By Rabbi Yitzchok D. Frankel
Agudath Israel of the Five Towns
For on this day, He will atone for you. From all your sins before Hashem you will be purified.
On Yom Kippur, we seek selichah, mechilah, and kapparah. What are these wonderful things? What is the difference between them?
“But if her father restrained her on the day he heard, all her vows or prohibitions that she placed upon herself shall not stand. And Hashem will forgive (yislach) her, for her father had restrained her.” (Bamidbar 30:6)
“‘And Hashem will forgive her’—What is Scripture speaking of? A woman who took a vow to be a nazir and her husband heard her and annulled her vow. But she did not know, and was ‘transgressing’ her vow by drinking wine and becoming impure from corpses. This is the woman who needs selichah, even though her vow was annulled. If people whose vows were annulled need selichah, surely this is so of people whose vows were not annulled.” (Rashi, ad loc.)
Here we have an example of someone who needs selichah. A woman thinks she is violating her vow, even though in truth she isn’t. She needs selichah for her intention to transgress Hashem’s will, despite the fact that her deeds were not actually sinful. The disregard and indifference also requires forgiveness.
Mechilah is a word we find in various contexts. It refers to the forgoing of a debt or obligation of some sort. Reuven lends Shimon money, and Reuven decides to turn the loan into a gift, so he says, “I’m mochel you.” Alternatively, Shimon wrongs Reuven, and Reuven says to him, “I’m mochel you.” In both cases, there is some sort of responsibility that Shimon has toward Reuven, whether it is returning a sum of money or saying he’s sorry and won’t do it again. Reuven says he is mochel, meaning that Shimon does not have to make good on the obligation because Reuven erases the obligation. So, too, this occurs when one sins against his Creator and the Al‑mighty forgives the “debt.”
Kapparah is something above and beyond all this. We will explain it by way of an allegory:
A mother says to her child, “Don’t run into the street.” The child is playing ball on the sidewalk, the ball rolls into the street, he looks around and he is about to run into the street. The mother sees and calls out to him, and he stops. Although he never went into the street, he still needs selichah because he was going to do it; he had the intention to do it. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I didn’t do anything wrong but I’m sorry for trying.”
A short while afterward, the child actually runs into the street. His mother says, “I’m going to punish you for that.” The child says, “I’m sorry; I’ll never do it again.” The mother says, “OK, I’m mochel you; I won’t punish you.”
The third time, the child runs into the street, a car goes by just at that moment and the child ends up in the hospital with a broken leg.
The mother is at the hospital with her child. The child is lying there in pain and misery with his leg in traction, and cries, “I’m sorry; I didn’t listen to you. You told me not to do it, I disobeyed you and I violated your trust.” The mother says, “Solachti. I forgive you.” The child says, “But you said you were going to punish me. I’m sorry; please don’t punish me.” She says, “I’m mochel; I won’t punish you.” The child looks at himself and sees what state he is in. He cries to his mother, “Look at what shape I am in. See how broken I am.”
The mother takes out her magic wand and waves it over him, and suddenly he’s all better. His broken bones are healed. He hops out of bed and walks away. That’s kapparah.
On Yom Kippur, we ask Hashem for selichah, that He should forgive us for what we’ve done wrong and for attempting to violate His will, even in those cases where we ultimately didn’t. Because Hashem said He would punish us if we violated His will, we also seek His mechilah that He should not do so.
But what about the destruction we’ve wreaked on our neshamah? What about the damage and degradation we’ve done to ourselves; the horrible state we’ve put ourselves into? For that, we need Hashem’s wonderful, transcendental promise of kapparah: “For on this day, He will atone for you. From all your sins before Hashem, you will be purified.”
Hashem elevates us from tumah to taharah. He grants atonement for our sins. He makes us brand new, sparkling fresh and fine, as if nothing ever happened, without a sign of any wrongdoing—all in order to give us a fresh start! This is kapparah. v
Rabbi Frankel can be reached at email@example.com. At local stores: Machat shel Yad Bereishis.