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Vayikra/Leviticus 16:21 And Aharon shall lean both his hands upon the head of the live goat
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This verse, describing the way in which the Cohen Gadol transfers the sins of Israel onto the scapegoat during the Yom Kippur ritual each year, contains a textual anomaly: the phrase is inconsistent. - "two of" or "both" - is plural, while - "his hand" - is singular. The Masoretes corrected this by means of a keri1, adding a yod into the word to be read as if it were , "his hands", plural. The tradition is witnessed earlier than the Masoretic text, however, inTargum Onkelos () and the Septuagint () which have the plural form: "hands". The emphasis is important, to show that this is no casual action; it is done quite deliberately, using both hands to effect a complete transfer. One hand would not do, either because it might show that only half the person of the Cohen Gadol was engaged with the process, or that only half the sins were transferred; both hands were required for full engagement and identification.
The verse goes on to specify that Aharon shall make a solemn verbal confession (as most English versions translate) over the head of the goat. The Hebrew verb is , using an unusual Hitpa'el form of the verb , "to thank", having the sense of "confess" or "proclaim". This too is important, because it is not really the goat who needs to hear a catalogue of Israel's sins; neither doesHaShem, who already knows them, but it is the Cohen Gadol representing Israel, so that Israel may know for themselves, the sins they have committed. The Mishnah records the words of the confession and the ritual that was used:
He comes to the goat which is to be sent forth and lays his two hands on it and makes the confession. And thus did he say, "O L-rd, your people, the house of Israel, has committed iniquity, transgressed and sinned before you. Forgive, O L-rd, I pray, the iniquities, transgressions and sins, which your people, the house of Israel, have committed, transgressed and sinned before you, as it is written in the Torah of Moshe, your servant, For on this day shall atonement be made for you to clean you. From all your sins shall you be clean before the L-rd" (Vayikra 16:30). And the priests and people standing in the courtyard, when they would hear the Name of the L-rd come out of the mouth of the Cohen Gadol, would kneel and bow down and fall on their faces and say, "Blessed be the name of the glory of His kingdom forever and ever."
It is interesting to see in the Mishnah text that three types of sin are specifically addressed: sin, transgression and iniquity. Sin is something that is done wrong, perhaps in ignorance, perhaps by mistake, and corresponds to missing the mark, failing to reach or achieve the standard. Rather like mounting the kerb while reversing round a corner during your driving test, it is an instant "fail", but is unintentional and demonstrates a lack of adequate practice or judgement. Transgression, on the other hand, speaks of deliberately crossing over a line: knowingly and intentionally sinning. Using the same driving test analogy, this might be pushing over a yellow/amber traffic light even though there was time to stop and hoping the examiner won't notice. Although sin is sin, transgression seems more serious because it has intent and is a deliberate infraction. Lastly, iniquity conveys the idea of twisting or perversion; not only is it deliberate and intentional, but it also involves denying that it is sin, twisting or denying the clear meaning of the original command so as to pretend that everything is alright. Iniquity is clearly the most serious attitude towards sin and can apply to any particular action or omission.
Similarly, three types of sin are also mentioned later in our verse from the Torah: "the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins" (ESV). The Hebrew is a little more complicated and uses the phrase "all their rebellions of all their sins" to signify that all sin is rebellion against G-d, whether active or passive. Hirsch comments that all our sins come from this one thing: "instead of using the power of resistance which is given to us against the lure of our senses, we turn it against G-d ... we fight shy of giving up our selfish living for our own pleasure and, repulsed by and afraid of, the demands of G-d's laws of morality, we hold ourselves stubbornly against Him." He adds that "rebellion is doing wrong out of contempt of G-d's Torah."
On the day of Yom Kippur, Israel assembles in the synagogue - even those who have not crossed the threshold since the last Yom Kippur - and confess their sins before G-d. Solemnly intoning a catalogue of sins, many of which most people will not have committed but a few might, and symbolically beating their chests as a sign of inclusion and contrition, the representatives of our community recognise that it is not individuals who have sinned - although it is clearly individuals that have carried out the particular actions - but Israel as a people who have sinned before G-d. There is an open acknowledgement that the community has failed to observe G-d's laws, His instructions for us as a people. This applies to the individuals who have broken G-d's laws in their particular lives and actions, but applies to the people as a whole both because the people are made up of and include the individuals, and because the community did not prevent the sins taking place; not only have we failed G-d but we have failed each other. Nehemiah's prayer surely applies to us: "Let Your ear be attentive and Your eyes open, to hear the prayer of Your servant that I now pray before You day and night for the people of Israel Your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against You. Even I and my father's house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against You and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that You commanded Your servant Moshe" (Nehemiah 1:6-7, ESV).
Rav Sha'ul makes it clear that Jew and Gentile are in exactly the same place: "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of G-d" (Romans 3:23) and need to find atonement to find peace and relationship with G-d. Although the Jewish ideas of hell are much more muted than the standard Christian position, it is very clear in the traditional teachings of Judaism that losing one's place in the World to Come is a very serious matter, although opinions about the alternative are mixed. How then should we respond? How do we address our need for forgiveness and a fresh start in life, to be free of the three types of sin in all of our lives? The answer is simple. Just as Avraham told his son Yitz'khak, "G-d will provide for Himself the lamb" (B'resheet 22:8), so John the Baptist told his disciples, "Behold, the Lamb of G-d, who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29). Like the Cohen Gadol who used both hands to intentionally transfer the sins of Israel to the goat, Yeshua was "delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of G-d" (Acts 2:23, ESV); both of G-d's hands were on the wheel, in this case, on Yeshua! Notice also that John's words do not limit Yeshua's sacrifice to just unintentional sins; on the contrary, Yeshua's sacrifice covered all the types, levels or grades of sin; for whoever repents and accepts His offer of atonement and forgiveness. This Yom Kippur, don't just stand there, beating your breast and hoping that things will be different next year. Do something about it and call out to G-d for a revelation of Yeshua, "For 'everyone who calls on the name of the L-rd will be saved'" (Romans 10:13, ESV).
1. - The ketiv is the written form, the keri is the read or sounded form. Because the text itself was sacred, it could not be altered, but tradition allowed obvious scribal errors (such as spelling, grammar and so on) to be corrected by a marginal note giving the "correct" reading. The hand-written scrolls continue to carry the original ketiv form, but pointed and printed forms will show the keri by means of a footnote, margin note or other device so that a reader may be aware of the issue.
Further Study: Daniel 9:18-19; 1 Kings 8:28-30; Acts 3:17-20
Application: Do you sometimes feel excluded by Yom Kippur? This year, try to engage with the day in a different way: maintain a fast over part or all of the day, identify with the words of the High Priest in asking G-d for forgiveness and grace, cry out to Yeshua on behalf of the Jewish people.
© Jonathan Allen, 2011
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