Atonement: Jesus Dying for Sins vs Death of the Pious Atoning


Moshe Ben-Chaim


Reader: Just wondering, have I not read or heard that the death of the righteous can be atonement for all Israel?  It seems your article of June 18 denies this is possible.


Mesora: Yes, the Talmud (Moade Kattan 28a) states the following:


“Rabbi Ami said, ‘Why was the death of Miriam adjoined to the section of the Red Heifer? To tell you that just as the Red Heifer atones, so does the death of the righteous atone. Rabbi Elazar said, ‘Why was the death of Aaron adjoined to the section of the priestly garments? [To teach] just as the priestly garments atone, so too does the death of the righteous atone.”


The first distinction, which must be made, is between Jesus and the righteous in their deaths. Christianity claims the “goal” of Jesus’ death was precisely to atone for mankind’s sins. This is “why” he died. But this is not the position of this Talmudic section. Here, we do not find the Talmud suggesting at all, that these two righteous leaders died for others’ sins. Yes, it says that their deaths “atone”. However, do not confuse the issues: in their deaths - which happened for G-d’s own reasons – there is the “added benefit” that it may atone for others. We will explain shortly how this works. But you must comprehend the distinction between a death having a singular goal of atoning (Jesus), and a death having some other goal, but carrying with it an additional benefit of atonement (Aaron and Miriam). Aaron and Miriam did not die ‘to atone for others’. They died based on G-d’s considerations. Conversely, Jesus is said to have died ‘for the one goal’ of atoning for other people’s sins. Be mindful of the Torah’s verse we continually cite, (Deuteronomy, 24:16) "There will not be killed fathers for sons (sins, nor) are sons killed for father's (sins). Each man in his own sin will be killed." This distinction must be clear. If it is not, read this paragraph again.


A definition of “atonement” is required. What does it mean that someone is “atoned”? This means that the error, which existed previously, no longer exists. There is no need for punishment (i.e., corrective measures by G-d) as there is nothing to correct. 


G-d promised never to bring a Flood again. The question is, why shouldn’t He, if man corrupts himself again? The answer is because G-d made changes in man’s psyche post-Flood. The Medrash says man used to be quite tall, beasts were as insects to him, and he traversed the earth in a few steps, while uprooting trees in the process. Of course this is an extreme metaphor, but the Rabbis taught through such a metaphor that man was quite invincible, pre-Flood. This was the cause of his rebellion against his fellow man, and why G-d destroyed that entire generation. G-d also prevented reoccurrence of such corruption by diminishing man’s stature. As a Rabbi once taught, this explains why G-d permitted meat only after the Flood: as man was reduced physically, his diminished health required stronger nourishment. This also explains why G-d said upon Noah’s exit, that the fear of man should be in the beasts, when G-d already said this in Genesis. The reason for G-d renewing this characteristic in the animals was due to mankind’s reduced stature: now, easy prey for the animals.


It may be said of man post-Flood that “he has been atoned for his prior sin.” However, man did nothing! How is he atoned? The answer is that here, we have one example of atonement: “external” atonement. In this case, G-d is the cause for man never sinking to the depths of sin displayed by the Flood’s generation. Although man did not repent, the cause of the error was removed. G-d’s oath to never bring another Flood points at man’s new nature. He has been stripped of all the causes that may lead to such sin. He can never commit such crimes again as a people.


Another type of atonement is repentance: “internal” atonement. In this case, man is the cause of his atonement. He examines his ways, sees the harm he does to himself, that he removes himself from G-d, and he regrets such a life. He resigns himself to never again commit this sin, or follow this character trait.


In both cases, “atonement” means that man’s cause of sin is removed. It may be removed externally, or internally.


Now, which one of these types of atonement applies to the death of the righteous? Well, first we must explain how their deaths “atone”. What do you think? What happens to us when we witness a great individual dying? Although it may have varying degrees of severity on many people, I feel there is one common affect on all of us: we view the righteous as those who do not sin, by definition. I don’t mean they never sin - that is impossible. But I mean that they are removed from sin more than others. They are also committed to a life dedicated in G-d’s service. “Then suddenly, they die?” This is what many of us feel in our heart.  We feel their perfection should make them immune to all evil – even death. This is not a conscious sentiment, but we view death as evil, and these people as righteous – as water and oil – death and righteousness doesn’t mix readily.  We eventually accept their deaths as no reflection on sin. We all die. But during this time of their demise, we feel, “if they died, and they are righteous, then I, as one far lower than them due to my sins will also die.” Herein lies the cause for atonement when the righteous die. This momentary reflection and regret on our sins is in fact an act of repentance. This, I believe, is what this Talmudic section teaches. There is nothing magical going on. The reflection on one’s own sins, identifying his actions as sinful, is the commencement of repentance. Thus, if one repents, his sins are atoned for, and this was all caused by the death of the righteous. This is the meaning behind  “the death of the righteous atones”.


Conversely, Jesus dying for other people’s sins makes no sense as a goal unto itself. This is unjust if he didn’t sin, and is also against G-d’s words.


Looking at Jacob’s twin Esav, who commenced a life of sin upon Abraham’s death, we see clearly that a righteous person dying is no guarantee that one will repent. It is not the death per se that atones, but what one does with this knowledge. Does he reflect? Does he investigate his sin and realize the destruction he brings to himself? Does he resign to never commit this sin again? If so, and only if so, is he atoned. But merely hearing of a righteous person dying, this alone does not atone for one’s sins. The person did nothing! This latter case is what infantile thinking leads to. Although it is quite appealing to be sinless, and this attracted many to Christianity, it is baseless.


We conclude that one does not die for others, “each man I his own sin will be killed”. These are G-d’s words. However, there is a phenomenon that upon the death of righteous people, we reflect on ourselves and regret our lowly state as compared to theirs. This can evoke repentance. But it is in our hands to repent. Someone else cannot repent for us. That makes no sense.