Weekly Torah Commentary – Acharei Mot April 29, 2016

Leviticus 16-18

In this week’s Torah reading, we learn all about the annual Day of Atonement which the God of Israel commanded the Jewish people to observe “as a perpetual ordinance.” The strangest element of the service was the ritual of the two goats – one offered as a sacrifice, the other sent away into the desert “to Azazel.” They were brought before the High Priest, to all intents and purposes indistinguishable from one another; they were chosen to be as similar as possible to one another in size and appearance. Lots were drawn, one bearing the words “To the Lord,” the other, “To Azazel.” The one on which the lot “To the Lord” fell was offered as a sacrifice. Over the other the high priest confessed the sins of the nation, and it was then taken away into the desert hills outside Jerusalem where it plunged to its death.


Sin and guilt offerings were common in ancient Israel, but this particular ceremony was unique. When those offerings were made, confession was made over the animal to be offered as a sacrifice. On the Day of Atonement, however, confession was made over the goat not offered as a sacrifice. Why? And who or what in the world was Azazel?

The word Azazel appears nowhere else in Scripture, and three major theories emerged as to its meaning. According to the Sages and Rashi it means “a steep, rocky or hard place,” in other words a description of its destination. According to Ibn Ezra and Nachmanides, Azazel was the name of a spirit or demon, one of the fallen angels referred to in Genesis 6:2.  The third interpretation is that the word simply means “the goat [ez] that was sent away [azal].” Hence the English word “scapegoat” coined by William Tyndale in his 1530 English translation of the Bible.

But the questions remain. Why was this ritual different from all other sin or guilt offerings? Why two goats rather than one?

The simplest answer is found within the commandment:  “On this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins” (Leviticus 16:30). The routine offerings were for atonement. But on Yom Kippur there was something more: not only atonement but also purification, cleansing of the soul. Let me say it this way: you make ‘atonement’ for an offensive act. But purification is a work within the soul. It is possible to ‘atone’ for something we’ve done without necessarily receiving a soul cleansing if heart repentance does not accompany the act of atonement.

After his adultery with Batsheva, King David cried out in Psalm 51:4,  “Wash me thoroughly of my iniquity and cleanse me of my sin” (Psalm 51: 4).  And further on, “Create in me a clean heart, O God…”  Repentance opens the door to forgiveness but the damage done to our soul when we sin, needs also to be ‘healed’ in a manner of speaking. When the scapegoat was sent away, it symbolically carried all the stains and damage done to the souls of the people when they rebelled against the Lord God; stains that were not physical but mental and emotional.  It is sometimes difficult to get rid of the sense of guilt and/or defilement after we have committed a transgression, even when we know we’ve been forgiven.

The sacrificed goat represented atonement. The goat sent away symbolized the inner cleansing of the moral stain. This brings to mind the the verse that says God casts our sins away from us as far as the east is from the west and He remembers them no more. (see Psalm 103)

Ironically, the scapegoat of Acharei Mot is the precise opposite of what we generally think  ‘scapegoat’ means. Our modern interpretation of “Scapegoating,” means blaming someone else for our troubles. The scapegoat of Yom Kippur existed so that we would do just the opposite: We do not blame others for our fate. We accept responsibility. In the prayer of Yom Kippur, we declare, “because of our sins.”

Those who blame others, defining themselves as victims, are destined to remain victims. Those who accept responsibility mature and grow into the godly men and women God desires to see among His people.

Shabbat Shalom!

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Weekly Torah Commentary Yom Kippur October 3-4, 2014

YOM KIPPUR (or “The Day of Atonement”) is the holiest day of the year in Judaism and in YK3this year of 2014 it falls on this coming Shabbat, from sundown on Friday through sundown on Saturday, October 4th.

The commandment about Yom Kippur is as follows:

 And this shall be a law to you for all time: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall   practice self-denial, and you shall do no work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you.  For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before the Lord.  It shall be a sabbath of complete rest for you and you shall humble your soul.  It is a law for all time.  Lev. 16:29-31

On exactly the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you, and you shall humble your souls and present an offering by fire to the Lord. Lev. 23:27

Forgiveness vs. Atonement

Some people mistakenly think that Yom Kippur implies that the Jewish people can only receive forgiveness once a year.  This opinion betrays a lack of understanding between forgiveness and atonement.

God promises in many scriptures that when we repent, He forgives us, anytime day or night.  For example:

If My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land.  II Chron 7:14

Forgiveness from God is available to us 24/7 in direct response to our repentance for doing wrong.

