Posts tagged ‘Yom Kippur’

September 16, 2014

“Mistakes were made” and the Day of Atonement

Our chavurah is studying the book of Hebrews together this year and last week, as the High Holy Days were approaching, we came to the section that discusses the ritual of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement:

With things so arranged, the cohanim go into the outer tent all the time to discharge their duties; but only the cohen hagadol enters the inner one; and he goes in only once a year, and he must always bring blood, which he offers both for himself and for the sins committed in ignorance by the people. (Heb. 9:6–7; all Scripture references CJB)

I’ve read this passage many times, but what caught my eye this year was the phrase “committed in ignorance” (“in error” or “unintentionally” in other translations). Does this mean that on Yom Kippur atonement was only provided for accidental sins? It made me think of today’s practice of saying “mistake” instead of “sin” or “wrong,” like when a public figure is caught red-handed in some transgression and says “I made a mistake.” Or worse, as one of our chavurah members put it, “Mistakes were made.”

So is Hebrews saying that it’s only when someone really did make a mistake, and not when he or she outright sinned, that atonement was provided on Yom Kippur? And if Yom Kippur couldn’t provide forgiveness for all sins, then how can we claim that our Yom Kippur sacrifice, Messiah Yeshua himself, provides atonement for all sins?

Hebrews 9, though, isn’t trying to cover all the details of Yom Kippur, but is making a statement about the temple offerings in general on the way to its main point, namely, that the whole temple system is a model of the heavenly temple, in which Messiah now serves as our cohen hagadol or high priest. The terminology of Hebrews 9:7 reflects the description of the sin offerings in Leviticus: “Adonai said to Moshe, ‘Tell the people of Isra’el: “If anyone sins inadvertently . . .”’” (Lev. 4:1–2). The Hebrew word translated “inadvertently” here is repeated in 4:22, 27 and 5:15, 18. One commentator notes, “These offerings are efficacious only when offenses are inadvertent or unwitting. They do not apply to defiant acts or premeditated crimes” (Baruch Levine, The JPS Torah Commentary, Leviticus [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989] p. 18). But then he comes to 5:20 (6:1 in Christian Bibles), “If someone sins and acts perversely against Adonai by dealing falsely with his neighbor in regard to a deposit or security entrusted to him, by stealing from him, by extorting him, or by dealing falsely in regard to a lost object he has found, or by swearing to a lie — if a person commits any of these sins” . . . he too can bring a sin offering and receive atonement, but only after he has made restitution (5:20-26/6:1-7). Our commentator notes,

The offenses outlined here were quite definitely intentional! . . . But if, subsequently, the accused came forth on his own and admitted to having lied under oath—thus assuming liability for the unrecovered property—he was given the opportunity to clear himself by making restitution and by paying a fine of 20 percent to the aggrieved party. Having lied under oath, he had also offended God and was obliged to offer an ’asham sacrifice in expiation. (Levine, p. 32)

Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah taught that the atonement of Yom Kippur applies only to sins between man and God but, “for transgressions between man and man, the Day of Atonement atones, only if the man will regain the good will of his friend” (Mishnah, Yoma 8:9). This saying is remarkably similar to Messiah Yeshua’s teaching:

So if you are offering your gift at the Temple altar and you remember there that your brother has something against you, leave your gift where it is by the altar, and go, make peace with your brother. Then come back and offer your gift. (Matt 5:23–24)

“Mistakes were made” is the pale secularist imitation of confessing our sins. It might help some people feel better, but it won’t pass muster with the holy God of Leviticus and Hebrews.

During this season of repentance, through Rosh Hashanah (Sept. 24-26) and Yom Kippur (Oct. 3-4), we need to remember that repentance isn’t just admitting that we’ve sinned (which is at least an improvement over saying that “mistakes were made”). And it isn’t just feeling bad about our sins, although that’s a start. Repentance means doing all we can to correct what we’ve done wrong, to make restitution, and to regain the good will of our offended friend. If we seek that kind of repentance during this holy season, it won’t be just a religious exercise, but a potent spiritual reality.

