Yoma 37

Please God.

It can be difficult to find the right words to confess a mistake. Today’s daf offers a brilliantly simple entreaty to God that is tailor-made for the majesty and magnitude of the Yom Kippur confession.

As we learn today, the high priest confesses several times throughout Yom Kippur for different groups of people, and each confession begins with the words Ana Hashem: Please, God. The Gemara explains this simple but carefully-chosen phrase.

The priest’s entreaty is derived from two different texts. The first word, ana, is taken verbatim from Moses’s plea to forgive the people after the sin of the golden calf. In Exodus 32:31–32, he implores: “Ana! (Please!) This people is guilty of a great sin and have made for themselves a god of gold. Now, if you forgive their sin then good, but if not, erase me from Your book that You have written! ” Like the high priest on Yom Kippur, the burden of atoning for an entire nation falls directly on Moses’ shoulders — and this is the first word out of his mouth.

The second word, God’s name, is taken from the confession of the elders and the priests in the puzzling biblical prescription for the eglah arufah, the heifer whose neck is broken in the place of an unsolved murder. As part of the atonement ritual performed in the place where a terrible crime has taken place—but the culprit has not been apprehended and isn’t likely to be—the elders must confirm, “Our hands have not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it ” (Deuteronomy 21:7). According to rabbinic tradition, the priestsrespond: “Absolve, Lord, Your people Israel, whom you redeemed, and do not let the blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel ” (Deuteronomy 21:8). Here, the priests call upon God by name to forgive the entire people for a sin that surely most of them had nothing to do with.

These are not the only two texts the rabbis could have chosen. God is implored often in the Torah, and confessions are part and parcel of the sacrificial process. So why are these the two paradigmatic cases of confession on Yom Kippur?

In each of these cases, there is both an individual and a communal aspect to the scenario. There is shared guilt and doubtful guilt. And there is a leader who must make it right. In the episode of the golden calf, the people participate individually, willingly, but it is Moses who asks for forgiveness on behalf of all of them. In the case of the unsolved murder, the killer is unknown and so it is the community as a whole, represented by the elders and the priests, who must take responsibility. 

There is also something fundamentally different about these two scenarios. In the first, Moses admits that the people have sinned terribly and pleads with God not to enforce the logical consequences of this action. In the second, the elders admit that something has gone wrong, but they are making a claim that it is not part of a broader, structural problem in society. It is a ritual enactment that claims something is wrong, but at the same time, nothing is wrong. It is a statement that we are trying our best, even though our best doesn’t always live up to our ideals. Even well-intentioned actions lead to mistakes.

These two words — Ana Hashem — encapsulate everything Yom Kippur is meant to accomplish: a delicate balance between communal and individual responsibility, an admission of guilt, reflection on how good intentions sometimes lead to undesirable results, and a genuine attempt to realign a broken world with our ideals. All of this in just two words, words that carry in them a cry of entreaty beyond what any other words could express.  

Read all of Yoma 37 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 18th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

 

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