When I was a kid at Yom Kippor services. I can still remember sitting there in the synagogue next to my brother. Both of us praying in earnest that the Rabbi would not give a sermon at the end of the service. Isn't it ironic, that some 25 years later I would be the one giving the sermon at Yom Kippor. And at a service with Jewish people who believe in Jesus, no less. Boy, you just can never tell what life is going to bring you.
Today, I find Yom Kippor fascinating, because I don't think there is a single day of the calendar which shows as clear a deviation in the beliefs of rabbinical Judaism from those of Biblical Judaism than Yom Kippor.
I am not trying to say that there is nothing a modern day Yom Kippor service has in common with the Bible. There are many aspects which come right out of the Bible.
For instance, it is good and right that we acknowledge God as King, as the holy and pure, all powerful God, one like no other. It is good and right also at this time to acknowledge how far we fall short of God. We confess our sins, essentially acknowledging how unlike God we are. And by doing this, we are confronted with the sense that we are not right with God and that we need to get right with God.
And Yom Kippur is the day in which we get right with God. But how we understand Yom Kippur and this getting right with God is where the major divergence comes.
In trying to get right with God, our people traditionally to do many good things at this time of year. We give to charity, we make up with our enemies. We comptemplate our lives, we confess our sins, and more importantly truly seek to repent or change our lives.
But I wonder, how are we supposed to know if we have done enough to get right with God?
When I was in Israel for Yom Kippor, it was eerie. So quiet, you could lay down on the busiest highway, nothing was going on. Everyone was in the Synagogue, confessing, lamenting. But if you asked someone upon leaving if they were forgiven, did they get right with God?, I think they would probably tell you, "who can know?"
I saw a Rabbi on TV once. He said we just needed to be sincere in our repentance, then we could be forgiven. Then we could be right with God. But I thought to myself how do you really know if you are sincere enough? Is my sincerity the key to being right with God?
In the Jewish Advocate the local Jewish newspaper this week, there was full page ad, encouraging us to go the grave of a Grand Rabbi, who was a descendent of the Baal Shem Tov. The ad says it is of great benefit for us to go to his graveside and pray during Yom Kippor. Because, his Yahrzeit or anniversery of his death coincides with Erev Yom Kippur. It goes on in the ad in a prayer like form saying:
"May his lofty soul (the rabbi's) join in prayer on our
behalf during these High Holidays that in the merit of his holiness
and righteousness and in the merit of his holy ancestors we be
inspired, and written and sealed in the Book of Life."
Can we invoke the prayers of a Righteous Rabbi now dead, to help make us right with God?
In some communities, On the day before Yom Kippur, the solemn aspect of the day is emphasized in the custom of receiving "thirty-nine lashes." Pious Jews ask a neighbor or friend to strike them thirty nine times with a strap as self-inflicted punishment for sins committed. Will that make us right with God?
There is even a Kapparot tradition which has endured for centruries even given the opposition of Maimonides of taking a rooster or hen and swinging it over your head, offering prayers and saying this fowl must die in my place. The value of the fowl in money would then be given to charity. Many people today simply give money. But is this how we are to become right with God?
There are so many various traditions and ideas on what we should do on Yom Kippor. Everyone wants to get right with God, but what should we do?
I do believe Yom Kippor is about getting right with God. But lets look at how God tells us to get right with Him on Yom Kippor.
If you have Bible I am going to go to chapter 16 of Leviticus. Leviticus 16. The entire chapter is devoted to the careful and detailed observance of this day of Yom Kippur. It tells us exactly what was to happen, exactly how we are to get right with God.
Much of this chapter is hard reading so I am going to refer to a few verses specifically and basically give you an overview of what it says. The fact that it is so detailed tells us off the bat that something very specific is to be communicated.
Lets take a look at the end of the chapter as it tells us the main point of the day. Look in verses 29 & 30.
Lev. 16:29 "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 Ϡwhether native-born or an alien living among
Lev. 16:30 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.
This was to be a day when atonement was made for the nation of Israel. It was the day God was going to make atonement and cleanse the people. That is the main point. This chapter was going to tell us how God was going to make us right with him.
The word for atonement is Kippor, hence Yom Kippor or day of Atonement. Kippor means literally to cover. It was the day when God covered the sins, to cleanse you as it says in verse 30.
The chapter is a detailed description of the day vividly showing us how God was going to do this and I believe what God wanted us to understand and experience on this day.
