I hated Yom Kippur because it made me feel like a fraud. I would bang away at my chest all day, enumerating all my sins, promising I was repentant. But in my heart I knew that I would return to my mean self the moment the fast was over. I didn’t believe I could ever change, that I was really worthy of life and that I would ever be able to redeem myself. So I would go through the day anxious for it to be over, hating myself for being such a big, fat fraud.
“Why I Hated Yom Kippur”
I’m writing this on Sunday, almost a full week before you’ll read it. Today, my Pastor’s sermon in church was on Yom Kippur. The timing was deliberate. Last week’s sermon, which I missed because I decided to skip church for the holiday weekend, was on Rosh Hashanah. It’s always interesting to hear a sermon in a Christian church about something that is so profoundly Jewish.
Aaron shall place lots upon the two he-goats: one lot “for Hashem” and one lot “for Azazel.” Aaron shall bring near the he-goat designated by lot for Hashem, and make it a sin offering. And the he-goat designated by lot for Azazel shall be stood alive before Hashem, to provide atonement through it, to send it to Azazel to the Wilderness.
-Leviticus 16:8-10 (Stone Edition Chumash)
One of the things I’ve come to learn about Jewish holidays and festivals being preached in the church is that these Jewish events can never be allowed to just stand on their own. They always have to “point to Christ.” Otherwise, I guess, they just aren’t really worthy, God-given events all by themselves (that was a little sarcasm).
Anyway, it is Pastor’s opinion that each of these two goats represent the first and second coming of Christ. I have no idea where this idea comes from, but knowing Pastor, it comes from some Christian source or authority. Although I sometimes disagree with him, Pastor does his research and he hardly ever “shoots from the hip” in a sermon.
The analogy, which is how I think of it, falls apart when you realize the Azazel goat (Pastor called it by the more common name “scapegoat”) must bear the sins of Israel and be sent out into the Wilderness, presumably to die. One commentary in my Chumash on verse ten says:
Or HaChaim notes that the goat is referred to here and in verse 21, before the confession, as alive. After Aaron pronounces confession upon it, however, it is no longer called alive, even though it would be some time before it would go to its death. The confession had the effect of placing all of the people’s sins on the goat, which would then carry them off to the desolate Azazel. The presence of such contamination on the goat rendered it spiritually “dead;” thus it was called alive only before Aaron’s confession.
Even if you don’t quite buy what Or HaChaim says, the Azazel goat seems a poor symbol for the King of the Jews returning to redeem Israel in glory and power, leading an army of angelic beings.
But Pastor said a lot of really good things about Yom Kippur and how we Christians can learn from the Day of Atonement. Yes, he said our final atonement is Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for our sins and who was resurrected to give us the promise of eternal life through faith in him.
But he also deconstructed the mechanism of teshuvah (though he didn’t call it that) as the observant Jewish world sees it, and said point-blank that simply answering an altar call or raising your hand at Christian camp professing belief in Jesus doesn’t automatically grant you the aforementioned eternal life. Seeking atonement of your sins requires much, much more, and we aren’t fully disciples of the Master and Children of God until we do. After that, we still need to have a life of continual repentance, since we sin every day.
Rabbi J. Immanuel Schochet wrote a rather lengthy article called The Dynamics of Teshuvah, which I won’t quote from here. I think it could be called “Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Teshuvah But Were Afraid To Ask.” If you want to know more, Rabbi Schochet’s article is a good source.
But the heart of teshuvah and atonement is contained in the more modest missive written by Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zelvin called The Master Key:
One year, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov said to Rabbi Ze’ev Kitzes, one of his senior disciples: “You will blow the shofar for us this Rosh Hashanah. I want you to study all the kavanot (Kabbalistic meditations) that pertain to the shofar, so that you should meditate upon them when you do the blowing.”
Rabbi Ze’ev applied himself to the task with joy and trepidation: joy over the great privilege that had been accorded him, and trepidation over the immensity of the responsibility. He studied the Kabbalistic writings that discuss the multifaceted significance of the shofar and what its sounds achieve on the various levels of reality and in the various chambers of the soul. He also prepared a sheet of paper on which he noted the main points of each kavanah, so that he could refer to them when he blew the shofar.
Finally, the great moment arrived. It was the morning of Rosh Hashanah, and Rabbi Ze’ev stood on the reading platform in the center of the Baal Shem Tov’s synagogue amidst the Torah scrolls, surrounded by a sea of tallit-draped bodies. At his table in the southeast corner of the room stood his master, the Baal Shem Tov, his face aflame. An awed silence filled the room in anticipation of the climax of the day—the piercing blasts and sobs of the shofar.