Atonement means “repairing the damage done to the relationship by the sin we have committed.”  For example, suppose you have a white carpet in your living room.  Someone visiting carelessly spills a few drops of red wine or grape juice on your white carpet.  The visitor may immediately say, “Oh, I’m so sorry.  How clumsy of me.”  He or she is genuinely ‘repentant’.  You may graciously forgive them on the spot.  However, atonement means that the one who spilled the wine, gets a rag and a bucket of cold water with white vinegar, kneels down and scrubs the spot away.  By that act of ‘repairing the damage’ he has just made ‘atonement’ for the ‘sin’ of spilling wine on your white rug.  Get it? Sin has consequences that often ‘dog’ us even though we have been forgiven.

On the Day of Atonement, it is God Himself who ‘makes atonement’ for us – in His amazing mercy and compassion, He repairs the damage that our sins of the past year  (already forgiven) have inflicted an our relationship with Him, enabling us to draw closer to Him in the days ahead. THAT, my friends, is ATONEMENT.

FASTING on Yom Kippur

The phrase “you shall humble yourselves” literally means, “afflict your soul.” While Yom Kippur is observed with a 25 hour complete fast, meaning no food and no water.  So, some may ask, is fasting the only way to do so?  Why has fasting been chosen as the appropriate interpretation for this phrase?  Applying the principle that scripture is best interpreted by related scriptures:

Psalm 35:13 David writes, “I humbled my soul with fasting.”

Isaiah 58:3, 10  “Why have we fasted and You do not see? Why have we humbled ourselves and You do not notice?” Behold, on the day of your fast you find your desire, and drive hard all your workers. And if you give yourself to the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then your light will rise in darkness and your gloom will become like midday.”

But “afflicting one’s soul” is more than just fasting from food and water. What else might it entail?

The goal of the holiday is to deepen our bond with our heavenly Father.  Therefore, in addition to denying ourselves food and water, we do well to refrain from talking about how hungry we may feel or how thirsty.  This defeats the purpose of Yom Kippur.  The ‘humbling of our souls’ should serve a much higher purpose.

A day of rest from our physical appetites enables us to come to grips with our need for God. It is a day that He gives us to commune with Him in the most intimate and unrestricted way possible. By fasting, we force ourselves to desire only Him, to focus only on Him.

As the holiday comes to a close, the final service in the synagogue is the most moving of the entire year.  The literal cleansing of the soul which God Himself accomplishes within us, not because we deserve it, but because He promised He would do so “for all time” is palpable.  We emerge from the day as spiritual ‘newborns’.  The slate is wiped clean and we have a brand new start.  What an awesome gift.

However you choose to identify with this holy day, may you experience the love of God which energizes the soul, the peace of God which calms the soul and the atonement of God which births a new season of relationship with Him.

Torah Commentary – Rosh Hashana September 24-26, 2015

At sundown this evening, September 24th, Jews around the world will pause; the women will light the holiday candles and the family will gather for a celebratory meal to usher in the new Hebrew year, 5775.

Someone asked, “If Rosh Hashana is the annual day of Judgment, why do we celebrate it?”

The answer is fundamental to a personal relationship with God which is precisely what He desires with all of us.

I liken Rosh Hashana to the corporate “annual review”. Once a year, God conducts an “annual review” of each of us. What have we done with the blessings and challenges that have come our way in the past year? Have we grown from them? Have we learned valuable lessons? Have we progressed in holiness?

Has our lifestyle of the past year shown the kind of promise that will move God to invest even more in us during the year to come? Good question!

The day of judgment, Rosh Hashana, is for our benefit, not for God’s. Through it, our Father in heaven demonstrates that He cares about everything we do and say. We are so important to Him that He, like a father tracking his child’s progress, constantly watches us. He is concerned with our every move. We are the beings endowed with choice and with the responsibility to shape the world into a better place. On Rosh Hashana we are reminded that every little thing we do matters to Him.

Is there any better reason to celebrate the Day of Judgment? We rejoice that our God cares deeply about our actions and our words. We delight in the fact that our lives have significance.

Indifference is the worst type of treatment in any relationship. Ask any marriage therapist and he’ll tell you that as long as a couple is still fighting, there’s still some life in the marriage. It’s when indifference sets in that the end is inevitable. So too, the fact that God personally cares about all of our actions, for good and for bad, means He loves us.

The danger of “religion”is the tendency to substitute a personal relationship with mechanical outward observances. That is not to say that observances are intrinsically wrong – not at all. What’s wrong is when they become the essence of our relationship with the Almighty and little to no attention is paid to developing a personal love relationship with Him. It is out of such a relationship that observances should flow.

