“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.

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