This article in the Tablet is sort of a counter-point to my 9/8 blog “Return to me and I will return to you,” but I like it: Talmudic Tale Presents President Obama With a Yom Kippur Warning.
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?
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.
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 www.rivertonmussar.org), 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?
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.
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.