When G-d Forgives, You are Truly Forgiven

For those who have gone through the yearly cycle of Torah readings, I would like to give you an opportunity to show off your knowledge:

Forgive
Torn piece of paper with the word “Forgive” in the woman’s palms.

In the Yom Kippur service proper (which excludes the daily morning and evening service), how many animals are used and how many are sacrificed?
Answer: five animals are used, four animals are sacrificed before Hashem.

Leviticus 16:3, 6, 11, 14, 18, 27 — And Aaron shall take a young bull for a chattat for himself, to make atonement for himself and for his house. And Aaron shall present the bullock of the sin-offering, and shall make atonement for himself, and for his house, and shall kill the bullock of the sin-offering. And he shall take of the blood of the bullock, and sprinkle it seven times with his finger upon the ark-cover on the east. And he shall go out unto the altar, and make atonement for it; and shall take of the blood of the bullock and put it upon the horns of the altar. And the bullock of the sin-offering shall be carried from the camp; and they shall burn in the fire the skin, the flesh, and the dung.

Leviticus 16:5, 7-8 — Aaron shall take two male goats for a sin offering and set them before the Hashem at the door of the tent of meeting. And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats: one lot for Hashem, and the other lot for Azazel.

Leviticus 16:9, 15-16, 18-20, 27 — And Aaron shall present the goat upon which the lot fell for Hashem, and offer him for a sin offering. Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering for the people, and bring his blood within the veil, and do with his blood as he did with the blood of the bullock, and sprinkle it upon the ark cover, and before the ark cover. And he shall make atonement for the holy place, because of the uncleannesses of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions, even all their sins; and so shall he do for the tent of meeting, that dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses. And he shall go out unto the altar, and make atonement for it; and shall take of the blood of the bullock, and of the blood of the goat, and put it upon the horns of the altar round about. And he shall sprinkle of the blood upon it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it, and hallow it from the uncleannesses of the children of Israel. And the goat of the sin offering, whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the holy place, shall be carried forth from the camp; and they shall burn in the fire the skin, the flesh, and the dung. And when he has made an end of atoning for the holy place, and the tent of meeting, and the altar, he shall present the live goat.

Leviticus 16:10, 21-22 — And the goat, on which the lot fell for Azazel, shall be presented alive before Hashem, to make atonement, and to send him away for Azazel into the wilderness. And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, even all their sins; and he shall put them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of an appointed man into the wilderness. And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land which is cut off; and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness.

Leviticus 16:3, 5 — Aaron shall present a ram for a burnt offering for Aaron and a ram (male sheep) for a burnt offering for the whole congregation. and offer his burnt-offering and the burnt-offering of the people, and make atonement for himself and for the people.

Leviticus 16:33-34 — And he shall make atonement for the most holy place, and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar; and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly. And this shall be an everlasting statute unto you, to make atonement for the children of Israel because of all their sins once in the year.

There is a reason the sacrificial portion of this service is presented in the order in which we see it. In his professional capacity, the Cohen Gagol serves as our intercessor. How can he intercede on our behalf if he, too, has a problem with sin, which causes a lowered kedushah (holiness)? Therefore, the first ones who must find forgiveness and kedushah are the High Priest and the Cohanim. By confessing his sin and the sin of his family, he gains forgiveness, which allows him to raise his kedushah when the bullock is slaughtered. Only by raising his kedushah is the Cohen Gadol able to perform the service on our behalf and on behalf of the holy sanctuary and its furnishings.

Next, the goat for Hashem is slaughtered. This goat is used to atone or to raise the keushah of the mishkan (Tabernacle), which has suffered a loss of holiness because of our tumot (uncleanness) and our pisheichem (our rebellious actions) and our chattot (inadvertent misdeeds) throughout the year. It shall make atonement for the sanctuary, the tabernacle, and the altar.

The second goat, the one upon whom the lot for Azazel fell, is brought alive to stand before the door of the Tabernacle. The High Priest presses his two hands upon the head of the goat and confesses the iniquity, the transgressions, and the sin of the entire people of Israel. This is one of the most important parts of the Yom Kippur service at the Tabernacle, and this part of the service has made its way into the High Holiday liturgy, though it is now done by all of us. In the synagogue’s Yom Kippur service there are two central prayers of most importance. The first is Kol Nidre and the second is the Al Chet. Kol Nidre (All Vows) provides a way for those who have found themselves trapped in a vow they cannot keep for one valid reason or another, to escape the entanglement caused by the vow from an emotional level. ((I have met people who see negatively Kol Nidre as being a way to circumvent the Torah, but one must always remember there is the letter of the Law and there is the spirit of the Law; we must always present our argument against the observance of another person in such a way that we do not remove ourselves from Hashem’s grace.))

