Unanticipated Atonement

Shofar as sunriseIt’s all up to you. Everything about Yom Kippur, coming up this Friday night, points to you: In times of old, one High Priest serving our one G-d in His one Temple on His one holiest day on behalf of His one people elicited G-d’s atonement for the entire world. Today, one person, with one turn of his or her personal page, doing one good deed, or making one good resolution – can also change the course of the entire world for the good.

-Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin
Director, Chabad.org

Wait! Can you back up a second? What was that?

In times of old, one High Priest serving our one G-d in His one Temple on His one holiest day on behalf of His one people elicited G-d’s atonement for the entire world.

Now that’s confusing, at least to me. My reading of Leviticus 16 makes it seem rather obvious that the Yom Kippur service specifically atones for the sins of Israel, and it says nothing about atoning for the sins of the entire world. How could such a thing be possible?

There’s a profound lack of resources on the web (as far as I can tell) regarding Rabbi Shmotkin’s comment. I really hate to use Wikipedia as a source, but they’re about the only site that corroborates the Rabbi’s statement:

The following summary of the Temple service is based on the traditional Jewish religious account described in Mishnah tractate Yoma, appearing in contemporary traditional Jewish prayerbooks for Yom Kippur, and studied as part of a traditional Jewish Yom Kippur worship service.

While the Temple in Jerusalem was standing (from Biblical times through 70 C.E.), the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) was mandated by the Torah to perform a complex set of special services and sacrifices for Yom Kippur to attain Divine atonement, the word “kippur” meaning “atone” in Hebrew. These services were considered to be the most important parts of Yom Kippur because through them the Kohen Gadol made atonement for all Jews and the world.

Just to be clear, the source Wikipedia is relying on for this information is:

Arnold Lustiger, Michael Taubes, Menachem Genack, and Hershel Schachter
Kasirer Edition Yom Kippur Machzor With Commentary
Adapted from the Teachings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.
New York: K’hal Publishing, 2006. pp. 588–589 (summary); 590–618.

This pretty much balances with what Rabbi Shmotkin said but then maybe the Rabbi didn’t mean literally the whole world, but just all of the Jews in the world. Then again, maybe not.

Proceeding on the assumption that we’re talking about the whole world of everyone (it won’t be my last assumption), the difficult thing for me to grasp is that Yom Kippur, from the best of my understanding, provides atonement for the people of Israel (as stated in the Wikipedia quote) in part because the people of Israel want atonement. That is, there is a deliberate, cooperative desire among the Israelites to have their sins atoned for as a nation and the sense of tremendous anticipation as the High Priest enters the Holy of Holies on their behalf. It’s not as if Yom Kippur atonement works by remote control, whether you’re aware of it or not.

But that’s exactly how it would have to work if Aaron had entered the Holy of Holies in the Mishkan in the desert and made atonement for Israel and the entire population of the world.

Let’s take a few examples that are more familiar to the Christian community.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. –John 3:16

But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. –1 John 2:1-2

Standing before GodHere we see the atoning sacrifice of Jesus being depicted as applying to the whole world, yet it doesn’t literally work that way, at least not without the active agreement and volition of the individuals populating the world. In other words, you have to agree to a certain set of conditions in order for the sacrifice of Christ to atone for your sins. It isn’t applied globally to all human beings whether they want it, or are even aware of it, or not.

But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!

For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant. –Hebrews 9:11-15

Here is our High Priest in the Heavenly Temple; the Heavenly Holy of Holies, applying his own blood in place of bulls and goats, making atonement for the whole world, but it’s a world populated by people who are cooperating with and agreeing to being atoned for. It’s possible for there to be people who are not atoned for by the act of Jesus as High Priest, because (I know I’m being redundant) they haven’t agreed to being atoned for and for many people, they do not want it because they do not want to comply with the conditions required for atonement (namely coming to faith and living a Holy life).

In one of my recent blog posts I used the analogy of God as a gardener and humanity as plants in the garden. I made it a point to illustrate that we are plants who must cooperate with the gardener unlike actual plants which are completely passive as they are watered, given fertilizer, weeded, and so forth.

I realize that God desires that none should perish (2 Peter 3:9), but unlike tomato plants, we have to do something about it. Atonement and forgiveness don’t just happen by the will of God, they happen by human willingness, too. Even being healed by Jesus requires an act of faith on the part of the person being healed:

And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years, but no one could heal her. She came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak, and immediately her bleeding stopped.

“Who touched me?” Jesus asked.

When they all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the people are crowding and pressing against you.”

But Jesus said, “Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me.”

