Yom Kippur Reflection
By Dr. Michael Herts
We are now celebrating the final Fall Festival, Sukkot – the Feast of Tabernacles. This is a joyous conclusion to some of the more sobering and serious thoughts Jewish people have considered during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. May I share some of my reflections about Yom Kippur? The mood of sobriety and seriousness is still in the air for us as Jewish people – so enjoy the piece and your comments are appreciated.
There was one Yom Kippur service that stands out in my memory. It was Yom Kippur 1973. I was nine years old, sitting in the crowded shul. Suddenly, one man ran up to the bema when the Rabbi was at the pulpit. They whispered back and forth and the Rabbi’s face grew more somber. Then the Rabbi made an announcement to the congregation.
On this day, the holiest day of the year, the day when all of Israel was fasting and praying to the Almighty, Israel was attacked. On the day when Israeli troops were pared down to a skeleton force, on the day when public transportation would be shut down, on the day when the radios were silent.
Humanly speaking, Israel should not have survived such an onslaught. They should not have survived any of the other wars they faced either. Israel’s very existence is a modern day miracle. No people group in the history of the world has ever been in diaspora for 1900 years then returned to their homeland speaking their original language.
But there is another crisis Israel and the Jewish people are facing. This one is not of a military threat, but it is of a spiritual nature. Actually this is a crisis that Jewish and Gentile people have been facing for centuries. This is a crisis that Yom Kippur speaks to in an amazing way – that is the whole concept of the holiness of God and finding atonement.
Holiness! It permeates this season, it permeates our liturgy, it permeates our thoughts. The Hebrew word for “holy” is kadosh. The word kadosh appears throughout the book of Leviticus at least 87 times. That is what this holiday is about – kadosh Elohim, the holiness of God and the path to His presence. In fact, of all the Holy Days, Yom Kippur is the holiest. It is literally considered a matter of life and death.
The main chapter that speaks of Yom Kippur in the Hebrew Scriptures is Leviticus 16.
Now the Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they had approached the presence of the Lord and died. The Lord said to Moses: “Tell your brother Aaron that he shall not enter at any time into the holy place inside the veil, before the [mercy seat which is on the ark, or he will die; for I will appear in the cloud over the [mercy seat. (Leviticus 16:1–2)
Remember the setting…we have the children of Israel in the wilderness, the tabernacle, and the gorgeous tent where the very presence of God dwelt – the holy of holies above the Ark of the Covenant, the mercy seat.
We have a reminder of death, the consequences of sin – the consequences of doing things our way, instead of living in obedience to a Holy God. But it wasn’t just any death, it was the death of Aaron’s sons. The High Priest’s own sons. What a reminder that anyone can sin, even those who seem most spiritual or religious among us. And for that sin we all deserve death. The wages of sin is death.
But Aaron was to approach God, and in doing so he shouldn’t come empty handed. You see even the Cohen HaGadol, the High Priest did not have enough righteousness of his own to approach God. The one who was supposed to be the mediator between God and man also was sinful.
No matter how good we are, we are not good enough for the perfect holiness of God. In fact, when Isaiah was confronted with the Holiness of God, he responded with “Woe is me” (Isaiah 6:5). Immediately compared to God, the lack of holiness of this holy man became apparent. There was nothing Isaiah could do in and of himself to become holy. He needed the cleansing from God. Don’t we all.
For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; and all of us wither like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. (Isaiah 64:6)
Our sinfulness separates us from God. Imagine if someone gave you a nice, clean glass of ice-cold water, would you drink it? Of course. Now imagine if before you took your first sip, they told you there was just a little bit of schmutz mixed in the water, maybe so little you would barely notice. Would you drink it then? Of course not.
You see, God is holy, and we are not. God is like the purest drinking water you can imagine. We are like the glass with the schmutz. We have all sinned and that sin has separated us from God. In our sinful state we cannot fellowship with God, He cannot drink from our cup.
But you’re probably saying, “I’d never murder anyone.” Well that’s great but have you ever disobeyed your parents? Did you ever covet, ever desire, something that never belonged to you? If so, that is called sin. You are guilty, and so am I.
Something has to happen to make our glass clean. Payment must be made in order to be in the presence of a perfectly holy God. In Scripture, blood is sort of a “heavenly currency” – a payment so to speak. It is vicarious atonement, a life for a life. This is a theme seen throughout Tenach, the Hebrew Scriptures, and the New Covenant as well.
In the Hebrew Scriptures God says He will allow the blood of innocent animals to be exchanged for the lives of the people. Their clean “glass of water” can be substituted for our “schmutz-laden glass.” God is allowing blood on the altar to make atonement for the soul.
But how? How can we become that clear glass of water? How can atonement be accomplished? Leviticus 16 offers specific instructions. The passage makes it very clear that the only answer is vicarious atonement, a life for a life. But whose life? God allowed the life of sinless animals to be substituted in our place. Their cup of clean water would be substituted for our schmutz-laden cup. On Yom Kippur, God said He would accept their shed blood as a substitute for ours.
Leviticus 17:11 brings this point home:
For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement.