This was the one day in the whole year, when the high priest was to go in to the Holy of Holies or most holy place, the inner-most part of the tabernacle. The tabernacle, and later the temple was to be the place God dwelled among the people. In verse 2, it says Aaron the high priest is not to go into that most holy place or he will die. Because that is the place where God actually was and to come into his presence would mean certain death.
Its important here to realize that God is not trying to keep us out of the holy place, because he wants to remain aloof from us, and just wants to kill us as a penalty of disobedience. Quite the opposite, the Bible describes God as desperately seeking to be with us. He went to all the trouble of redeeming us out of the land of Egypt, and now all the trouble of having a tabernacle built so he can dwell with us. Why, now forbid us to enter where he is? It is our unholiness which keeps us apart.
Imagine that you have two rags, one dirty and one clean. If you put them together, do they both get clean? No both dirty. God is completely holy and clean and pure, and we are filthy, filthy in our actions, our thoughts, everyone of us. If God was to embrace us filthy rags , we would defile him, which can't happen, so the opposite is described, the filthy rag perishes. So in order to preserve us, God separates himself from us.
This one day, the High priest would be able to come into this Most holy place to make atonement to cleanse the whole nation of their sin. Lev 16 is very specific as to how this was going to happen. The High priest is the person who makes offerings to God on behalf of the people, he stands in between God and the people. First he would sacrifice a bull to bear his judgement so he would be cleansed to even go into the holy place.
Once the high priest had done this, he would then take two lambs or goats on behalf of the nation of Israel. One would be offered for a sacrifice to cleanse the tabernacle from all the defilement of the sin of the people, the other would be the scapegoat, it would remain alive.
Tradition holds that the bells on the bottom of the high priest robe were to tell us he was still alive as he offered the blood of the sacrifice in that holiest place. Traditionally there was also a rope attached to his leg to pull him out if he died. This is not to be taken lightly. The first verse of this chapter says this took place after Aaron's sons were killed as priests because they made offerings in a wrong way. And The High priest here was going into God's very presence.
So imagine the scene. The nation of Israel surrounding the tabernacle watching for Aaron the high priest. Maybe three to six million people, all humbled and denying themselves as commanded, waiting and watching in awe of God. Seeing if Aaron would come out alive, if the sacrifice had been accepted.
Then.. out of the Tabernacle, Aaron would comeȡnd the people now knew the sacrifice had been offered and accepted. Aaron would then come to the scapegoat, the azazel, and looking in verses 20 and 21, it says.
Lev. 16:20 "When Aaron has finished making atonement
for the Most Holy Place, the Tent of Meeting and the altar, he
shall bring forward the live goat.
Lev. 16:21 He is to lay both hands on the head of
the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion
of the Israelites - all their sins - and put them on the goat's
head. He shall send the goat away into the desert in the care
of a man appointed for the task.
Lev. 16:22 The goat will carry on itself all their
sins to a solitary place; and the man shall release it in the
So this Aaron would lay his hands on this goat and confess all the sins of the people and they would be on the head of the goat to be taken out of the camp. The people would watch this animal bear their sins. Can you imagine how they felt?
Physically standing there, as this goat was taken through their very midst, they were to watch their sins being taken away from them. Can it be any clearer what God is trying to communicate through this? Your sins have been taken away, you are clean, you are forgiven! They must have felt incredible. We are free, pardoned, cleansed. Oh, the exhilaration.
The next feast on the calender 5 days later is Sukkot, a seven day feast of celebration and rejoicing when we live in tabernacles. After this cleansing we were ready for rejoicing.
As you can see the point of the day of atonement was not our lamenting and confessing in itself, it was not about what WE were doing at all, it was about what GOD was doing, God was cleansing us. God was making us right with him. We didn't make ourselves right with him. He made us right with him.
Okay, someone might say, maybe I have made my point, but so what? Maybe Yom Kippor is about God cleansing us, but there is no temple now, we can't offer sacrifices? What are we supposed to do?
Well I don't think we are supposed to be celebrating this Yom Kippur we read about in the Torah? And we are not supposed come up different substitutes for it? You see, that Yom Kippor was supposed to pass away.
The word Kippor itself implies something temporary. It's a covering, not a true taking away or paying for your sin. The need for an annual day implies something temporary. Forgiveness was just temporal.
Even the temple or tabernacle in their fraility implied something temporary. The Torah itself, I believe, is looking forward to something permanent. It knows it is just temporary. In Deut 30:6, it says in the future God will circumcise our hearts, its looking to a new covenant. A new kind of circumcision.
