Tag Archives: kol nidre

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.

Backward On the Thread of Time

Backwards“It would be easier sometimes to change the past.”
-Jackson Browne
Fountain of Sorrow (1974)

“You can’t unring a bell.”

Yes, we are physical beings; but there is something in us that transcends the physical. Man is an amalgam of matter and spirit, a marriage of body and soul. It is our spiritual self that persists in the belief that the past can be redeemed. It is our connection with the spiritual essence of our lives that grants us the capacity for teshuvah–the capacity to “return” and retroactively transform the significance of past actions and experiences.

What is this “spiritual essence” with which we seek connection? And how does it enable us to literally change the past?

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
“How to Change the Past”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

So, which is it? Can we change the past or not? Rabbi Tauber and musician Jackson Browne say “yes”, but our anonymous bell ringing philosopher says “no”. As we approach Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish religious calendar, we are reminded of the many mistakes we’ve made over the past year. While remembrance and regrets are part of what makes us human, we often want to forget and to undo those things that we have done. Is there a way? Here’s what Rabbi Tauber has to say:

Not just man, but every object, force and phenomenon has both a “body” and a “soul.” A thing’s body is its physical mass, its quantifiable dimensions, its “hard facts.” A thing’s soul is its deeper significance–the truths it expresses, the function it performs, the purpose it serves.

…man is a spiritual creature in that he imparts significance to his deeds and experiences. Things don’t just happen–they happen for a reason, they mean something, they further a certain objective. The same event can therefore mean different things to different people; by the same token, two very different events may serve the same purpose and elicit identical feelings, imbuing them with kindred souls despite the dissimilarity of their bodies.

The body of our lives is wholly subject to the tyranny of time–the “hard facts” cannot be undone. A missed flight cannot be unmissed; a harsh word uttered to a loved one cannot be unspoken. But the soul of these events can be changed. Here we can literally travel back in time to redefine the significance of what occurred.

So the answer is “yes” and “no”. We cannot physically travel back in time and change a single word uttered in anger or even one careless action, but we can change the soul of the event and we can change our soul, re-making the meaning not only of what we have said and done, but re-making the meaning of our lives. That’s what the Days of Awe are all about, not just saying you’re sorry, and not just asking for forgiveness for your misdeeds, but spiritually, metaphysically, mystically re-creating time and space so that they, and we, are brand new again.

We are also re-creating ourselves so that we are brand new again, clean and pure as we stand before the throne of God.

According to the writer of the book of Hebrews, Messiah has become our High Priest. He entered into the Holy of Holies in heaven—the actual throne room of God—and applied His own blood for atonement. He entered into the presence of God for us so that he might usher us in as well (Hebrews 9:11-12). Messiah is our High Priest, “a minister in the sanctuary and in the true tabernacle, which the LORD pitched, not man” (Hebrews 8:2). Therein he applied his atoning blood. Therefore, the ceremony of the Day of Atonement uniquely patterns the work of Messiah: His death, his sacrifice and the atonement of his blood. We boldly enter the presence of God because the blood of Messiah covers us. Today he stands interceding on our behalf before the throne of God, just like a high priest.

The Holiest Day of the Year
Commentary on Yom Kippur

Kol NidreIn the imagery from the Book of Hebrews, we can connect Judaism’s Yom Kippur with the atoning sacrifice of Christ. In Leviticus 16 God told Moses to tell Aaron, the High Priest of the Children of Israel, to enter the Holy of Holies only once a year to make atonement for the people. The FFOZ commentary illustrates how the Messiah, as our High Priest, has made that atonement once and for all on behalf of humanity, and in accordance with the Messianic covenant. He has opened the door and allowed the world to know God.

But Yeshua (Jesus) cried out again with a loud voice, and his spirit departed.

Then the curtain in the Sanctuary was torn from top to bottom into two pieces. The earth quaked, and the rocks were split. The tombs were opened, and many of the holy ones sleeping in the dusty ground were awakened. They came forth from the tombs after his resurrection and entered the Holy City, and they were seen by many.

And when the centurion and the men with him who were guarding Yeshua saw the earthquake and what had happened, they were very terrified, and they said, “Surely this was the son of God.” –Matthew 27:50-54 (DHE Gospels)

Yom Kippur is a solemn reminder of who Christ is and who we are in him and how, even though we cling to the fringes of his garment, we are still frail and prone to weakness.

An interpretation given to the Kol Nidre is that the congregation declares, by implication, at the beginning of Yom Kippur: “See, O Lord, what miserable sinners we are. We make promises to live better lives each year and yet always fall far short of keeping them. Therefore, help us, O Lord, and pardon us for our shortcomings.”

-Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006)
“Kol Nidrei: The evening service of Yom Kippur is named after this declaration”
As quoted from My Jewish Learning

As solemn as the Kol Nidre service is, held the evening of Yom Kippur, there is also a promise of the future, a door opens in the fabric of the universe allowing man access to God in humility, awe, and hope. For humanity, the key to the door is Jesus, and once he guides us into the presence of the Most High, we can turn back the clock on events, or perhaps even erase them altogether, through God’s lovingkindness.

On the material surface of our lives, time’s rule is absolute. But on its spiritual inside, the past is but another vista of life, open to exploration and development with the transformative power of teshuvah. -Rabbi Tauber

For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust. –Psalm 103:11-14

Dancing on a stringMy friend Yahnatan on his blog Gathering Sparks posted the following quote from R.R. Reno’s First Things:

I am Christian and not Jewish. I have no real grasp of Hebrew and I only vaguely follow the prayers in my wife’s synagogue. Yet, in the final moments of Yom Kippur I have felt a terrible anguish, yearning to move, and yet immobile, wanting to rush to God’s side and yet nailed to my worldly life. I have shuddered as cantor cries out: “The doors are closing; the doors are closing.” For in those haunting words I hear Jesus saying: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”

I am also a Christian married to a Jewish wife but I don’t believe that applying Yom Kippur to a Christian faith is only for those few of us who are intermarried. God wants all of His people to live, not in the past and not in our sorrow and regrets, but in an active and joyful present life with Him. Heaven doesn’t have to wait. The Kingdom of God is as near as we want it to be. God is as close as the next beat of our hearts. Time is a river and we can swim in pursuit of God, moving upstream and down.

Sacred history may be described as an attempt to overcome the dividing line of past and present, as an attempt to see the past in the present tense (pp 211-12).

All generations of Israel, we are told, were present at Sinai…It was an act of transcending the present, history in reverse: thinking of the future in the present tense (pp 215-16)

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
God in Search of Man : A Philosophy of Judaism

When we break the fast of Yom Kippur, let us dance with God backward across the strand of time while looking forward to another year ahead in His Holy splendor.