Light from the Sidra

Yom Kippur ('Day of Atonement')

Torah: Leviticus 16:1-34; Numbers 29:7-11. Haftarah: Isaiah 57:14-58:14

May you be inscribed for eternity

Last Sunday’s episode of Simon Schama’s TV series The Story of the Jews began with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple and how the rabbis set to work to devise a way in which Judaism could survive outside the Land and without the temple. In the period of the second temple it was said the world rested on three pillars: the Torah, Worship (by which was meant the temple sacrifices) and Good Deeds. With the destruction of the temple the middle pillar on which the world was founded was removed. What could replace it?

A great deal of space in the rabbinic writings is devoted to that question. Avot d’Rabbi Nathan, relates a conversation between the great Jewish leader Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai and his disciple Rabbi Joshua as they walked near the site where the temple once stood. ‘Woe is us!’ cried Rabbi Joshua, ‘The place where Israel obtained atonement for sins is in ruins.’ Rabbi Johanan responded, ‘My son, be not distressed. We still have an atonement equally efficacious and that is the practice of benevolence.’

The rabbis taught, ‘Whence is it derived that if one repents it is imputed to him as if he had gone up to Jerusalem, built the temple, erected an altar and offered upon it all the sacrifices enumerated in the Torah from the text, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit and a contrite heart.”’

It is evident that Judaism today is not the religion of Moses. Modern Judaism in all its forms was established by the rabbis, in particular Yohanan ben Zakkai. So much so that Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner observes in his book Jews and Christians: The Myth of a Common Tradition, Judaism today is not the religion of the Bible; it is the religion of the Talmud.

Although ben Zakkai was a religious genius and although he enabled Judaism to survive and although he remains one of the greatest figures in Judaism, he was plagued with doubts for the rest of his life. Tractate Berachot 28b in the Talmud includes the following tragic account of his death:

In his last hours, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai kept weeping out loud. ‘O master,’ his disciples exclaimed, ‘O tall pillar, light of the world, mighty hammer, why art thou weeping?’ He said to them, ‘Do I then go to appear before a king of flesh and blood, whose anger, if he should be angry with me, is but of this world? and whose chastening, if he should chastise me, is but of this world? Whom I can, moreover appease with words or bribe with money?’ I go instead to appear before the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, whose anger, if he should be angry with me, is of this world, and the world to come, and whom I cannot appease with words or bribe with money! Moreover, I have before me two roads, one to Gan Eden and one to Gehinnom, and I know not whether he will sentence me to Gehinnom or admit me into Gan Eden.’

According to Rabbi Berel Wein, ben Zakkai took it upon himself to change the course of Jewish history but to his dying moments was never truly sure whether he had chosen right. If the architect of modern Judaism had no certainty of heaven, what hope has the average Jew today? At the end of the Fast, how many Jewish people will be able to put their hands on their hearts and say they know with absolute certainty that if they were to die at that moment they would be welcomed into Gan Eden?

Jewish people need a greater means of atonement than their own efforts. They need a means of atonement to which the temple sacrifices were mere signposts; a death of which the two goats in Leviticus 16 were pale shadows.

In the year 30CE, a Jewish prophet called Yohanan ben Zechariah called Israel to repentance in preparation for the coming kingdom of heaven, as foretold in Daniel 2:44. As he immersed penitent Israelites in the Jordan River, he pointed to one man and declared him to be the Lamb of God who would bear away not only the sins of Israel but also the sins of the world. That man was Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah of God, and throughout the last 2,000 years millions of Jews and Gentiles have found Yohanan’s words about him to be truly prophetic.

This year, may you truly be inscribed in the Book of Life, not just for 5774 but for eternity!

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