Atonement when we’ve done right


Comments at the Yom Kippur Ma’ariv service 5780, Fabrangen, Washington, DC 

The Torah reading for Rosh Hodesh is drawn from Numbers 28.  It describes the special Temple offering for that day as l’hatat l’A’, for a sin offering for the Lord.  That wording, oddly, suggests that perhaps it was God who brought a sin offering.  Why?

There’s an aggadic parable in the Talmud, Chullin 60b, that notes that in Genesis, God is described as creating two great luminaries in the sky: the sun and the moon.  The moon, however, complained to God: “Can two kings share the same crown?”, hoping that God would appoint the moon the greater light, and the sun the lesser one.  In response to the moon’s complaint, though, God did the reverse, designating the sun to “rule by day” and the moon by night.  God tried to console the moon, promising, for example, that the Jewish people would keep our calendar by it, but God could not succeed in comforting the moon. The Talmud describes God saying “Bring an atonement for me, for I diminished the moon.”  According to Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish who is cited in that Talmudic passage, that means it’s actually GOD who needs the sin offering.

This midrash is especially pertinent in our season of atonement. It seems to me that if God really wanted to console the moon, God could have reversed God’s decision.  It would be easy enough for God, we can imagine, to make the moon as great as the sun again.  Instead, God stood by the original decision.

Yet still, God felt compelled to request a sin offering to effect an atonement.

The texts we have in the Yom Kippur liturgy make it clear that we must atone when we’ve done wrong. This Talmudic story, though, suggests that atonement may be due, even if we’re sure we’re right. In making a decision and sticking with it, sure that we’ve pursued the right course, we can still acknowledge that we cause pain.  In an age of polarization and an inflamed sense of righteousness, it’s possible, like God did, to acknowledge that our actions may designate winners and losers, and that even when our behavior is correct, the losers, like the moon, are diminished.

(Embroidery:  Gates of Repentance, 2009, verses of the piyyut Petach Lanu Sha’ar (“open for us the gates”) of the Yom Kippur Neilah service, scanned by Philip Brookman)