Halakhic Positions of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik
by R. Aharon Ziegler
The final Mishnah of Yoma (8:9) states “Mikveh Yisrael HaShem”- meaning, “The hope of Israel is HaShem”. Yet the Mishnah instead concludes with the famous teaching of Rabbi Akiva, that Israel is praiseworthy, in that GD Himself purifies us. This is based on the pasuk in Yirmiyahu (17:3), that “hope”, which literally translates as “mikveh”, is teaching us that just as mikveh purifies the contaminated, so too, according to Rabbi Akiva, GD purifies Israel.
Why does Rabbi Akiva deviate from the simple translation of the word “mikveh” in that pasuk as meaning “hope” and proposes a more strained literal translation implying ritual immersion? Rav Soloveitchik suggested, that the Rambam states that “the day of Yom Kippur itself atones for returnees”, Hilchot Teshuva (1:3). He does not say that the day of Yom Kippur atones “with Teshuvah”, but rather “for returnees”. For atonement to be granted by virtue of Yom Kippur the person must be a returnee; it’s not a matter of “doing an act of Teshuvah, but rather, the entire person-his whole being-must be a “returnee”. The necessity for complete Teshuvah that impacts the entire person is the reason that Rabbi Akiva used the “mikveh” anology.
A Mikveh serves to purify the entire individual. If even one finger lacks contact with the mikveh water, the purification does not take effect and, as a result, no part of the person becomes purified (Yoreh De’ah 198:1). The same holds true regarding the purification of the returnee on Yom Kippur.
(source: “Before HaShem” p.96)