September 19, 2011

Non-theoretical truth

We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves [and] admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

From the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous


When truth encounters the data of our lives, it gives rise to confession.

Truth itself can be pretty abstract, an ideal that dwells apart from our daily lives. But when we let the truth we find in Scripture shine on the details of our thoughts and behaviors, and speak the truth about what we see, truth is anything but abstract. It becomes something solid that works real changes into our lives. Speaking the truth about what we see is called confession, which isn’t a real popular term nowadays, but is one of the main practices of the Days of Awe (the High Holy Days, Sept. 28–Oct. 8 this year) and an essential part of the preparation for Yom Kippur. And confession of sin is a keynote of all the services of Yom Kippur itself.

September 4, 2011

Silence, Shofars, and Elul

When the Lamb broke the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for what seemed like half an hour (Rev. 8:1, CJB).

This week, our Mussar group is working on the virtue of silence (see, but silence is the last thing you’d expect in heaven. Heaven’s the scene of unending, and loud, worship and praise. Just a few verses before the one above, John, the seer of Revelation, saw “a huge crowd, too large for anyone to count, from every nation, tribe, people and language . . . and they shouted [or cried out with a loud voice] . . .” (Rev. 7:9–10, CJB). Before that, he had seen an even bigger and noisier crowd:

Then I looked, and I heard the sound of a vast number of angels—thousands and thousands, millions and millions! . . . And they shouted out, “Worthy is the slaughtered Lamb to receive power, riches, wisdom, strength, honor, glory and praise!” And I heard every creature in heaven, on earth, under the earth and on the sea—yes, everything in them—saying, “To the One sitting on the throne and to the Lamb belong praise, honor, glory and power forever and ever!” (Rev. 5:11–13, CJB).

Worship bursts forth in words and music and loud voices, and heaven is a noisy place—so what is this sudden silence about?

August 31, 2011

the Hineni hint

We’re in the middle of seven haftarot of consolation, seven readings from Isaiah that take us from Tisha B’Av to Rosh Hashanah. The haftarah for this week is Isaiah 51:12–52:12 and the haftarah for next week is Isaiah 54:1–10, so it’s pretty obvious that we’re going to skip right over Isaiah 53 (which begins at 52:13). Those of us who see Isaiah 53 as the greatest portrayal of Messiah Yeshua in the Hebrew Scriptures might be tempted to claim that it was left out of the reading cycle on purpose. But to be fair, there’s another explanation for its absence, since it doesn’t explicitly include the theme of comfort or consolation, or mention the return from exile that’s so prominent in other passages.

In fact, rather than being left out of the haftarah readings, it almost looks like chapter 53 got inserted as a parenthetical statement into the book of Isaiah between this week’s haftarah and next week’s. But, of course, that interpretation misses the point too, a major point that Isaiah is making in the way he composed his prophecy.

The key to this major point is one word, Hineni, which appears at the end of Isaiah 52:6.

August 28, 2011

Focus on one thing

During the month of Elul, Jewish tradition recommends that your take some time each day for cheshbon ha-nefesh, or taking an account of the soul.

All the month of Elul before eating and sleeping let every man sit and look into his soul, and search his deeds, that he may make confession. (S.Y. Agnon, Days of Awe, citing Maharil)

Alan Lew notes the same idea in his book, This is Real and You are Totally Unprepared. (My good friend Rube–Richard Rubinstein–recommended this book on the High Holidays to me last year, not long before he died of cancer, so it’s especially meaningful to me.)

All the rabbis who comment on this period make it clear that we … must set aside time each day of Elul to look at ourselves, to engage in self-evaluation and self-judgment, to engage in cheshbon-ha-nefesh, literally a spiritual accounting. But we get very little in the way of practical advice as to how we might do this.

Rabbi Lew goes on to give some practical advice.


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