Yom Kippur – Sacrifices, Fasting, and Atonement

Last year, I had a discussion with my long time teacher and mentor, Reb Yitzhak. We talked about the possible rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. I talked about the potential to have the sacrifices reinstituted, and what an exciting thing that would be. Reb Yitzhak said it would be a big mistake. I asked why, and he told me there were two main problems. I mentioned the Dome of the Rock shrine Islam erected on the site, but he said that wasn’t the major problem.

The first problem as he sees it, was the selection of the High Priest. There would be a major fight within Judaism about who would be the High Priest. Would he be Ashkenazi or Sephardic? If they choose a High Priest, other Kohanim would be selected for Temple service and that would be a major battle as well. “I’ll be High Priest, and you will do this, and you will do that, etc.” The response would be, “Why should you get to be High Priest? Who are you? You should be nothing and I should be High Priest, etc.” It would be a big mess.

The second problem, as he sees it, would come about when they actually have a High Priest. He would go to make the first sacrifice. The Temple courts will be filled with Haredi Jews, who have been studying about the sacrifices in their Talmud studies for thousands of years. They would all stand and watch, and as soon as the Priest makes the first sacrifice, thousands of people would be looking over his shoulder and say, “You did it wrong. Do it over.” He said they would be there all day doing the first sacrifice because in the eyes of the learned onlookers, he didn’t do it right, and probably never would satisfy everyone.

These objections would not be unusual in Judaism. In the first century, we know the Essene community removed itself from Jerusalem because they rejected the priesthood that was in power at the time. It probably was a contributing factor as to why the Tzadukim, the Sadducees, came about. Their theology was centered on the Temple and the sacrificial system. At the time, it probably gave a definitive decision about how the sacrifices were to be performed. If the other groups in Judaism, with their different ways of interpreting Scripture joined that conversation, there would have never been sacrifices everyone could agree with.

At the end of Yom Kippur last year, I got a phone call from Reb Yitzhak. He said he changed his mind and rebuilding the Temple would be a good idea. I asked why, and he said if we rebuilt the Temple, we wouldn’t have to afflict ourselves so severely and rely on the sacrifice instead of our fasting. Once again, human comfort wins.
The Torah portion, Leviticus 16: 29-33 says,

29 And this shall be to you a law for all time: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall practice self-denial; and you shall do no manner of work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you. 30 For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before the Lord. 31 It shall be a Sabbath of complete rest for you, and you shall practice self-denial; it is a law for all time. 32 The priest who has been anointed and ordained to serve as priest in place of his father shall make expiation. He shall put on the linen vestments, the sacral vestments. 33 He shall purge the innermost Shrine; he shall purge the Tent of Meeting and the altar; and he shall make expiation for the priests and for all the people of the congregation.

Verse 30 says, “For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before the Lord. “ Atonement shall be made, and you shall be clean before the Lord. That verse is a great comfort, because the atonement, according to scripture is made by the Priest, and the affirmation that we shall be clean before the Lord, or in other words, God accepts what is done.

Reb Yitzhak’s objections are very real possibilities, given human nature. God set up the sacrificial system to be a blessing to Israel, and it was. The problem wasn’t what God set up, but with human shortcomings and fighting over what it means and how it should be done. It would be very easy as a Messianic Jew to look at the Sacrifices and remember that they point to Yeshua’s more perfect sacrifice and remember that the Torah sacrifices pointed toward His sacrifice, and while those sacrifices cleansed from sin, not because they were perfect, or because the blood of bulls and goats was efficacious, but because God said he would accept them. Today, those sacrifices do not exist. If they come to exist in the future, they would again point to Yeshua’s more perfect sacrifice which even now brings atonement and forgiveness of sin, because God accepts it, not as a replacement, but as the reality to which the sacrifices point.

The thing that has not changed is not a matter of sacrifices, but human nature. The sages taught that the Holidays begin with Rosh Hashanah and end with Yom Kippur. A day of remembrance starts the Holy season, and a Day of Atonement ends it. The ten days intervening are given for us to remember and reflect upon our human relationships and sins against one another, and repent and forgive one another. The final day, Yom Kippur is given for us to repent and atone toward God.

