Using Recycled Sins to Cleanse the Sanctuary - Torah portion Aḥarei Mot-Kedoshim

This week's Torah portion begins with a description of the Yom Ha-Kipurim service (Lev 16). The goal of this service is two-fold:
  1. To cleanse the people of sin.
  2. To cleanse the Sanctuary of impurity.
What I would like to suggest is that one of the fixtures of the service, the atat offering, accomplishes both of the above goals simultaneously, by transforming sin into the very cleansing agent used to remove the Sanctuary's impurity.

The meaning of Kapara / Kipur

To begin with, what do we mean by "cleansing"? The Hebrew word in question is kapara, as in "kipur," the definition for which ranges from "atonement" and "expiation," to "wiping" and "purgation" (see J. Milgrom, Anchor Leviticus Vol I, pp. 1079-84), to "ransom" (as in the phrase "kofer nafsho," Ex 30:12). In post-biblical use, "kofer" also connotes the denial of religious tenets.

I prefer the approach of the Midrash, which states: "kapara is a term of nullification" (kapara lashon bitul, Midrash Aggadah Buber, Deut 21:7). Likewise, Rashi explains the phrase: "akhapera panav" (Gen 32:21) to mean "I will nullify his anger." (Abarbanel and Ramban explain the phrase similarly.) "Nullification" relates in a sense to all the above definitions of kapara. Atonement and expiation are the nullification of sin, in the sense of culpability and guilt. Wiping and purgation are the nullification, by means of active removal, of something undesired. "Ransom" is really a means of nullifying sin so as to prevent a divine plague (a more involved discussion, perhaps the topic of a future post). And kofer/kefira is the nullification of religious tenets, denial in the sense of rendering them null and void.

Yom Ha-Kipurim then, is the "day of nullifications."

Kapara of sin and impurity - two opposite actions

The Torah prescribes kapara, nullification, for sin and also for impurity:
  • "And the priest will nullify him of his sin" (וְכִפֶּר עָלָיו הַכֹּהֵן מֵחַטָּאתוֹ, Lev 4:26)
  • "And [the priest] will nullify the purification-candidate of his impurity" (וְכִפּרֶ עַל המִַּטּהַרֵ מִטּמְֻאָתו, Ibid. 14:19)
Sin and impurity are understood as distinct phenomena but are typically conflated when it comes to describing the damage they cause as well as their removal. Both are viewed as blights, stains which infect, corrupt, and soil a person as well as the sancta. Milgrom characterizes sin and impurity in this way, speaking about the removal of both as "purgation." But whereas I believe he is correct about purgation in the case of sin, with impurity it is the very opposite - it requires replenishment

As we spoke about in the previous post, tum'a, typically translated as "impurity," is more accurately understood as a depletive force, that which draws and sucks away the nefesh (human life-force) or kedusha (vital-energy of sancta) in proximity, or by touch. Tum'a is therefore not "pollution" which infects; it is a vacuum which draws.

Impurity is a "lack" whose corrective action is filling, replenishing. Sin, as we will see, is an "excess" whose corrective action is purging, expelling. Two opposite strategies, yet both are kapara. Both nullify a state of imbalance.

As an analogy, there are entirely separate treatments for high blood pressure and for low blood pressure, yet both regulate the healthy flow of blood. (A closer analogy than one might think, since blood is equated in the Torah with nefesh, life-force, as we will discuss ahead.)

So there are two forms of kapara, the purging variety and the replenishing variety. The root ḥet-tet-alef (חטא) appears in both contexts, which itself requires explanation.

What does sin have to do with purification?

