Selichah, Mechilah, Kapparah, Yir’ah and Simchah

Caveat: Most of these entries are extrapolations from something I learned. In this case, the entry is a chidush on top of an earlier chidush.

In Mesilas Yesharim ch. 24, the Ramchal describes the various types of yir’ah (awe / fear). This is the topic of an earlier entry. To quote:

1- Yir’as ha’onesh: fear of punishment. This is the lowest of the three. However, since even fear of punishment is a motivator, even yir’as ha’onesh is viewed positively….

2- Yir’as Shamayim: fear of [the One in] heaven. This is the lofty goal. It, in turn, comes in two flavors:

2a- Yir’as hacheit: fear of sin. This is distinct from the fear of punishment; it is a fear of the sin itself, of the possibility of erring. Mesilas Yesharim continues that when a traditional source speaks of “yir’ah” without specification, it means yir’as hacheit (fear of the sin [itself])….

It is a kind of fear of heaven that one is worried about letting G-d down, about doing something that would ruin the relationship.

The Maharal (Nesivas Olam, Nesiv Yir’as Hashem chapter 1) writes that “yir’as hacheit” (fear of the sin itself, which the Ramchal called the default definition of “yir’ah“) comes from a love of Hashem. When you love Someone, you give great importance to not disappointing Him.

2b- Yir’as haRomemus: fear of the Grandeur [of G-d]

Note that as the Ramchal progresses, the translation for yir’ah as “fear” becomes steadily less compelling, and that of “awe”, or acting with “awareness of the magnitude of what one is engaging in”, seem more appropriate….

In Vidui, we ask for three things: selichah, mechilah and kaparah. (According to Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch these are in descending order — selichah is full repair of the sin, whereas kaparah is the containment of its punishment. I would like to suggest an explanation of the terms consistent with the Avudraham’s position that they are an ascending sequence.)

According to the Avudraham, selichah is being pardoned from any due punishment. This may also be the meaning of “veHashem yislach lah — and Hashem will forgive her” of her vow (Bamidbar 30:6,9,13), where the vow being annulled has not been violated. It is the release from a debt or responsibility.

Mechilah is forgiveness. There are no ill feelings remaining from the act. As Rashi writes (teshuvah #245), ““If he hugged him and kissed him, there is no mechilah greater than this.” The same idea is echoed by the Chasam Sofer (Derashos, Shabbos Shuvah). We do not obtain forgiveness from Hashem for sins done against another without first trying to obtain mechilah from the person offended. However, the Chasam Sofer writes, “In the time when the Beis haMiqdash stood, we do not find that there was an obligation for every Jew to seek mechilah from his friend on erev Yom Kippur. For it is the nature of the qorbanos to bring the hearts of men closer, and to make peace among them on their own.”

Kaparah is from the same root as “kapores“, the cover of the Aron, the “kofer“, pitch, used to cover wood for waterproofing, and the cover of “kefor“, frost, atop the manna (Shemos 16:14). And thus the preposition usually used with it is “al” (on), as we shall see, as it is also in the descriptions of kaparah through qorban in Vayiqra, 4:20, 26, 31, etc…. For whatever it’s worth, the cognate in arabic is /gfr/ which refers to covering or hiding. (This translation is that of the Ibn Ezra and Ramban, but not necessarily that of Rashi. See their respective commentaries on Bereishis 32:22, where Yaaqov’s appeasement gift to Esav is intended so that “akhaperah panav“. Also Rashi on 1:10. With thanks to R’ Avi Fertig for this last citation which pushed me to find the other rishonim.)

I would therefore suggest that kaparah is the containment of the inclination that led to the sin. This also explains the verse “Ki bayom hazeh yechapeir aleichem litaher eschem mikol chatoseichim, lifnei Hashem titeharu — for on this day, it will provide kaparah upon you to make you tahor, before Hashem you will become tahor” links kapparah to taharah. Taharah, purity (as in the “zahav tahor“, pure gold, of the menorah), is freedom from adulterations, negative habits inculcated into the soul. (See my earlier entry on the subject of taharah.) Kaparah, then is a prior step, their containment. Beyond pardon from punishment and restoration of the relationship, but starting the healing of the very self.

These three stages parallel the three types of yir’ah described above.

Selichah, pardon from punishment, is a resolution of the sinner’s yir’as ha’onesh (fear of punishment).

Someone with yir’as hacheit, who values His relationship with the Creator, is concerned with the impact of his actions on that relationship. That concern is resolved through mechilah, a restoration of that relationship.

Kaparah, by containing the cause of the sin, isolating off the personal flaw, is a step toward closing that gap between my finite self and the romemus, the greatness of the Almighty. From that kaparah, one can become a person with a healthier relationship with Hashem and with others, and from there all his debts to them would naturally be pardoned.

Teshuvah can thus be described as a return to Yir’ah.