The reason we are given ten days to make repentance and reconciliation with one another and one day to make it with God, is because it’s easier to repent to God. You say you are sorry, you ask forgiveness, seek to do better next time, and its finished. It’s not so simple with people. Repentance is complicated as is everything that involves humans. We have to deal with people’s hurt feelings, make restitution, have to hope people will be willing to forgive, and do the same toward others repenting to us.

The reason it is more difficult to reconcile with people than God is because we don’t always trust that people were sincere, or even if they were, they might commit the offense again. When it comes to offenses against us, we have long memories, and that is part of the problem.

My mother told me a story about her father and her uncle Harry. They were two brothers who emigrated from Eastern Poland with their family in the early 20th century. They helped bring the entire family to America. Somewhere along the line my grandfather and his brother had a big fight, and didn’t speak to each other for 20 years. As a result, their children grew up not knowing each other. After 20 years, before the High Holy Days, they met each other while visiting the graves of their parents. Having not seen each other in all that time, they looked at each other, wept, and embraced. They had forgotten about what they quarreled.

Forgiveness is something we need to practice in regard to one another. We don’t have to actually forget wrongs, but we have to learn to put them aside when we relate to people. Scripture teaches us that God forgives our sins so that they are not counted against us. We need to do this with others, and it is not easy. When someone has hurt me, it’s very difficult to let go, but that’s what I need to do. God wants us to make things right with our brethren before we come to him. Forgiveness is not pretending the offense never happened. It’s valuing the person more than the offense.

The real problem with holding back forgiveness from others is the price we pay. Many years ago, someone hurt my wife. I was extremely angry. The offender brushed it off. I stayed angry for five long, dark years. It made me bitter and poisoned me. After five years, I realized that the person I wanted to help was no longer hurting over it. She had moved on. The person I was mad at was going on his merry way and probably didn’t even consider his actions. The one I wanted to help wasn’t being helped, and the one I wanted to hurt wasn’t being hurt. The only one to suffer was me. God showed me that I needed to let go of the offense and forgive. When I did, I had an incredible sense of relief and peace. I went to the offender and told him I forgive him and hold nothing against him. His response was that he did nothing wrong. I let it go, because forgiveness is something I do, regardless of whether the person deserved it. God forgave me when I didn’t deserve it either. Isaiah 58 says,

“Is this not the fast that I have chosen: To loose the bonds of wickedness, To undo the heavy burdens, To let the oppressed go free, And that you break every yoke?

Bonds of wickedness may be our associations, but they can also be the bonds that we refuse to let go of when we have suffered from other’s wickedness that wind up poisoning us. It is an undoing of heavy burdens to forgive.
Yeshua said in Matthew 5:23-24,

“Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

When we come before God, it should be with the confidence that we are holding nothing against anyone, and that we have forgiven those who trespassed against us, because that’s what He does for us. Being like Yeshua is means letting go of the pains and offenses others have committed and while not pretending it didn’t happen, putting it aside and considering the debt paid by someone else who also paid our debt.

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2 thoughts on “Yom Kippur – Sacrifices, Fasting, and Atonement

  1. Rabbi, thank you for this teaching. I can say from personal experience that you are right. I think you know the people involved in what I am about to write as my witness that what you say is ruight.

    My wife and I had an encounter with a man who claimed to be a Rabbi, and it was probably the most caustic and offensive encounter I have ever had with another man. I know I am not the easiest person to get along with, but this matter went far beyond anything related to my personality. It utterly destroyed what I had expected to be a new relationship with a Messianic congregation. It made both my wife and me bitter toward the man, and left us feeling that we no longer had any direct connection with Messianic Judaism.

    I was FURIOUS, as was my wife. We both were looking for ways to get an apology from the man, and/or to get back at him. You told me I had no choice but to let it go, let God deal with it, and move on without the baggage. Was that hard? YES, but we forgave him in our hearts and moved on. He, of course, never changed his conduct, but we just let him go on without us, and we are now at peace about it.

    God has separated us from him and from the misery, and we have found a far better connection with Messianic Judaism. We are healed of it all, because we forgave and left it to God to deal with. How he will do that I neither know nor care.

    What I have learned is that is is possible to just walk away from stuff like this. God can change our hearts, if we just step aside and let him do it. I had occasion to see this man again a few months ago, and it didn’t even occur to me to go after him again. It was a totally peaceful encounter.

    God is good. He knows us far better than we know ourselves.

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