts remain repressed, as long as one has not brought them into the open…they are not truly yours; they are foreign and elusive.… Repentance contemplated, and not verbalized, is [therefore] valueless.

2. By forcing us to admit the facts, confession robs us of the ability to fool ourselves. Through verbalization we compel ourselves to examine not only our sins, but the nature of our sins. Acts that we might have written off as unintentional are scrutinized anew and we are compelled to admit motivations that we would have rather ignored:

Confession compels man – in a state of terrible torment – to admit facts as they really are, to give clear expression to the truth…[t]o look ourselves straight in the eye, to overcome the mechanism of self defense; to smash asunder the artificial barriers, to go against our natural inclination to run and hide, to tear down the screen, to put into words what our hearts have already determined…”

At this level, the Rav maintains, confession becomes a wrenching act of personal “sacrifice” which moves man beyond remorse to shame. The penitent’s will is broken as he is forced to act against his very nature:

Just as the sacrifice is burnt upon the altar so do we burn down, by our active confession, our well-barricaded complacency, our overblown pride, our artificial existence.… Only then, after the purifying catharsis of confession, does one return, in circular motion, to God who is there before man sins, to our Father who is in heaven, who cleanses us whenever we approach Him for purification.


Having briefly reviewed the general role of confession in the process of return, we can now turn our attention to the specific vidui pronounced by the Kohen Gadol over the se’ir hamishtaleiach.

Again, in the first chapter of his laws of tshuva, the Rambam writes:

Since the se’ir hamishtaleiach brings acquittal for all of Israel, the High Priest confesses over it in the name of all Israel.…

The se’ir hamishtaleiach brings acquittal for all the sins mentioned in the Torah, the venial and the grave, those committed with premeditation and those done unintentionally, those which become known to their doer and those which do not – all are granted acquittal by means of the se’ir hamishtaleiach, provided only that the sinner has repented.

If, however, he has not repented, the scapegoat can bring acquittal only for the lighter sins.

In a lengthy analysis of this passage, the Rav raises a series of critical questions, including the following.

1. What innovation does the Rambam introduce with his initial declaration, “Since the se’ir hamishtaleiach brings acquittal for all of Israel, the High Priest confesses over it in the name of all Israel”? The classification of the sent goat as a communal sacrifice is obvious and emerges from the Torah text itself.

2. Immediately before his passage dealing with the se’ir hamishtaleiach, the Rambam lists a litany of potential means of atonement which are effective only when accompanied by repentance. How can he now suddenly claim that the ritual of the se’ir hamishtaleiach effects atonement for specific sins even in the absence of such repentance?

3. What is the delineating line between “lighter” sins for which the se’ir hamishtaleiach is automatically effective and more severe sins which require tshuva as well?


The Rav answers these questions with one bold, imaginative stroke. Based on sources in the Written and Oral Law, he posits that on Yom Kippur two essential types of atonement are potentially granted to man: individual and communal.

Individual expiation is open to each and every Jew who is strong enough to undergo a full, heartfelt process of return. Such acquittal is achieved in solitary fashion as the penitent plumbs the depths of his own heart and soul.

Communal atonement, however, is different. This expiation is granted globally to Knesset Yisrael, the community of Israel, “in its entirety and as a separate mystical kind of self, as a separate entity in its own right.” Once granted to the collective, this acquittal is automatically afforded to each individual who remains linked to Knesset Yisrael through an unbreakable bond.

Each Jew, therefore, must travel along two separate paths in order to achieve a full measure of atonement on this holiest of days.

On the one hand, man must travel alone and in solitary fashion along the path to individual repentance. At the same time, however, “‘Repentant Man’ will not reach his goal and the completion of his mission – salvation – as a lonely man of faith, but only as part of the community of Israel.”


True to his essence as a giant of Jewish law, the Rav roots the two elements of Jewish identity, the individual and the communal, in two fundamental contracts between God and His people.

The first of these agreements, the inherited covenant from our forefathers, is sealed at Sinai and reiterated in the Wilderness of Moav. This global contract, enacted with our ancestors at the dawn of our national history, is handed down in perpetuity to all who remain bound to the Jewish collective.

The second covenant, on the other hand, is spelled out in the book of Devarim where Moshe states, “Not with you alone do I seal this covenant and this oath, but with whoever is here, standing with us today before the Lord, our God; and with whoever is not here with us today.” This contract, enacted not only with the generation to whom Moshe speaks but with each Jew in each generation until the end of time, is the source of the “sanctity of self,” the independent sanctity of each individual Jew across the ages.

A double bond thus ties each Jew to God – as an individual and as a member of the people, Knesset Yisrael, the seed of Avraham. This double bond, in turn, gives rise to two essential avenues of tshuva which lie before man on Yom Kippur. On this holiest of days, each Jew must certainly travel the long road of individual repentance. At the same time, however, each individual must ensure the health of his bond with the Jewish collective. Only by traveling along both these paths will the individual achieve his full atonement.


In light of the Rav’s observations, the Rambam’s comments concerning the confession associated with the se’ir hamishtaleiach become abundantly clear.

When the Rambam states, “Since the se’ir hamishtaleiach brings acquittal for all of Israel, the High Priest confesses over it in the name of all Israel,” he is actually defining the nature of atonement granted by the ritual of the sent goat.