Ḥet-tet-alef takes two distinct forms: One is ḥata, the other ḥiteh (and hit'ḥateh). The first means "sin." The second, rather antithetically, means "purify." These two opposing definitions are commonly reconciled by understanding iteh (i.e. the action of itu'i) as "purification from sin." However, the various the instances of "purify" (ḥiteh/hit'ḥateh) in the Torah do not appear within contexts characterized by "sin" (e.g. Lev 8:15, 19:12, 13, 19, 20; Num 31:19, 31:23). Rather, these cases more reasonably point to purification from impurity - that is, impurity of the everyday variety, involving no sin whatsoever, such as the impurity incurred through contact with a human corpse (as opposed to the impurity resulting from the sins of idolatry, Lev 20:3; murder, Num 35:34; illicit sexuality, Lev 20:24-25).

Here I'd like to offer an explanation which places ḥata and ḥiteh, sin and purification, within a single conceptual frame - one which I believe better articulates the relationship between sin and impurity, as well as the function of the ḥatat sacrifice of Yom Ha-Kipurim.

Ḥet is widely translated as "sin," which certainly has a basis. However, just as tum'a has its own common translation ("impurity") yet also possesses an underlying feeling and dynamic - a sense of depletion, so too does ḥet carry its own feeling, its dynamic - a sense of excess.

To commit a ḥet, according to the Priestly tradition, is to take one of the things YHVH has said not to do, and do it (Lev 4:2). It is something off limits that one has taken for him or herself, if only inadvertently. A ḥet is "wide of the mark" (Jud 20:16) in the sense that there is a "target" with circumscribed bounds where one must aim one's actions, operate within, but instead the person has gone outside those bounds, beyond the allowable range, to take something that was not theirs to take. They now bear that something "extra" - indeed extraneous - on their person, their psyche, and suffer under its weight.

Hence sin is a type of "excess," not only conceptually in the sense of having acquired or made use of something unlawfully, but also in the palpable feeling of guilt that weighs on the person. That excess is nullified by a purgative, depletive activity. Such activities - in the Bible and rabbinic Judaism - include sacrifice, fasting, suffering, supplication and charity.

How does this relate to ḥitu'i, purification? Very simply, ḥitu'i is the act of using "excess" to nullify "lack." It is taking a surplus and replenishing that which is depleted. Ḥitu'i acts against impurity, and impurity is a lack, a depletive force. Therefore one nullifies that force, eradicates the destructive void, by "filling" it, topping it off. That is ḥitu'i, the use of surplus life-force to fill the vacuum of tum'a, impurity.

In my previous post, we discussed Milgrom's analogy of tum'a as a "minus-charge." In this framework, we can describe both ḥet and ḥitu'i as carrying a "plus-charge." With ḥet, it is a damaging "plus" or excess on a person that requires purging, and with ḥitu'i, it is a beneficial, restorative "plus" - a surplus - which has the power to nullify the "minus" of impurity. So ḥet and ḥitu'i, ḥata and ḥiteh, are in fact two manifestations of the same concept - excess, plus.

In sum, ḥet is a "plus" state whose correction to "neutral" requires purgation. Ḥitu'i is the use of "plus" to replenish and cancel out "minus," resulting in the neutral state. To return to the blood pressure analogy, ḥet is akin to high blood pressure. Ḥitu'i is akin to giving salt to a hypotensive patient in order to raise their blood pressure.

With this understanding in mind, let's turn now to the ḥatat, the sin offering.

The ḥatat offering - simultaneous purging and replenishing

The Yom Ha-Kipurim service includes two ḥatat offerings: a bull, for the High Priest and his family (פַּר הַחַטָּאת אֲשֶׁר לוֹ, v. 6), and a goat, for the Israelite people (שְׂעִיר הַחַטָּאת אֲשֶׁר לָעָם, v. 15). The question we need to ask: Is the ḥatat a "sin offering," as it is usually translated, or is it a "purification offering," as suggested by Jacob Milgrom? The common rendering sees ḥatat as related to ḥet. Milgrom understands ḥatat as related to ḥitu'i.