Rabbi Ze’ev reached into his pocket, and his heart froze: the paper had disappeared! He distinctly remembered placing it there that morning, but now it was gone. Furiously, he searched his memory for what he had learned, but his distress over the lost notes seemed to have incapacitated his brain: his mind was a total blank. Tears of frustration filled his eyes. He had disappointed his master, who had entrusted him with this most sacred task. Now he must blow the shofar like a simple horn, without any kavanot. With a despairing heart, Rabbi Ze’ev blew the litany of sounds required by law and, avoiding his master’s eye, resumed his place.
At the conclusion of the day’s prayers, the Baal Shem Tov made his way to the corner where Rabbi Ze’ev sat sobbing under his tallit. “Gut Yom Tov, Reb Ze’ev!” he called. “That was a most extraordinary shofar-blowing we heard today!”
“But Rebbe . . . I . . .”
“In the king’s palace,” said the Baal Shem Tov, “there are many gates and doors, leading to many halls and chambers. The palace-keepers have great rings holding many keys, each of which opens a different door. But there is one key that fits all the locks, a master key that opens all the doors.
“The kavanot are keys, each unlocking another door in our souls, each accessing another chamber in the supernal worlds. But there is one key that unlocks all doors, that opens up for us the innermost chambers of the divine palace. That master key is a broken heart.”
Eliana Cline’s article captured what it is for a Jewish person on Yom Kippur in a more modern setting:
This Yom Kippur, I can feel the pain of not being in a state of connection and own the consequences of my choices. I can say to God, “This is not me,” and mean it. I feel repentant, not from fear – but from a genuine desire for connection, love and transcendence. Getting in touch with my higher self that yearns to be good has enabled me to sense the sadness of my past choices.
The Talmud teaches that on Yom Kippur we are compared to angels. I never really got the comparison. Until now. On Yom Kippur all the daily responsibilities and tasks are removed; it’s a day we transcend the physical and live with total purpose. It’s a day with one sole mission, like an angel, to pray, to think and to connect – to God and to our inner soul.
We can choose whether or not to truly repent of our sins and approach God. Most of us most of the time (am I being too cynical?) repent by saying “Sorry” to God, knowing full well, or at least suspecting it in the back of our minds, that we will be revisiting our same old sins again by the by. Repentance for the moment, sin for a lifetime. No wonder Cline felt like a fraud. Most of us should feel the same way.
But Christianity doesn’t have an event on its religious calendar that’s anything like Yom Kippur. Easter probably comes the closest, but that’s a holiday of victory over sin and death, not taking responsibility for sin and repairing relationships with people and with God.
Yom Kippur can seem incredibly depressing if you don’t come at it from the right direction. If you see it as having to wallow in your sins, feeling like a fraud, feeling like an abject failure, then yes, it’s really depressing. You afflict yourself, usually by a complete food and liquid fast for twenty-four hours and a bit more, and hope that’s enough to appease an angry God. But only pagan gods need to be appeased. You can’t “buy off” the One Living God with a sacrifice unless that sacrifice is you!
For You do not desire a sacrifice, else I would give it; a burnt-offering You do not want. The sacrifices God desires are a broken spirit; a heart broken and humbled, O God, You will not despise.
-Psalm 51:18-19 (Stone Edition Tanakh)
And by “you,” I mean your broken, humble, and contrite heart.
Take words with you and return to Hashem; say to Him, ‘May you forgive all iniquity and accept good, and let our lips substitute for bulls.’
-Hosea 14:3 (Stone Edition Tanakh, verse 2 in Christian Bibles)
Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name.
-Hebrews 13:15 (NASB)
Whether you’re a Christian or a Jew, we all turn to the One God when we repent and ask for forgiveness, though we are unworthy. As Christians, we turn to God through our great intercessor Christ, and we pray that God reveals Himself and his compassion to us through him. I once heard a Jewish person tell me that no man stands between a Jew and his God. I can only ask, especially now, since as you read this, Yom Kippur is just a few hours away, that God reveals all truth, first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles.
Yom Kippur is a gift. It allows us to remove the barriers that separate us from a Holy God and to once again draw near to our Father in Heaven. The gift is offered by grace. All we have to do is accept it. The only cost to us, is to be sincerely brokenhearted.
Have an easy fast and may you be inscribed in the book of life.