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Vayikra/Leviticus 16:34 And this shall be an everlasting ordinance for you: to atone for the Children of Israel from all their sins once in the year
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This is the third repetition of the phrase - an everlasting ordinance - in this block of text. The first one comes in verse 29: "And this shall be to you a law for all time" (JPS), the second in verse 31: "it is a law for all time" (JPS), the third here: "This shall be to you a law for all time" (JPS). The feminine noun , here in its construct form, means "a statute or law", or "a custom, right or privilege", from the root verb , "to engrave, inscribe or portray". In the ancient world, once something was formally committed to writing, particularly in a permanent medium that requires engraving or inscribing rather than simple hand-writing, it became fixed legislation so that the participle form - - was used as a substantive for a legislator or commander: "the commanders of Israel" (Judges 5:9, NRSV). We can see both meanings at work in these instructions being given to Aharon and his sons, the High Priest and priests of Israel: it is both a commandment and a privilege for you to carry out the ritual whereby the sins of Israel are atoned for each year. A commandment becauseHaShem has instructed the priests that they must carry out this function once a year; a privilege because HaShem has given the priests the authority to atone for the peoples' sins by carrying out this ritual each year.
The Talmud records Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah quoting Rabbi Ishmael lecturing about sin (b. Yoma 86a). "If one transgressed a positive commandment [that is, failed to do something commanded] and repented, then he is forgiven, before he has moved from his place; as it is said: 'Return, O faithless children, declares the L-RD; for I am your Master; I will take you, one from a city and two from a family, and I will bring you to Zion' (Jeremiah 3:14, ESV). If he has transgressed a prohibition [that is, done something that is forbidden] and repented, then repentance suspends punishment and the Day of Atonement procures atonement, as it is said : 'For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the L-RD from all your sins' (Vayikra 16:30, ESV)." TheSforno builds on that to claim that "the day itself atones, even though there is no Temple or service". In other words, in the same way as someone who has accidentally killed someone else may flee to one of the cities of refuge to claim sanctuary, and is free to leave without fear of his life only when the High Priest who was in office when he entered the city has died, simply waiting until the day of Yom Kippur completes the atonement for sins of commission. The Sforno's claim says that the day itself, when all Israel repents and afflicts their souls, atones for sin even in the absence of a sacrifice or a priesthood to offer it.
Drazin and Wagner citing both the Sforno and Rabbi Ishmael, comment that the repetition of the "everlasting ordinance" phrase three times in only six verses serves to "emphasise yet again that G-d's forgiveness can be obtained when a person repents even without the Temple and its sacrificial rituals". On the basis that the Yom Kippur process has been ordained "for ever" and that G-d must have determined to accept something else in lieu of the sacrifice when He allowed the Second Temple both to be destroyed and remain unbuilt to this day, Drazin and Wagner conclude that "even when the temple is not standing and the Day of Atonement rituals cannot be performed by the high priest and other priests, the Jewish people must eternally observe the commandments to reset and to afflict themselves on the Day of Atonement"; that in itself accomplishes atonement.
The rabbis have always insisted, however, that each Jew must engage with the process him or herself; there can be no atonement by proxy. Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik (1903-1993) said: No-one can grant another power of attorney to deliver him from a state of impurity and restore him to a state of holiness. This is the way it was in the time of the Temple, where the High Priest would say to those assembled: "We, the priests, are carrying out the set ritual of Yom Kippur, whereby acquittal of sin, atonement, is granted. However, the act of purification is something that you must perform by yourselves, each man in his own heart."1 Even when the ritual was performed perfectly, atonement was only offered to the people, not forced upon them. Everyone who wanted to receive that atonement was free to repent and do so, but those who did not believe or were not interested were not affected in any way - they remained in their sin.
As we know from history, the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 CE and brought its furnishings back to Rome in triumph. Despite common Roman practice, the expectations and pleadings of the Jewish leadership in the following several hundred years, the Temple has never been rebuilt. The annual cycle of feasts and holy days centred around the Temple sacrifices came to an abrupt end and has never restarted. The faithful of Israel continue to meet in the synagogue each year, to confess their sin before G-d and to seek atonement based on observance of the day and G-d's faithfulness in the absence of the Temple. Those who gather are, for the most part, serious about repenting and receiving atonement; they afflict their souls in the customary manner, by fasting, not washing or wearing leather shoes and by abstaining from sexual relations; catalogues of sins that might have been committed by someone in the community are recited and, at the end of the day, the shofar is blown to proclaim freedom and release from sin. Nevertheless, the day has a sombre overtone and could be seen as an annual reminder of sin rather than the clear and unambiguous marker of atonement and forgiveness that it once was.
Back in the first century CE, in the years while the Temple still stood, the anonymous writer of the letter to the Yeshua-believing community in Jerusalem explained exactly that feeling to the people: "For the Torah has in it a shadow of the good things to come, but not the actual manifestation of the originals. Therefore, it can never, by means of the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, bring to the goal those who approach the Holy Place to offer them. Otherwise, wouldn't the offering of those sacrifices have ceased? For if the people performing the service had been cleansed once and for all, they would no longer have sins on their conscience. No, it is quite the contrary - in these sacrifices is a reminder of sins, year after year" (Hebrews 10:1-3, CJB). He confirms that the annual Day of Atonement is what it says: an annual day for atonement. Each year it needs to be repeated, because the sacrifices offered only provide a covering of sin for that year. He goes on, "For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins" (v. 4, CJB); on the contrary, they only provided a temporary covering and a sign until Yeshua's death on the cross - the permanent, once for all, sacrifice that didn't cover over sin but actually took it away. Comparing Yeshua to the priests serving in the Temple, he says, "Now every cohen stands every day doing his service, offering over and over the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this one, after He had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, sat down at the right hand of G-d" (v. 11-12, CJB). His work was complete, "For by a single offering He has brought to the goal for all time those who are being set apart for G-d and made holy" (v. 14, CJB).
So if Yeshua's sacrifice did away with sin - "the one who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29) - why do people still sin and our world seems plagued by ever increasing selfishness, corruption, abuse and conflict? Because the same principle applies to Yeshua's sacrifice as the rabbis correctly deduced applied to atonement on Yom Kippur: people have to engage with Yeshua and His sacrifice on the cross for themselves. G-d only has children, not grand-children, nieces or cousins; it doesn't work by proxy. You, we, they, must come to Yeshua for themselves to find atonement, forgiveness and peace with G-d.
1. - Pinchas H Peli, On Repentance - the Thought and Oral Discourses of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, Aronson 2000, 0-765706140-8, pages 53-54
Further Study: Ezekiel 33:10-11; Romans 8:3
Application: Have you availed yourself of the atonement offered by Yeshua for your sin? Have you accepted His offer not only of atonement but of a fully restored relationship with Father G-d and eternal life, starting today? Why not reconsider that offer now and be certain that you know where you stand!
© Jonathan Allen, 2012
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