Imagine for a moment a wife who keeps the house spotless, cooks delicious meals, does the laundry promptly and cares for the material needs of her children but never – ever – takes an evening or an afternoon to spend time just with her husband, talking with him, sharing with him, listening to him and devoting her energy to deepening their bond. Her “performance” is flawless but I guarantee you that if that is all there is to the marriage, the love that once was there will grow stone cold.

So it is with God. Yes, He desires our obedience to His commandments but not like robots. In fact, the prophets rebuked Israel at times for observing the festivals while their hearts were far from God.
The prophet Isaiah wrote:“This people honors Me with their lips but their heart is far from me.”

As we enter into Rosh Hashana, ask yourself: ‘How is my personal, private relationship with my Father, my King? Do I speak with Him every day in my own words? Do I turn to Him for guidance and wisdom? For understanding and direction? Is He on my mind as I go about my days? Can I truly say that He is my Best Friend as well as my Father, my Redeemer, my King, my Rock and my Fortress?

During the Ten Days of Repentance, between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we have a special period of time to zone in on these very questions. What have I done with what God invested in me during the past year? Have I given Him a ‘return’ on investment? Have I grown closer to Him? Have I been kinder to my family?
Have I been a little less selfish than I was the previous year?

My prayer for all of us is that we will understand God’s personal love and care and recognize that His “annual review” (judgment) on Rosh Hashana is a beautiful blessing.

In Tune with Torah this week = pondering our own spiritual state, repenting as needed and resolving to enter then new Hebrew year with a commitment to serve Him and our fellowman from a pure heart.

As we say in Hebrew: Shana Tova u Metuka – May you have a good and sweet year!

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Weekly Torah Commentary — Acharei Mot April 11, 2014

Shabbat HaGadol

The Shabbat immediately prior to Passover is called Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Shabbat. How it came to be called that is a topic of discussion. One opinion is that it is because of the Haftorah read this week which refers to a day in the future which will be “great” – the day of the re-establishment of God’s Kingdom on this earth, as described in Malachi 3.

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord. (Malachi 3:23)

The prophet speaks of the day of redemption in the future. Passover, which represents the day of redemption of antiquity, serves as the model for the future redemption of the children of Israel.

This Shabbat in Egypt was different from all other previous Shabbatot. This time, man joined God in His holy day. Ironically, the mode of observance was not “resting” as we think of it in the context of today’s Shabbat. Historically, the Shabbat before Pesach was the day when the children of Israel were commanded to take to themselves a lamb, a symbolic action that stood in opposition to the lamb-worshiping Egyptians.

The Sages note that by taking the lamb the Jews observed Shabbat in Egypt as never before. This was their first Shabbat as a people, a moment of passage in the national sense: They had reached the age of majority, became adult (“gedolim”), with responsibilities. This was Shabbat “HaGadol”. The most basic teaching of Shabbat is the acknowledgement that God created the world in six days. By taking the lamb the Jews rejected idolatry and accepted God. This was not merely an action which took place on the tenth of Nissan. This was a watershed of Jewish history. Now the Jews joined God in a Shabbat.

The Talmud teaches that one who desecrates Shabbat is guilty of idolatry, for he has rejected the works of God. Now we see that those who rejected idolatry were viewed as “Shabbat observers.” Moreover, in taking the lamb, they kept their only Shabbat commandment. This “perfect track record” made it a truly great Shabbat.13

Our sages teach us that if all of Israel fully observe just two Shabbatot the Messiah would appear.

Interestingly, according to the mainstream Jewish approach the world was created in Nissan, which means that the Shabbat which takes place around the 10th of the month was the second Shabbat in the history of the world. Had those two Shabbatot been kept properly the world would have been redeemed back then.

In particular, the two Shabbatot which must be observed are Shabbat Hagadol and Shabbt Shuva. Each of these Shabbatot have a special power to them: One falls between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, it is a Shabbat which teaches man how to return to God. The other Shabbat is the first Shabbat observed in Egypt, the one we are about to celebrate. It is a Shabbat which contains within it the secret of redemption.

If man could master these two Shabbatot, the Messiah would quickly arrive. Would that it would be this year.

Torah reading this week is Acharie Mot found in Leviticus 16-18

Acharei Mot includes the Yom Kippur service where the High Priest cast lots to designate two goats — one to be sacrificed, the other to be driven to a place called Azazel after the High Priest confessed the sins of the people upon its head.

The goat sent to Azazel symbolically carried away the sins of the Jewish people. This, I surmise, is the source of the concept of using a scapegoat. One thing you can truly give credit to the Jewish people — when we use a scapegoat, at least we use a real goat!

