Keyword:

Light from the Sidra

Yom Kippur ('Day of Atonement') 19th September 2015. 6th Tishrei 5775

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

For goodness' sake

Insanity, said Albert Einstein, is ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’ Every year the Jewish people, who are widely and rightly recognised to be the smartest people in the world, perform the same rituals they have performed for nineteen centuries in an effort to move the Almighty to forgive their sins and inscribe their names in the Book of Life. For ten days they try to make amends for wrongs done to others during the year (an excellent practice non-Jews would do well to imitate), by giving to charity (another good thing more of us should do) and by attempting to be more spiritually minded. They then spend an entire day fasting and confessing their sins, pleading with the Most High for forgiveness. But, if you had asked anyone leaving synagogue at the end of Yom Kippur last year if they were in the Book of life, I doubt that a single person would have said yes. But this year they will do it all again hoping for a different result!

Go figure. The smartest people in the world doing the very thing Einstein defined as the mark of madness!

About four years ago I was travelling to Israel and found myself sitting with a Hasidic family from London, wedged between the oldest daughter and her father. Six hours is a long time to sit next to someone without speaking, so I asked the patriarch if he and the family were going to Jerusalem to keep Yom Kippur. It was a pretty dumb question, I admit, but the conversation that followed went something like this.

‘Is it true that at Rosh Hashanah God weighs the good deeds and bad deeds of everyone in the world?’

‘Yes.’

‘And is it true that the perfectly righteous who have done no evil during the previous year are immediately inscribed in the Book of Life?’

‘Yes.’

‘And are all the perfectly wicked immediately inscribed for death?’

‘Yes.’

‘But everyone else has ten days to do as much good as they can in order to weigh the balances of heaven in their favour?’

‘Yes.’

‘Is your name in the Book of Life?’

‘I hope so. ‘No one knows.’

‘Is it true that Gentiles also are weighed in the balances of heaven and judged on Yom Kippur?’

‘Yes.’

‘I’m a Gentile. What do I have to do to be inscribed in the Book of Life?’

‘Do good things. Do good things.’

End of conversation. It was obvious he didn’t want to talk any more so I read my book and he read his. I’ve got nothing against doing ‘good things’, you understand, but when he told me that’s what I had to do in order to obtain life, I felt as though a bowling ball hit the pit of my stomach. ‘Do good things.’

If ‘good things’ and the Yom Kippur rituals didn’t give him the assurance that his sins were forgiven, what hope was there for me! A Muslim could have told me to do good things. So could a Buddhist. So could a Hindu, or a Jain, a Zoroastrian, a Catholic, a Jehovah’s Witness, a Mormon. Peel away the theological layers from the different religious systems and you’ll find they all believe salvation is earned by doing ‘good things’. So what’s wrong with trying to find salvation by doing ‘good things’? Just this: It doesn’t work!

I’m not suggesting that the rabbis should reformulate Judaism. Reformulating the God-ordained way of atonement was Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai’s the big mistake who, following the destruction of the temple 1,900 years ago, ruled that repentance was more a more effective way of removing guilt than the sacrifices. At the end of his life, the architect of post-biblical Judaism died sobbing like a child that he didn’t know if we was going to Paradise or Gehenna.

The Haftarah this week is a very interesting one. Isaiah 57:21 – ‘There is no peace,’ said my God, ‘for the wicked’ – ends the section of Isaiah that starts at Isaiah 48:22: ‘[But] there is no peace for the wicked,’ said HASHEM.

Sandwiched between those two bookmarks are the Servant Songs of Isaiah of which the final song is found in the passage 52:9-53:12, which is the middle passage of the section. Isaiah 53:5 stands exactly mid-way between HASHEM’s two declarations that there is ‘no peace for the wicked’. The verse reads: ‘He was pained because of our rebellious sins and oppressed through our iniquities; the chastisement that was upon him was for our benefit [Hebrew: Shalom, ‘peace’], and through his wounds we were healed.’

Isaiah 52:9-53:12 is the astonishing prophecy of a righteous servant of Hashem who, ‘being counted among the wicked… bore the sin of multitudes, and prayed for the wicked’ so they might have peace. Being righteous enough to obtain a place in the Book of Life, therefore, is beyond our ability. Our only hope for righteousness lies in the work of the perfectly righteous servant of HASHEM who was afflicted and oppressed by HASHEM so the wicked of Israel might be accounted righteous and have peace.

As you prepare for Yom Kippur this year, ask yourself this question: Am I doing the same thing I’ve done every year but expecting a different result?

Yes? Then it’s time to admit you need a righteousness greater than your own. It’s time to trust in God’s righteous servant, Jesus the Messiah, who by his death and obedience ‘will make multitudes righteous’ (Isaiah 53:11).


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