So how can one be sure to get the desired response? With no alter, no Temple, no sacrifice, how is it possible to atone for our sins on this Day of Atonement?
Clues can be found in looking at the two goats that were to be sacrificed on Yom Kippur. The sin offering for the entire nation consisted of two male goats. Now think of this scene. Picture the tabernacle, and picture the altar—where the sacrifices were made. Outside of this alter are two to three million Jewish worshipers all facing the altar. Between the people and the altar are two goats. It’s an incredible sight if you think about it. The two goats stood with their backs to the people. They were facing the sanctuary. Both of these goats had the same size and appearance, they cost exactly the same, and they appeared to be identical.
This was no coincidence. In an urn nearby were two tablets, which were also identical except for the inscriptions that were on the tablets. One of the tablets had the Hebrew letters: “Yod Hey Vav Hey,” the holy name of God. The other one said: “azazel.” That is a very difficult word to interpret. The word for goat in Hebrew is Ez; the Arabic term Azela means to remove; and the Hebrew term azel means to turn away or reject. So, the best we can come up with is: The “get outta here” goat! That is what this azazel was.
So, what is this two-fold function of the two goats? Here it is, the lots are drawn, the one that says Adonai is applied to the first goat. That goat is slaughtered. Its blood is sprinkled in front of the Ark of the Covenant. Why? Leviticus 16:16 says, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, because of their transgressions, for all their sins. In other words, it was a sin offering for the whole nation. All eyes are on the second goat, the High Priest goes up to this animal and lays his hands on it.
When he finishes atoning for the holy place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall offer the live goat. Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and he shall lay them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who stands in readiness. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a solitary land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:20–22)
Leviticus says the animal took on his own body the sin of the people. Not speaking metaphorically, not speaking symbolically, the animal embodied sin, it became the sin of Israel.Then the second goat, the Azazel goat, the “get outta here” goat, becomes a despised object. Despised and rejected, this goat was to be removed from the camp as quickly as possible. If you think about it, it is ironic that the very thing that is to carry away the sin of Israel should be so despised and rejected.
In Temple times, the Talmud records that a scarlet sash was tied to the horns of the goat. He is lead to a high precipice, where the sash is cut. A piece of this scarlet sash is then tacked to the precipice. Next, the goat was pushed off the cliff.
As the life passed out of the sin bearing goat, which had become sin for Israel, the scarlet sash supernaturally turned white. As though God were saying,
“Come now, and let us reason together,” says the Lord, “though your sins are as scarlet, they will be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they will be like wool.” (Isaiah 1:18)
This miracle occurred every year as though God were confirming the viability of the Yom Kippur sacrifice. He was saying, “One more year I have pushed away the judgment and accepted this sacrifice.”
But the Talmud, the rabbinic commentary on the Hebrew Scriptures, also records a turn of events which shocked and terrified the people of Israel. According to the Babylonian tractate, Yoma 39b, speaking of the last years when the Second Temple stood, something odd was happening in those parts of the world:
Forty years before the destruction of the sanctuary, the lot did not come up in the right hand, and the thread of crimson never turned white, and the westernmost light never shone, and the doors of the courtyard would open by themselves,
Something is going on! The scarlet sash that would constantly turn white—when the sin-bearing goat dies, suddenly stopped turning white. The doors of the Temple would swing open as if to say, “You are all welcome now. Come into my presence.’”
What happened? Let’s do some math. What happened forty years before the destruction of the Temple? The death, burial, and resurrection of Yeshua, the perfect sacrifice! The scarlet sash had stopped turning white because this imperfect atonement was made perfect by the sacrifice of a perfect Messiah.
Is it just coincidence that this Messiah willingly sacrificed Himself forty years before the destruction of the Temple? Is it just a coincidence that the Scriptures say of the Messiah that He too was despised and rejected? That we hid our faces from him? Surely He has borne our grief the Lord says, and carried our sorrows as the scapegoat (Isaiah 53:3-6).
He was led as a sheep to the slaughter. And the Lord has laid on Him the inequity of us all. And the B’rit Chadashah (i.e., New Covenant; see Jeremiah 31:31), confirms that God made Him, Messiah who knew no sin, to become sin for us, exactly as we saw in Leviticus—of the scapegoat. Why? That we might become the righteous of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).
At Yom Kippur each year, we know what God requires. He requires a mediator and an offering. We have seen it in Scripture – He demands blood.
I have got a question for you – it is an obvious one. First of all, who is going to be your mediator? Are you going to mediate? Is your blood so innocent? Nobody can mediate for himself, no one can provide redemption for himself.
God has already provided both a mediator and an offering in the King Messiah Yeshua, the Hope of Israel, and the Light to the Gentiles. And if he is your Kippora (covering), you have passed over life’s greatest crisis.
During Yom Kippur I fast and pray, not for my own salvation, for it is assured in Messiah Yeshua. I fast and pray for the salvation of my people, that they may also have the same assurance of salvation, and that they may know the One who took our sin on Himself to give us access to God the Father –Jesus the Messiah, the mediator between God and man!
 Yoma 6:6
 Neusner, J. (2011). Vol. 5a: The Babylonian Talmud: A Translation and Commentary (142). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.