Yom Kippur atones for transgressions between man and the Almighty. However, Yom Kippur only atones for transgressions between man and man if a person first attains the forgiveness of those whom he has offended or harmed.

While our main reason not to hurt others should be out of compassion and caring, we learn from here that we should be careful not to hurt others out of our own self interests — the embarrassment of having to ask others for forgiveness and the possibility that they won’t or can’t forgive you.

In Tune with Torah this week = as we prepare to celebrate the Festival of our Redemption, past and future, let us examine our relationships and make sure that we have no ‘unfinished business’ in that area. If we need to ask forgiveness for some offense, let’s do it from the heart. If we need to forgive someone else, likewise let’s forgive freely as God forgives us.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Pesach Sameach!!! (A blessed Passover)

Weekly Torah Commentary — Yom Kippur September 13, 2013

This year, Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Hebrew Calendar, falls on Shabbat. Therefore the reading is the one designated for the Day of Atonement which the following verses describe:

“In the tenth day of the seventh month, you will afflict your souls and do no work… for on this day he [the priest] will atone for you to cleanse you from all your sins before the Lord, and you will be clean. It is a Sabbath of rest to you, and you will afflict your souls and any work you will not do … and he [the priest] will atone for the holy sanctuary and the tent of meeting and the altar and for all the people … to make atonement for the Israelites from all their sins once in a year.” (Leviticus 16:29-34)

Let’s look at certain words in this passage.

The first is “afflict”. The traditional interpretation of this word is “to fast” and therefore, Jews around the world undertake a complete fast from sundown to sundown – no food or water. However, it is important to note that The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Tanach translates the same word as: “to submit to, bowed down, weak, humiliated, castigate oneself.” We conclude, therefore, that just the physical act of fasting must be accompanied by a submission of heart to the Holy One of Israel; an attitude of humility and deep repentance for the thoughts, words or deeds of the past year that have been ungodly, unrighteous and offensive both to God and to our fellow man. Support for this approach to Yom Kippur fasting is found in the prophet, Isaiah, who wrote:

“Behold, on the day of your fast you find your desire,and drive hard all your workers.
Behold, you fast for contention and strife and to strike with a wicked fist.
You do not fast like you do today to make your voice heard on high.
Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed and for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed?
Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the Lord?
Is this not the fast which I choose, To loosen the bonds of wickedness: To undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke?
Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into the house;
When you see the naked, to cover him; and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”
Isaiah 58:3-7

Fasting is not prescribed simply to make us miserable or hungry. It is not an exercise in discipline for its own sake.
The purpose of our fasting is to draw us aside from daily life to face ourselves – truly face ourselves – with no excuses, no rationalizations; to stand humbled before the Holy One of Israel and acknowledge our desperate need for His forgiveness and His cleansing of our souls. Those transgressions that we ‘swept under the rug’ during the year, the resentments or jealousies we have refused to deal with in our hearts, these we can no longer avoid in the holiness of Yom Kippur. We must stop pretending, fooling ourselves or rationalizing. THIS is the moment of truth.

Secondly, it is called a day of rest. At first glance, doesn’t it seem a bit contradictory that on this day of earnest soul repentance and fasting, one should at the same time be told that it is a day of rest?

Unresolved conflicts within the mind, unconfessed sin, feelings of guilt, suppressed anger and the like all work together to give us anything BUT rest. There is a weariness of soul that no amount of sleep relieves. On Yom Kippur, we are commanded to ‘rest’ from the internal battles, the anguish of guilt, the burden of un-confessed sin, the worries and anxieties of daily life that seek to weaken our faith, by approaching our God with contrite hearts, true humility and repentance.

Yom Kippur is a GIFT, not a burden. “And this shall be a permanent commandment for you; in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall humble yourselves and not do any work; whether the native or the alien who dwells among you; for it is the Day that Atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you; you shall be clean from all your sins before the Lord. It is to be a sabbath of solemn rest for you; that you may humble your souls; it is a permanent commandment.” Lev. 16: 29-31

At sundown Saturday night, according to the words of Torah, God promises us that we will be completely cleansed in His presence IF we have humbled ourselves. Of all days of the year, this is THE day to ‘get real’, as the saying goes. No more hiding behind excuses or rationalization, no more justifying our ungodly thoughts, words and deeds. This is the day to come clean before God, receive His gift of atonement and rejoice in His unfailing love.

In Tune with Torah this week: May we all be sealed in the book of Life and may our appreciation of the goodness of our God reach new depths as we embrace His unfailing and abundant love towards us. May you experience a deeper ‘rest’ for your souls than you have on any other Shabbat.

Gmar Hatima tova!