Have you noticed that we Jews do festivals very differently from those around us? We are barely a couple of days away from Rosh Hashanah, Jewish New Year and the mood is sombre and reflective. No fairly lights, no big parties planned other than gatherings for apple and honey. Our festivals are not hallmarked by wild celebrations or ribald revelry. For most of us in the community right now our thoughts are focussed on one thing alone: what will the final judgement of G-d be for me at Yom Kippur, for that is the inevitable conclusion of what begins at Rosh Hashanah. The scroll of Life will be opened, but will my name be in it? Hoping surely is not enough. Even given that for 10 days beginning on Thursday this week we will repent and seek forgiveness from those we have wronged, there remains a fear and unvoiced niggle in our minds and hearts that maybe we have overlooked something, maybe we have still not met G-d’s righteous standards. And we would be wise to listen to such inner whispers. As King Shlomo said, and reiterated by Rav Shaul, there is not one who has met His standards, all have fallen short of the glory of G-d.
The prophet Amos provides for us an answer in our dilemma (Amos 5): ‘Seek Me and live’ and ‘seek the Lord and live’. It is at such times as these of our High Holy Days that break into our daily routines and disturb them to the utmost that we NEED and should seek G-d. No ritual will be enough, no sacrifice we could ever bring would be sufficient to atone for what we have done. And in this regard it is interesting to connect our Haftorah portion (the binding of Isaac) with the start of the Days of Awe. Avraham avinu approached the impending and commanded sacrifice of his son with faith and confidence, the text making it clear that he expected to return from this event with his son alive. His faith was not unmerited, he did. He knew that G-d would provide the sacrifice, and at the last moment as his faith was tested to the limits, G-d DID provide one.
In our helpless and hopeless situation as Jews needing atonement, and the nations needing the same atonement for their sins too, we must seek God for His solution. Especially today where we do not have a functioning sacrificial system in Jerusalem any more, we need HIS solution that will and can be applied for all time more than ever. In Mashiach Yeshua we have one such answer, in His sacrifice we can have a boldness to approach G-d and know, not just hope, that our names are written in the scroll (book) of Life. Seek G-d, and the atonement He alone can provide, and you too will walk away alive. Seek G-d and live!
For 2000 years we have survived outside the Land; if our Father Avraham was a wandering Aramean then we have been a wandering people too. I say ‘survived’ because outside is not our home; at home we live, outside we survive. And our survival has been orchestrated in no small manner by our instinctive clinging to Torah and our traditions, wherever we have been driven we took our scrolls and books with us. Easy to conclude then that it is Torah that is the focus of our people, Torah that forms us and gives us community cohesion and vision; Torah IS Judaism. Yet the obvious may still deceive.
Just as a child being given an ‘airfix’ construction kit would be chided for venerating the instructions instead of using them to actually build what the directions command, have we missed the point with our Gift of Torah? Have we reached a position where we are exalting the Gift, the revelation rather than what the ‘instructions’ are all about? For it is the Torah itself that commands us to build a Mishkan, a moveable tent of sacrifice. We are commanded to construct something that takes a central position not just in the camp of the Israelites but in Jerusalem and in Jewish thinking and theology. Torah forces us to divert our gaze away from itself to the purpose of the commandments at all: sacrifice.
Why should the Mishkan and later Temple with all the sacrifices at its heart be so central to Judaism? Because fundamentally Judaism recognises that sin has corrupted the relationship between G-d and man. Sin cannot be just removed, a G-d of justice as our G-d is will always demand a price for rebellious and wilful disobedience. Just as punishment fits the crime, so sacrifice fits the sin.
Yet we read in 1 Samuel 15 ‘to obey is better than sacrifice’ and from Hosea 6 ‘for I desire faithfulness and not sacrifice’. We are commanded to bring sacrifice for our sins, yet what HaShem truly seeks is a people who will actually be obedient. A people who will not need sacrifice.
We build something that should not exist and should not be needed because there is not one who has not sinned. And a powerful circular display of our dire spiritual condition and penchant or inclination to sin is revealed in the internal logic of Torah itself: we are commanded to bring sacrifices for sin, so a sinless person would not need to do this. However, to not sacrifice would be to sin because it breaks a command to sacrifice! The conclusion is clear: no one is free of sin. Even the most observant amongst us will conclude that despite doing everything ‘by the book’ they are still sinners. Having ticked the ‘list of Mitzvot’ to the end, we are still found wanting.
G-d does not desire sacrifice, but we need it. His mercy and love continues forever, and ultimately He provides a sacrifice equal to our sins. Mercy and justice demand sacrifice; Judaism is about restoring the relationship with HaShem from which we have all fallen.