Light from the Sidra

Vayelech (‘And he went out’). 8th October 2016. 6th Tishri 5776

Torah: Leviticus 16:1-34; Numbers 29:7. Haftarah: Isaiah 57:14 – 58:14

Dude, where’s my atonement?

Yomim Noraim, the Days of Awe, are here and Jewish people the world over are seeking to make amends for wrongs done in preparation for Yom Kippur. A few years ago, during the Days of Awe I found myself sharing a flight to Israel with a Hasidic family. They were on their way to Jerusalem for the Day of Atonement and I asked the paterfamilias if his name was in the Book of Life. When he told me he didn’t know, I asked if Gentiles as well as Jews are judged at Rosh Hashanah. He told me it was true, so I asked what non-Jews such as I should do to obtain a place in the Book of Life. ‘Do good things,’ was all he said. ‘Do good things.’

The man went back to his book, which I took that to be an indication that he didn’t wish to talk further. His answer saddened me. If an evidently pious Jewish man couldn’t be certain of being inscribed for a good year, what hope was there for me? The Hasidim have applied themselves, possibly more than any other people, to the task of achieving righteousness in the eyes of God but this pious family man had no certainty that his good deeds were more than his bad deeds. If doing good things didn’t work for him, a religious Jew, what hope could I have that I would fare any better? I mean, you wouldn’t take advice about reversing hair loss from someone who was as bald as an egg. You wouldn’t try a weight-loss programme marketed by a 40-stone junk food junkie. You wouldn’t sign up for a cancer cure developed by a doctor who had just died of cancer!

What also troubled me about my travelling companion’s answer was that I could have got the same advice had I asked a Muslim or a Sikh, a Buddhist or a Jain, a Mormon or a Roman Catholic. ‘Do good things’ is the default setting of every man-made religion. If ‘do good things’ is the best answer Judaism can provide to the question, ‘What must I do to have everlasting life?’ then Judaism is just one more religion doing business in the shopping mall of faith. The Judaism of Moses and the Tanakh, however, is unique among the world’s religions. According to Pirke Avot 2:1, ‘Shimon HaTzaddik was from the remnants of the Great Assembly. He used to say: “On three things the world stands. On Torah, on service [of God], and on acts of human kindness.”’

The ‘Great Assembly’ existed while the temple was still standing, and the reference to the ‘service of God’ relates to the sacrificial system, by which Israel’s sins were dealt with on Yom Kippur.

Part of this week’s Haftarah reading is Isaiah 58, which deals with the question asked by Israel in Isaiah’s day: Why did HASHEM ignore their fasting? HASHEM’s answer was that he required more from his people than the occasional empty stomach.

There are scholars who believe that passages such as Isaiah 1:11, in which God says he takes no pleasure in burnt offerings, indicates that HASHEM never required sacrifice but those scholars would never suggest, on the basis of Isaiah 58, that God never required fasting on the Day of Atonement.

Yom Kippur was fixed in Israel’s annual calendar to provide the means for the cleansing God’s of redeemed people so he could continue to dwell among them. The Day of Atonement was Israel’s annual ‘deep cleaning’; a ‘de-sinning’ of the Tabernacle and the people.

On the tenth day of the seventh month each year, the high priest had to enter the holiest site on earth, the place where heaven and earth met and where the King of the Universe sat enthroned between the golden cherubim. Dressed in a simple white robe symbolising the perfect purity the Jewish people hoped to attain on that day, the high priest made atonement for his own sins, for those of his family, for those of the other priests and, finally, for Israel and the tabernacle. The sanctuary required purging from the ritual pollution that had accumulated from both priests and people. The cleansing agent, as Leviticus 17:11 makes plain, was sacrificial blood.

To atone for the sins of Israel and to remove their guilt, the high priest had to take two goats. Lots were drawn for them; one for HASHEM and the other for ‘Azazel’. The goat for HASHEM was killed and its blood – which represented the very life of HASHEM – was sprinkled on the Ark of the Covenant.

The goat for Azazel – the ‘scapegoat – was not killed. In the sight of the people, the high priest placed his hands on the goat’s head and confessed the sins of Israel, symbolically transferred the guilt of the people to the scapegoat, which was then sent into the wilderness bearing their sins. And, in order to add to the significance of the rite, Jewish tradition has it that scarlet wool was wrapped around the horns of the goat and tied to the doors of the temple. If the sacrifice was fully accepted, under the intense Middle Eastern sun the scarlet turned white, as if to symbolise the wonderful promise of Isaiah 1:18 that Israel’s sins, though scarlet, would become white as snow.

However, according to tractate Yoma 39b in the Talmud: ‘During the last forty years before the destruction of the Temple, the lot [for HASHEM] did not come up in the right hand; nor did the crimson-coloured strap become white…’ Why?

According to Isaiah 53, a righteous servant of HASHEM would act as the scapegoat. HASHEM would put his righteous servant to grief and lay on him (as on the scapegoat) the iniquity of Israel, even though the servant had done no violence nor spoken deceit. When Isaiah’s remarkably graphic prophecy came to pass there was no further need for sacrificial goats every year. The death of the righteous servant made burnt offerings redundant. Sacrifices were not superseded by repentance; they were replaced by the supreme sacrifice of Messiah who was wounded for Israel’s transgressions and bruised for their iniquities.

Albert Einstein defined lunacy as doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results. Year after year, Jewish people fast, pray and repent on Yom Kippur in an effort to find acceptance with God but end the day as unsure as ever of peace with God. Jewish people will repeat the procedure this year, while hoping for a different result. The truth of the matter is that without sacrificial blood there can never be a certainty of forgiveness. But what about when we shuffle off this mortal coil? Without a hope for life in this world, what hope can anyone have for life in the next? So why live in uncertainty? Why do the same as you’ve done all your life hoping for a different result? Trust instead in God’s righteous servant, Jesus the Messiah, who offered himself to God as the final and ultimate sacrifice for sins.



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