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Light from the Sidra

Acharei Mot ('After the death...') 7th May 2016. 29th Nissan 5776

Torah: Leviticus 16:1-18:30. Haftarah: 1 Samuel 20:18-42

One Strike and you're out

Twelve months ago, when Labour MP Naz Shah took the Bradford West constituency from George Galloway, her supporters were ecstatic and so was she. But last month, it was revealed that Ms Shah once suggested on her Facebook page that the Middle East problem could be solved by deporting Israeli Jews to America. Even though Ms Shah apologised with all the sincerity she could muster and assured Jeremy Corbyn and parliament that she didn’t agree with what she had posted, she was suspended from the Labour party. With local elections on the near horizon, Naz had become an embarrassment. A liability even. She had to go.

Naz Shah’s story is as old as the Garden of Eden. One strike and you’re out. The same principle applies to Nadab and Abihu, of whose transgression we are forcefully reminded of at the start of the parashah. Sin is serious and has consequences for whoever commits it. Two of the holiest men in the nation were killed by HASHEM for what might appear to some to be an inconsequential transgression. After all, no one was hurt. But the two sons of Aaron had failed to honour HASHEM. And that, of course, raises the question of whether it is possible to find forgiveness from an offended God. Saying sorry is simply not enough.

Yom Kippur was Israel’s great leveller. Whether you were a priest or a lowly beggar, your sins could be atoned for only by repentance and sacrificial blood.

The rituals associated with the Day were the way in which God and his people Israel could coexist in harmony. The Tabernacle had to be purified from the pollution caused by the sins of the people and so each year the high priest, wearing a plain white linen robe (16:4), entered the Holy of Holies on behalf of Israel. There he sprinkled sacrificial blood on the cover of the Ark of the Covenant.

On Yom Kippur, the high priest offered a sacrificial bull in order to purify himself and his family. He then sacrificed a male goat and took its blood into the Holy of Holies, where he sprinkled blood in front of the Ark. Aaron performed a similar ritual in front of the golden altar of incense before placing blood from a bull and a goat on the horns of the bronze altar in the courtyard (16:18). To cleanse the altar he sprinkled blood on it seven times (16:19).

If you find the details of this ritual sleep inducing, the high priests of Israel certainly didn’t. Any deviation from the precise details given by God to Moses meant instant death. God was deadly serious about atonement.

Early in the morning on the Day of Atonement, two goats were brought to Aaron and lots were cast to determine which goat would be sacrificed as a purification offering. After purifying the Tabernacle with the blood of the first goat, the high priest pressed both his hands on the head of the second goat confessing ‘all the iniquities of the Children of Israel, and all their rebellious sins among all their sins’ (16:21). The goat was then led to an uninhabited place in the desert and released (16:26).

The Day of Atonement was the most important occasion in the calendar of ancient Israel, designed to atone for the sins not covered by sacrifices offered throughout the rest of the year. The seriousness of the pollution caused by these sins is indicated by the fact that blood was required to make atonement for the most sacred part of the tabernacle, the Holy of Holies.

In Leviticus 17:11, God tells Moses: ‘For the soul of the flesh is in the blood and I have assigned it for you on the Altar to provide atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that atones for the soul.’

After the second temple was destroyed and Israel was left without the means of blood atonement, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai ruled that repentance was more efficacious than sacrifice as a means of atonement. No wonder ben Zakkai died in despair and terror. The idea that repentance can be a substitute for blood reminds me of a sketch from The Muppet Show, in which Gonzo frantically rushes on stage to tell Kermit he needs a typewriter at that moment. When Kermit says he doesn’t have one, Gonzo exits stage left yelling, ‘Then I’ll have to use a cow!’ I still smile at the absurdity but find myself trying to imagine a scenario in which a cow could be a substitute for a typewriter.

Repentance alone can never atone. However penitent Raz Shah appeared to be after her offensive remarks were uncovered, her sorrow was not enough to save her from suspension. Today, Jewish people spent an entire day confessing their guilt and expressing their sorrow for sin. But they need a sacrifice. Where you need a typewriter, a cow won’t do. And where repentance and sacrifice are required, repentance alone won’t do!

But Jewish people do have a sacrifice if only they would look to him; a scapegoat who carried their sin as far as the east is from the west!


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