The Al Chet prayer is our communal declaration of sin. Just as the High Priest lays his hands on the goat and confesses all the sin of all the people, so too, we confess before Hashem all the sins of all His people. From the sin we committed before Him under duress or willingly to the sin we commit before Him in public or in private, Al Chet provides a way for each sin to be confessed at least four times. After this declaration, both the High Priest and the Rabbi are able to say in the name of the Lord, “shalachti,” “I forgive.” The goat for Azazel, then, is sent away, cut off, banished. This act is the vehicle by which G-d forgives His community of their sin. Please take special note: no blood is dashed onto the altar, yet we are forgiven.

There is a psychological aspect to the Yom Kippur service that often skips our notice because this passage is in the midst of a larger section of Torah that contains little to no narrative. Four weeks ago, we read that on the eighth day after the dedication of the temple, Nadav and Avihu brought what the Hebrew text called “aish zarah,” or “strange fire” before Hashem. In response to this, a fire burst forth from Hashem and the two men were turned to ash. Juxtaposed immediately after this event, Hashem warns, “Drink no wine nor strong drink, neither you nor your sons with you, when you go into the tent of meeting, so that you will not die.” We automatically assume Nadav and Avihu were drunk when they entered the sanctuary, but today’s passage gives an additional clue that is supported by the reading from four weeks ago: “Speak to Aaron your brother, that he shall not come into the holy place within the veil at all times, so that he will not die, for I appear in the cloud upon the ark-cover.” So what was the egregious sin committed by Nadav and Avihu? Above all things, it was entering the Kadosh Kedoshim unannounced and at the wrong time. Were they under the influence of wine or strong drink? Parshah Shemini seems to indicate this was the case, but today’s portion accents Aaron’s sons’ bad timing, and not their drinking.

Imagine being Aaron: his two sons died in the very spot he had to walk but once a year. In the holiest place, the Kadosh Kedoshim, where the remains of his sons were collected, he had to approach with the blood of the bullock and the blood of the goat for Hashem to atone for himself and for the uncleanness of the whole people. I can only imagine the pain his heart felt every Yom Kippur throughout his entire life as he was reminded time and time again of their unfortunate deaths. Add to this the fact that the bullock he had to give as a sacrifice for the atonement of his sin and the sins of his family, was a yearly reminder of his participation in the cheit haegel (sin of the golden calf).

While reading this week’s passage, I was struck by one passage:

Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, even all their sins; and he shall put them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of an appointed man into the wilderness. And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land which is cut off; and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness (Leviticus 16:22-23)

Three groups of avairos (sins) are declared over the goat:

  • All the iniquities [kol avonot] – these are the sins we commit in rebellion in we do because we are angry with G-d. I call these the sins by which we shake our fist at Heaven.
  • All their transgressions [kol pisheichem] – these are the sins we commit knowingly or the sin we commit under coersion or duress.
  • All their sins [kol chatotam] – these are the sins we commit mindlessly, that we commit without prior knowledge.

Our understanding of sin and its severity a often skewed. For instance, a simple slip of the tongue is considered a minor infraction, while idolatry in any fashion is one of the deadly sins. While idolatry is a grave sin, we need to keep in mind that the sin of the golden calf is called the chait haegel, a “sin we committed mindlessly or a sin we committed without realizing it was sin.” In contrast, the simple slips of the tongue (lhon hara, gossip, talking down about someone else) caused Miriam to suffer tzaraat and to be expelled from the camp for seven days (once one was removed from the camp for their bad behavior, rarely did they ever return).

In Leviticus 16:22-23, we are given a surety that our sins will be forgiven once we turn from them or if we are in the process of making them right. Even sins of rebellion, sins we do even though we understand they are wrong, and the sins we perform out of mindlessness or ignorance, these are all forgiven once we turn from them. We learned during Yom Kippur that no one, not even Acher, is so far from G-d that he cannot return in repentance. In like manner, digging our toes in the dirt and refusing to walk in our sin, will provide G-d an opportunity to forgive us and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

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