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Torah Readings:  Leviticus chapter 16 in the morning, Leviticus chapter 18 in the afternoon.

Haftarah Readings:  Isaiah 57:14 to 58:14 in the morning, the Book of Jonah in the afternoon.

Chapter 16 of Leviticus details the ancient rite of Yom Kippur which was performed by Aaron during the 40 years of wandering in the Sinai Desert, and by the High Priest (Kohan Gadol) when the First and Second temples stood.  The high point of these sacrificial rites occurred when the High Priest, on only this one day of the year, entered the Inner Sanctum where the Ten Commandments were stored inside the Ark of the Covenant, although, in the Second Temple, the Ark had been lost or destroyed so the Inner Sanctum was an empty room.  Chapter 16 concludes:  

This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves and not do any work—whether native-born or a foreigner residing among you, because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you.  Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins.  It is a day of sabbath rest, and you must deny yourselves; it is a lasting ordinance. . . .  This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: Atonement is to be made once a year for all the sins of the Israelites.

The Mishnah Yoma, compiled in the century following the Romans destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, provides historical detail of the elaborate rituals that occurred in Jerusalem during the final years of the Second Temple.  Today, I read chapter 16 of Leviticus and the details supplied by Mishnah Yoma, and I wonder how a day of elaborate animal killing ceremonies in a crowded Temple courtyard, even combined with fasting, cleanses people of their sins.  The Mishnah even recounts two events that hardly seem conducive to Divine forgiveness.  

Yoma 2:2 recounts how once two of the junior priests had run up the ramp to the altar racing to be the one to place the limbs on the fire, but the loser of the race pushed the other off the ramp, breaking his leg, so, from then on, the junior priests drew lots to determine who would assist the High Priest in performing the animal sacrifices.  And Mishnah Yoma 6:4 recounts how Jerusalem's leaders were forced to build a bridge with walled sides, from the Temple courtyard to outside Jerusalem's walls, to protect the goat for Azazel (see Leviticus 16: 7-10), and the man leading the goat, from mobs of "Babylonians" pulling on the goat's hair and yelling at the goat "Take away our sins and leave!"  The Babylonian Talmud, compiled over the following few centuries by Babylonian rabbis, commented that their Palestinian predecessors who had compiled the Mishnah had gotten it wrong, these uncouth people were actually Jews from Alexandria!  But, whoever these jerks were, they were not acting in a way to achieve forgiveness of their sins!

The genius of the rabbis was that, with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, they succeeded in replacing a religion based on animal sacrifices at a single location, to a faith that can be observed anywhere on the earth, based on prayer, good deeds, and Tikkun Olam - working to repair the world.  And Yom Kippur is no exception.  In reinventing Yom Kippur, they were guided by the two readings from the prophets the rabbis chose to be read on Yom Kippur. From the reading from Isaiah:  

Why have we fasted,’ they say,
    ‘and You have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
    and You have not noticed?’
Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
    and exploit all your workers.
. . . .

You cannot fast as you do today
    and expect your voice to be heard on high.
. . . .

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
. . . .

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
    with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
    and your night will become like the noonday.

And Jonah.  Everyone knows the story of how Jonah was swallowed by the "whale" - a bad translation, because the Hebrew is Dag Gadol - a big fish.  But the story is more than that.  God orders Jonah to go to Ninevah - the seat of Israel's enemy - and preach to the Ninevites to repent from evil, and God will forgive them.  But Jonah doesn't want God to forgive the Ninevites, so he runs away, and, when he finally surrenders to God's command, he is unhappy that the Ninevites have repented, leading to God's rebuke:  
Why should I not care about Ninevah, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 people who do not know their right hand from their left, and many animals as well?
So the rabbis, in fashioning their new Yom Kippur, concluded Mishnah Yoma thusly:  
He who says "I will sin and repent, I will sin and repent," does not obtain repentance.

If he says, "I will sin and then Yom Kippur will provide atonement," Yom Kippur does not provide atonement.

For sins between man and God, Yom Kippur provides atonement, but for sins between man and his fellow, Yom Kippur does not provide atonement, until he obtains the forgiveness of the person he has wronged.

Thus did Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah expound, "'From all your sins before God you shall be cleansed' [Leviticus 16:30] for sins between man and God Yom Kippur provides atonement, but for sins between man and his fellow, Yom Kippur does not provide atonement, until he obtains the forgiveness of the person he has wronged."

Thus, Jews are obligated in the days before Yom Kippur to seek out those we may have wronged during the past year and ask for their forgiveness.  And the victim of the wrongdoing is required to be forgiving - the rabbis labeled anyone who refuses to forgive as cruel.

The Yom Kippur liturgy contains confession of our sins.  This translation from Mahzor Lev Shalem 2010, converting our sins from aleph to tav into a to z:  

We abuse, we betray, we are cruel, we destroy, we embitter, we falsify, we gossip, we hate, we insult, we jeer, we kill, we lie, we mock, we neglect, we oppress, we pervert, we quarrel, we rebel, we steal, we transgress, we are unkind, we are violent, we are wicked, we are extremists, we yearn to do evil, we are zealous to bad causes.
You may be thinking, "I have not done all of those things!"  For example, most of us, I hope, haven't killed anyone during the past year.  But notice, we confess our sins in the first person plural - WE.  Judaism is a faith that believes in collective guilt.  If someone murders, if someone robs the poor, if someone forces the unemployed and other poor Americans to go hungry and to lose their homes, we are all guilty.  For no matter how hard we work to make our world a better place, there is always something more we could have done but did not do, and therefore we share in our guilt.  

And this theology of collective guilt is based on Torah and Talmud.  In the parsha of a few weeks ago, we read, Deuteronomy 21: 1-9, where, if the body of a dead person is found lying in the countryside, the elders of the nearest town, - that is, the elders of that town's Court of Justice, must come to the site where the body was found and declare "Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done."  Rabbi Joshua ben Levi asked, at Sotah 38b,

But can it enter our minds that the elders of a Court of Justice are shedders of blood?  The meaning is, [The man found dead] did not come to us for help and we dismissed him, we did not see him and let him go — he did not come to us for help and we dismissed him without supplying him with food, we did not see him and let him go without escort.
If I have offended any of you, either in a comment or a diary, during the past year, I ask for your forgiveness.  And I likewise forgive.

For those of you who will be observing Yom Kippur, may you have an easy fast, and may you be inscribed in the Book of Life.

Originally posted to Elders of Zion on Wed Sep 11, 2013 at 04:30 PM PDT.

Also republished by Anglican Kossacks, Street Prophets , and Community Spotlight.

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