I would propose that it is in fact both. It effects sin-removal as well as sanctuary-purification. How? It takes excess, in the form of ḥet, sin, and converts it, transforms it, into "surplus" that can be used for ḥitu'i, to replenish the depletion in the sancta due to Israel's tum'a. The concept and methodology are as follows:
  1. A person (or the Israelite community as a whole) sins, unlawfully going beyond authorized bounds and taking what is not theirs, and thus accruing a destructive "plus" or excess.
  2. In addition, Israel imparts impurity to the Sanctuary by incurring severe forms of impurity or by committing "cardinal" sins.
  3. An animal in one's possession ("asher lo") is offered as a ḥatat sacrifice, itself being an act of purgation.
  4. The person with sin/excess (or the priest as their representative) then performs a hand-leaning on the animal, which connects the nefesh (life-force) of the person with the nefesh of the animal. (See my post discussing the rationale for hand-leaning.)
  5. When the animal's throat is slit, the blood drains out and is collected. Blood is understood in the Torah as the carrier of the nefesh, the life-force (Lev 17:11, 17:14; Deut 12:23). Thus, when the animal's blood is drained, along with it is drawn the "excess" from the person's nefesh. (Which is in itself an ingenious technique, allowing a person to purge excess life-force without spilling a drop of their own blood!) This completes the purgative, "sin offering" dimension of the ḥatat.
  6. The blood that is drained is now endowed, "supercharged," with the offerer's excess vital energy, purged nefesh. That "plus" can now function as a surplus to replenish the "minus" of the sancta. Blood is daubed on the horns of the incense altar and sprinkled "before YHVH," as is done in the normal ḥatat (vv. 18-19, see Lev 4), and as a once-a-year act it is also sprinkled on the kaporet, the ark cover in the Holy of Holies (vv. 14-15). The disposition of blood on the sancta comprises the replenishing, "purification offering" dimension of the atat. (See my book Ohr HaShachar, pp. 214-15, for further explanation.)
Thus the atat performs a two-in-one function: It effects a "purgative-type" kapara for the people, nullifying its sins, as well as a "restorative-type" kapara for the sancta, nullifying their impurity. Destructive plus and minus are cancelled out in a single ritual, creating a zero-charge state, neutral, or tahor, whereby conductivity to the divine presence is restored.

Perhaps this can also help to explain the Torah's use of the plural "kipurim," alluding to the two distinct functions of kapara accomplished by the ḥatat. Indeed the word kipurim, when not referencing the day itself, primarily refers to the ḥatat ha-kipurim (Ex 29:36, 30:10, Num 29:11).

Yom Ha-Kipurim - Recycling and communal responsibility

What emerges from the service of Yom Ha-Kipurim, and the ḥatat offering in general, is a fascinating idea: "Sin" is not destroyed. Rather, it is recycled, transformed, and put to constructive use in the service of the community.

If the ḥatat were merely a "sin-offering," the person weighed down with guilt would experience "relief" upon their sins being purged, and that would be that. While such relief is certainly beneficial, strictly speaking it is a self-oriented rite, stemming from the desire to unload one's own psychological burden. Not unlike modern-day interpersonal requests for "forgiveness" (meḥila), which are often motivated by the wrongdoer's need for atonement rather than the victim's needs, here too the sinner, in bringing the sin offering, seeks his or her own welfare.

So yes, the Torah's prescription does address the self-focused, self-corrective need. But it does not end there. The purgation of the individual is subsequently transformed into an act which serves the people. The feeling of expiation and unburdening of the self is coupled with an awareness - and active responsibility - for the other. The divine presence will only be maintained, and the people endowed with blessings of well-being, if the Sanctuary "that dwells with them in the midst of their impurities" (v. 16), is cleansed, replenished. To this end, the person offering the sacrifice contributes part of their life-force toward the task of replenishment, thus doing their part in helping to restore the Sanctuary as an effective "conductor" for the divine presence, and ensuring continued communal vitality.

The service is a beautiful exemplification of Hillel's famous dictum: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?" (m. Avot 1:14) Yom Ha-Kipurim combines these two critical principles in a single process, effecting both purgation and restoration, personal well-being and societal well-being, understandable focus on the self, as well as care and responsibility for the other.