The se’ir hamishtaleiach, in the Rambam’s opinion, represents the path of communal atonement, the global path afforded as a whole to Knesset Yisrael. During this ritual, therefore, the Kohen Gadol, acting as the representative of the Jewish collective, recites a confession “in the name of all Israel.” The completed ritual then affords atonement to every individual linked to Knesset Yisrael.

The se’ir hamishtaleiach does not, however, address the path of personal atonement. That path continues to stretch before each individual and can only be traversed alone, through wrenching self-scrutiny and commitment to behavioral change.

In the absence of the Temple ritual, the day of Yom Kippur itself, according to the Rav, provides the opportunity for both requisite paths of atonement. He brings support for this position from the blessing found in the Yom Kippur liturgy, “Blessed art Thou…, Who pardons and forgives our transgressions and the transgressions of His people, the House of Israel” and from the Rambam’s statement “The Day of Atonement is a time of repentance for all, for individuals and for multitudes, and is the moment of pardon and forgiveness for Israel.” The dual language in both sources indicates that the Day of Atonement provides two requisite paths of expiation – for individuals and for the collective, Knesset Yisrael, as a single entity.

The Rambam’s claim that the se’ir hamishtaleiach grants atonement even in the absence of repentance is also understandable in light of the communal nature of the atonement granted by this ritual. An individual’s inclusion in this expiation is not dependent upon his personal tshuva but upon his bond with the Jewish collective, Knesset Yisrael. The atonement afforded by the se’ir hamishtaleiach is, therefore, effective in the absence of personal repentance.
Finally, the Rambam’s distinction between grave and “lighter” sins also becomes clear. The delineation between these two categories of transgressions is determined by whether or not a specific sin carries the punishment of karet, spiritual excision from the community. Sins carrying such a penalty cannot be communally atoned for in the absence of tshuva for one simple reason: the individual guilty of such a crime has effectively cut himself off from the community, Knesset Yisrael. This breach must be repaired. Only by reconnecting with the collective through personal return can the individual expect to partake of the communal atonement afforded through the se’ir hamishtaleiach. That is why Rambam states that, in the absence of tshuva, “the sent goat can bring acquittal only for the lighter [i.e., non-karet-incurring] sins.”


And thus, an exquisite tapestry of legal and philosophical concepts is woven by two towering giants, separated by centuries. Intricate halachic nuance and towering theological concept merge as, together, the Rambam and the Rav uncover the critical balance between individual and communal identity lying at the core of the holiest day of the Jewish year.

Points to Ponder

A few words must be shared concerning the Rav’s understanding of the concept of Knesset Yisrael and its central place in Jewish thought.

In the Rav’s worldview, belonging to the collective is essential – not only to the Jew’s definition as “Repentant Man,” but to his very definition as a Jew:

[Each Jew’s] whole endeavor as an individual is worthless to him until he renews his connection with the covenantal community and reintegrates in it.…

The individual Jew constitutes an integral part of Knesset Israel. This is not a free and voluntary association; it is an ontological-essential one. As Knesset Israel is not a sum total or arithmetic combination of such and such individuals, but a metaphysical personality of singular essence and possessing an individual judicial personality, so the individual Jew does not have an independent existence but is a limb of Knesset Israel.…

A Jew who has lost his faith in Knesset Israel even though he may, in his own little corner, sanctify and purify himself through severities and restrictions – this Jew remains incorrigible and totally unequipped to partake of the Day of Atonement which encompasses the whole of Knesset Israel in all its parts and in all its generations….

A Jew who lives as part of Knesset Israel and is ready to lay down his life for it, who is pained by its hurt and is happy at its joy, wages its battles, groans at its failures, and celebrates its victories.… A Jew who believes in Knesset Israel is a Jew who finds himself with an indissoluble bond not only to the People of Israel of his generation but to Knesset Israel through all the generations.

During his lifetime (1903–1993), the Rav expressed deep concern over the spiritual survival of Diaspora Jewry and the physical safety of the Jewish community in Israel. He maintained, however, that faith in Knesset Yisrael mandates against despair, requiring each Jew to believe in the continued existence of our people until the coming of the Messiah.

One can’t help but wonder, however, how much more fearful the Rav would be today, witnessing not only an exacerbation of the crises he noted in his lifetime, but also the growing pressures within the Jewish community upon the very integrity of Knesset Yisrael.

Fragmented for years, we have become a people increasingly divided against ourselves as the fault lines between us, both in Israel and the diaspora, grow into seemingly unbridgeable chasms. Charedi, Zionist, Secular, Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, Settlers, Peace Activists – we continue to retreat into homogeneous groups, seeking the safety of those who share our ideas and our own life outlook.

And the groupings grow even narrower…

Even within the Orthodox community, for example, do Charedi and Religious Zionist Jews feel kinship with or antipathy towards each other as they pass on the street? Do Modern Orthodox Jews and Satmar Chasidim truly see themselves as part of the same people, with the same dreams?

There was a time when the good of the collective “trumped” the particularistic concerns of each insular group. In spite of disagreements, there were lines that we simply wouldn’t cross against each other. That vision of the good of the whole, today, seems increasingly threatened.

I can hear the Rav’s voice whispering in my ear of the importance of Knesset Yisrael. His vision of shared origin and shared destiny is one that we lose, God forbid, at our peril.