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Vayikra/Leviticus 16:1 And Adonai spoke to Moshe after the death of two of the sons of Aharon
This verse, the start and name of the portion - Acharei Mot, "After the Death" - starts both the detailed instructions for the Yom Kippur ritual and the set reading for the Yom Kippur morning service. But we know that Aharon's two sons, Nadav and Avihu died during the dedication of the Tabernacle, which is traditionally held to have been on the first day of Nissan, the first month, while Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is on the tenth day of Tishrei, the seventh month. This obviously exercised the ancient commentators, so we find Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba asking the question, "Since Aharon's sons died on the first of Nissan, why does Scripture mention their death in connection with the Day of Atonement?" (Pesikta de Rab Kahana 26:11). Even allowing for the rabbinic tendency to whitewash the flaws of biblical characters so as to be able to hold them up as moral exemplars, Rabbi Hiyya's answer may be surprising: "To teach that as the Day of Atonement atones for Israel's sins, so the death of the righteous atones for Israel's sins." Given the level of opposition from rabbinic quarters to our claim as believers that Yeshua's death on the cross provided atonement, on the grounds - they say - that G-d never commanded, accepted or approved of a 'human' sacrifice, this seems an astonishing claim. On what premise could it be made?
Rabbi Hiyya explains that the proof for the Day of Atonement atoning for sin is later in the same section of text: "By means of this day shall atonement be made for you" (Vayikra 16:30). He adds, "The proof that the righteous atones for sin is 'And they buried the bones of Saul and of his son Jonathan in Zela, in the territory of Benjamin, in the tomb of his father Kish. And when all that the king had commanded was done, G-d responded to the plea of the land thereafter' (2 Samuel 21:14, JPS)". This makes a number of huge assumptions: firstly, that King Saul and his son Jonathan were both righteous; secondly, that "responding to the plea of the land" is the same as making atonement; and thirdly, that this last action was the critical one in the set of commands that King David had given. Nevertheless, the statement is made that "the death of the righteous atones for Israel's sins" and that position is derived from Scripture.
The prophet Isaiah, however, spoke to this issue before the rabbis got
there. Four times in the second half of Isaiah 53 a clear statement of
equivalence is made, showing that
Towards the end of Yeshua's own ministry, the High Priest, speaking prophetically although he didn't know it at the time, confirmed that Yeshua was the Servant and would fulfill this role of sacrificial offering to atone for the sins of the people: "Kayafa, who was cohen gadol that year, said to them, 'You people don't know anything! You don't see that it's better for you if one man dies on behalf of the people, so that the whole nation won't be destroyed.' Now he didn't speak this way on his own initiative; rather, since he was cohen gadol that year, he was prophesying that Yeshua was about to die on behalf of the nation, and not for the nation alone, but so that He might gather into one the scattered children of G-d" (John 11:49-52, CJB).
Rav Sha'ul, also writing before the rabbis in the Pesikta de Rab Kahana, recognises that Yeshua was the righteous man who died to bring atonement and righteousness to the people. "For while we were still helpless, at the right time, the Messiah died on behalf of ungodly people. Now it is a rare event when someone gives up his life even for the sake of somebody righteous, although possibly for a truly good person one might have the courage to die. But G-d demonstrates His own love for us in that the Messiah died on our behalf while we were still sinners. Therefore, since we have now come to be considered righteous by means of His bloody sacrificial death, how much more will we be delivered through Him from the anger of G-d's judgment!" (Romans 5:6-9, CJB). Sha'ul sees clearly that although in human terms it would be extremely unusual for someone to offer to die in someone else's place and that such a person would have be very good to be worth saving in that way, yet Yeshua died for our atonement when we were far from good. Not only were we not good, we were far away and estranged from G-d because of our sin; as the King James Bible puts it: "dead in trespasses and sins" (Ephesians 2:1, KJV).
On the Day of Atonement, when our people again follow the ancient tradition and commandment to afflict our souls and pray fervently for G-d's forgiveness for the nation Israel, but are unable to offer sacrifice as the Temple is no more, how should we as believers identify both with Israel - of whom we are a part by birth - and with the Body of Messiah - of whom we are a part by new birth? The shul will be filled to capacity with Jews of many levels of observance and none, quite a few of whom may not have been in shul since last year, collectively beating their breasts while reciting catalogues of sins that individuals within klal Yisrael - the community of Israel - may have committed, pleading for G-d's forgiveness and favour for another year. As much as circumstances permit, we should join them, for we are still Jews and still a part of our people; we too should cry out to G-d and ask Him to hear the voices lifted in repentance to Him, we should beg G-d's favour for our people, that He will open their eyes to see Yeshua and find not only forgiveness but healing, wholeness and peace. Gentile believers in Messiah should also set the day apart for prayer and fasting: prayer for the Jewish people, that their eyes should be opened, their ears unstopped and that the spiritual blindness of centuries should be lifted and the true light of Messiah seen among the Jewish people at large; fasting to demonstrate commitment and as spiritual warfare to release the hold of the enemy.
An appropriate verse to claim as a reminder for yourself if you know Yeshua, and to pray for the as-yet-unbelieving-in-Yeshua portion of the Jewish people is: "For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of G-d" (2 Corinthians 5:21, ESV). Our Messiah became our sin offering and made atonement for the world. "Therefore G-d raised him to the highest place and gave him the name above every name; that in honor of the name given Yeshua, every knee will bow - in heaven, on earth and under the earth - and every tongue will acknowledge that Yeshua the Messiah is ADONAI - to the glory of G-d the Father" (Philippians 2:9-11, CJB). May Yeshua, the King and High Priest of Israel, be glorified this Atonement Day.
1. - For example, "But you, Israel, My servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, descendant of Abraham My friend, you whom I have taken from the ends of the earth, and called from its remotest parts, and said to you, 'You are My servant, I have chosen you and not rejected you'" (Isaiah 41:8-9, NASB).
2. - Rabbinic Judaism has in fact applied Isaiah 53 to the people Israel since approximately the 11th century, switching from their previous position that it talked about a suffering Messiah who was an individual to ease the defence of Judaism in church organised public disputations. The earlier position can be seen, for instance, in the Talmud, when Elijah is heard telling Rabbi Y'hoshua ben Levi, that the Messiah's "marks are that he sits among the poor who suffer diseases at the entrance to the city of Rome". (b. Sanhedrin 98a).
Further Study: Jeremiah 33:8; John 1:9-13
Application: Remembering always that those with medical conditions should not fast or check with their doctor before doing so, why not set apart all or part of the day of Yom Kippur to stand alongside the Jewish community and pray for true repentance and forgiveness so that the words of the prophet may be fulfilled: "And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on Me, on Him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over Him, as one weeps over a firstborn" (Zechariah 12:10, ESV).
© Jonathan Allen, 2010
17Sep10 10:14 NJ: Praise the name of Adonai. I have received much help as a gentile believer in Yeshua on how to stand with our elder brother (Jewish community), especially with the scriptural guidance. We pray that in the near future the church will begin to celebrate the biblical feasts too and observe the shabbat.
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