This thought might explain why the last mishnah in Ta’anis includes Yom Kippur when it says, “There were no more joyous days for Israel than Yom Kippur and the Fifteenth of Av.” Returning back to that essay on yir’ah, there I compared the Ramchal’s yir’as hacheit (fear of sin) to Rav Avraham Elya Kaplan’s definition of yir’ah in BeIqvos haYirah (tr. R YG Bechhofer):

… To what may yir’ah be likened? To the tremor of fear which a father feels when his beloved young son rides his shoulders as he dances with him and rejoices before him, taking care that he not fall off. Here there is joy that is incomparable, pleasure that is incomparable. And the fear tied up with them is pleasant too. It does not impede the freedom of dance… It passes through them like a spinal column that straightens and strengthens. And it envelops them like a modest frame that lends grace and pleasantness… It is clear to the father that his son is riding securely upon him and will not fall back, for he constantly remembers him, not for a moment does he forget him. His son’s every movement, even the smallest, he feels, and he ensures that his son will not sway from his place, nor incline sideways – his heart is, therefore, sure, and he dances and rejoices. If a person is sure that the “bundle” of his life’s meaning is safely held high by the shoulders of his awareness, he knows that this bundle will not fall backwards, he will not forget it for a moment, he will remember it constantly, with yir’ah he will safe keep it. If every moment he checks it – then his heart is confident, and he dances and rejoices…

When the Torah was given to Israel solemnity and joy came down bundled together. They are fused together and cannot be separated. That is the secret of “gil be’re’ada” (joy in trembling) mentioned in Tehillim. Dance and judgment, song and law became partners with each other… Indeed, this is the balance… A rod of noble yir’ah passes through the rings of joy… {It is clear from the original Hebrew that this is a reference to the rods that held the boards together to make the walls of the Tabernacle. -mb} [It is] the inner rod embedded deep in an individual’s soul that connects end to end, it links complete joy in this world (eating, drinking and gift giving) to that which is beyond this world (remembering the [inevitable] day of death) to graft one upon the other so to produce eternal fruit.

Awareness of magnitude brings more weight to the event. It’s the difference between the joy of dancing at a siyum and that of dancing at wedding, or dancing at a friend’s wedding and dancing at one’s daughter’s. Because the wedding is so momentous, the joy is that much more intense. To return to R’ Avraham Elya Kaplan’s metaphor, the depth of my love for my son adds to the joy of dancing with him. Without the yir’ah, the awareness of what a big thing it is to put one’s son atop one’s shoulders, the joy wouldn’t be there.

Yom Kippur is a day of returning to yir’as Shamayim. And thus, a day on which we realize the depth of the gifts we receive, the accomplishments we have, and even begin to see meaning on the tribulations in our life. A day of joy.

Gemar chasimah tovah to all my readers, as well as to all who get this email and delete it unread (although those of you in that second class obviously couldn’t be reading this).

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  1. dovid says:

    Rabbi Berger, I am new to this blog. I confess I enjoy it immensely.

    Back to your write-up, where do you see busha fitting in the Selichah, Mechilah, Kapparah, Yir’ah paradigm? R’ Yochanan ben Zakai wished his talmidim (by extension everyone else) to have as much fear of the A-lmighty as of their fellow men. We put up a facade that resembles the image of how we want to be perceived, which is OK and probably commendable as long as (a) the gap between the facade and reality is not too big and (b) we make honest efforts to narrow this gap. We protect this facade and would be devastated if one got a chance to peek behind it. The power of busha is immense. The realization that someone is watching us when we are about to commit an aveirah is enough to stop us in our tracks. How is it that we don’t experience a comparable hesitation before committing an aveirah, when we fully know that Achduto malleh olam, that He is the only metziut, that He reads our minds, that He watches us, and we hammer these concepts into our head every day? The Gemarah describing R’ Yochanan ben Zakai’s brachah to his talmidim is somewhat comforting in that even Tanaim and talmidim of Tanaim appear to have struggled with the same challenges in their Divine service is we do in ours.

  2. micha says:

    I would think bushah is part of charatah is part of teshuvah, and not on the spectrum I’m describing. Here, I’m drawing a parallel between the aspects of the response we hope Hashem has to our teshuvah and yir’ah, identifying the role of teshuvah as a return to yir’ah and simchah. I don’t discuss the teshuvah process itself.

    But that’s off the cuff. What do you think?

  3. dovid says:

    While bushah and charatah tend to occur in tandem, it doesn’t seem to me that there is a cause and effect relationship between them. Bushah appears to me more like part of the onesh. If that’s true, it would have more to do with kapparah.

  4. shloime says:

    woud you have the exact place Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch and Avudraham, speak about this

    thank you


  5. micha says:

    The Avudraham is quoted by the Iyun Tefillah on our text. I do not recall where I saw R’ Hirsch, but if it helps you find it, RSRH related selichah \סלח\ to hatzlachah (success) \צלח\.

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