This new covenant is spoken of in Jeremiah 31:31, when God
says, "Behold the days are coming when I will make a new Covenant
with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the
covenant I made with them when I took them out of the land of
That is the covenant, that Yom Kippor was a part of, the mosaic one given on Mt. Sinai when God took us out of Egypt.
Jeremiah then says, "I will put my law
or Torah in their minds and write it on their hearts."
Then in v. 34, it says specifically, with this covenant,
it will hinge on one important point. "he will forgive their
iniquity and remember their sin no more."
A done deal. Forgiven and cleansed for Good, not just temporarily, but as part of the covenant itself. No longer the sacrifices again and again, year after year, but dealt with once and for all, one final Yom Kippor.
But you see, this makes sense. Yom Kippor was a picture pointing to the reality of what was to come, not a permanent institution in itself.
But you see, it was all symbolic. Did God really dwell in
the temple or tabernacle? It is as King Soloman said, when he
dedicated the temple. "will God really dwell on the earth,
the heavens, even the highest heaven cannot contain you. How much
less this temple I have built?"
No, the temple itself was a picture. God didn't actually live there. God was teaching us through the temple and through the original Yom Kippur. He was teaching us that he was holy, utterly unapproachable with our own merit, he was teaching us that we were separated from him, on the outside of the tabernacle. It teaches us that we are sinful. Do you notice in the Torah, almost everything defiled us, left us unclean, we were perpetually unfit for God, no one could ever go into his presence.
But God showing us, that he longed to be with us, he longed to dwell with us, that's why he took us out of Egypt and that is why he dwelt with us. And that's why he gave us Yom Kippor. He was showing us, He could make us right with him. The sacrifice. The Lamb could bear our sins.
It was all pointing to this new permanent covenant when God would take away our sins once and for all, mentioned in Jeremiah. This is what the Messiah came to do.
Isaiah said, all of us like sheep have gone astray, each has turned to his own way, but the Lord has laid the iniquity of us all on Him. On The Messiah, our final sin bearer. The image of the Yom Kippor sacrifice.
And when John the Baptist saw Jesus, our Messiah, he said,
"Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world."
This was the day God would make Israel and the rest of the world right with him. He would cleanse us. The day the messiah gave up his life as a sacrifice for us. A final atonement, a final Yom Kippor.
So is that it, does God automatically cleanse us all, make us all forgiven. Is that the end of the story. No, Of course not, God is not just trying to forgive or cleanse us as an end in itself. That is not his purpose. Think back to the temple, He wants to be with us, to know us, to dwell with us, to have a relationship with us. That is why he made us, he loves us.
We are like kids who have lived our whole lives wallowing in mud, God holds out his hand to us, offering his love to us, offering to rescue us from the slew. He has made a way to cleanse us forever, when we take his hand, he washes us clean like a newborn, he makes us right with him, and we come to dwell with him now and forever.
Its an offer, just as God's redeeming us out of Egypt was an offer, but the Israelites had to come. So this redemption is an offer, a free crossing into the promised land of a relationship with Him.
John said, to as many as received him, he gave the right to become children of God. Its an offer to all.
But you may say, okay, I believe that, I have received that gift, I have taken his hand, I am a child of God. So does it matter if I sin now. If I am cleansed why do I recite the Al Chet, the confession of sins? Isn't it a done deal.
Let me ask you, Is there anyone who read the Al Chet tonight and said that doesn't apply to me, I have done none of those things?
God is holy, and although God has made us his sons, and we have a relationship with him. Our behavior effects that relationship. God is holy, the sin we still do drives a wedge in our relationship with him. As we grow in holiness, we grow close to him. Our sin still makes a separation in that relationship. If you think you are close to God, yet are clinging to sins, you are lying to yourself.
This is a day for us to come clean afresh before God, to admit to him those things we are doing that are unbecoming of a child of his. Ask afresh for him to cleanse you.
But still we never ask for us to be forgiven and cleansed because of anything we do, we can never earn it, we can do nothing. No amount of good deeds can ever make God forgive us, or make God indebted to us. But we know God is gracious, he longs to forgive us and purely based on what He has done for us, he will cleanse us a new.
Why? Not because of us, but for His sake. Because he loves us, he longs to be near us, he desires to make us holy, to grow us in his image.
This is why I say, Happy Yom Kippor. Because this is a day to rejoice in what God has done for you, this is how God has made us right with him.
Let us this day commit ourselves anew to live
holy lives before him, to draw near to him, to rejoice in him
and to celebrate what he has done for us.