Then the woman, seeing that she could not go unnoticed, came trembling and fell at his feet. In the presence of all the people, she told why she had touched him and how she had been instantly healed. Then he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.” –Luke 8:43-48

If an act of faith is required for healing, how much more should an act of faith be required for atonement, forgiveness, and reconciliation with God?

I had meant to write something more solemn and dignified, with just a hint of joy, on this final Day of Awe, as Erev Yom Kippur is at hand and Jews all over the world prepare for Kol Nidre, but this is what happened instead.

The Death of the MasterI know I lack the information and dimension to understand what Rabbi Shmotkin wrote and what it means. For all I know, I’ve gotten what he said completely wrong. But if indeed, the High Priest in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem did enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur and atoned for the sins of the nation of Israel and every other nation on Earth while we did not have access to the Messiah and his covenant for humanity (I’m continuing to make assumptions here), then God is gracious in the extreme. That is an atonement in which we really did have to provide nothing and that was freely given by God to all people everywhere.

The world was atoned for every year by the Israelite High Priest, and yet the world was completely unaware. How much more should the world be aware that atonement is available now through the Jewish people in the body, blood, and spirit of Jesus Christ, who died once, so that we could live with God forever. What a wonderful and gracious Father.

Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you men of double mind. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to dejection. Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you. –James 4:8-10

Your child is not like everyone else; your child is you.

And yet, your child is not you; your child is his own person. A paradox.

Our souls are that paradox – on a greater scale: the nexus between G-d and His universe, where His own breath becomes His creation.

That is why we are called His children. And we call Him our Father.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“We Are the Child”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

L’shanah tovah tikatev v’taihatem. May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year. May you also have an easy fast and may the blessings of the Messiah be upon you.

7 thoughts on “Unanticipated Atonement”

  1. I think that the background to Rabbi Shmotkin’s statement is the way the Hassidim, of which he is his one, use language. His words about atonement for the whole world are paralleled by his “one one person . . . can also change the course of the entire world for the good.” The Hassidic idea of “changing the world” comes across as very dramatic in English. It’s best understood as “affecting the entire world” in an indeterminate way. Although I haven’t seen a Hassidic statement about atoning for the entire world, I suspect that it is also meant in a less dramatic way than it appears. It is likely that he means that the Yom Kippur atonement affects the whole world in an indeterminate way.

  2. I suspected it was something like that. Still, I thought it would have been incredible if, in His infinite wisdom and mercy, God provided a means of atonement for the world which, up until the time of Jesus, had no concrete method of knowing about and knowing Him, so that no one should die in their sins out of ignorance. Even the Master said, “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45) A world that could not know Him in the days of Moses and Aaron but still benefit from the Creator’s mercy and lovingkindness.

  3. “A world that could not know Him in the days of Moses and Aaron but still benefit from the Creator’s mercy and lovingkindness.” Also, “For whenever Gentiles, who have no Torah, do naturally what the Torah requires, then these, even though they don’t have Torah, for themselves are Torah!” (CJB)

  4. Just to be clear, that’s Paul’s statement in Romans 2:14. What mechanism allows those of us who have no Torah to do naturally what the Torah requires, except that we are created in the Divine image and some spark of our Creator and His Torah resides in us.

  5. Alex, I appreciate your candor and your link. Usually, when a person posts a comment with very little response to the actual blog content and pointing to a link, it constitutes spam, but in this case, I’m OK with it (that might not remain true if inserting links to your blog without discussing the topic posted here in some meaningful fashion becomes a habit).

    Since you describe yourself as a “Jewish believer in Christ” who has commemorated Yom Kippur while growing up, I wonder if you see any benefit in Christians (Jewish Christians or otherwise) observing Yom Kippur and if you will observe the day of atonement yourself?

    If the latter is true, may you have an easy fast.

  6. I suppose it depends on what you mean by “benefit.” I think there is much room for freedom with regard to these things. While throughout the centuries, there have always been Jewish people who came to believe in the Messiahship of Jesus, Jews were often forced to assimilate into the larger church and follow a policy of losing their Jewishness. The modern messianic Jewish movement (for lack of a better phrase) continues to adhere to the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, but also affirms the right of messianic Jews to identify as Jews and maintain a Jewish life-style or not, and the degree of practice of Jewish traditions and customs may vary considerably. With messianic Judaism now spread out in all parts of the world today, people are increasingly aware that a Jew can believe in Jesus and still have a strong Jewish identity. But what that looks like to each Jewish believer and how it gets expressed depends largely on one’s personal preferences. We’re free in Christ to do so and we’re free in Christ to not do so. I see it much as a Romans 14 kind of thing.

    -Alex Haiken

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