“The LORD spoke to Moses after the death [acharei mot] of the two sons of Aaron who died when they approached the LORD.” (Leviticus 16:1)
The last two Torah portions, Tazria and Metzora, discussed the laws of tumah and taharah, ritual impurity and purity.
This week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot, begins with God’s instructions on how Aharon (Aaron), the Cohen HaGadol (high priest), is to prepare the crucial once-a-year sacrifice on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) and enter the innermost chamber of the Sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, with the ketoret (incense offering).
This week’s Parasha emphasizes that it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul.
“For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul.” (Leviticus 17:11)
For most of us, even religious Jews, this idea of blood atonement for sin seems foreign and archaic. Moreover, in this day of do-what-you-think-is-right, even the basic concept of sin seems antiquated.
Still, Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) is a reminder that the problem of sin is just as real today as it was in the time of Moses.
According to Jewish tradition, in fact, Yom Kippur is the day that God pronounces judgment, administering either the rewards for good deeds (mitzvot) or the punishments for sin.
This holiest day of the year, which is observed in the fall, reminds us that we have all sinned and are in desperate need of redemption through the blood of atonement. No matter how hard we try to be “good enough,” we always fall short of God’s standards of perfection.
“For there is not a righteous man upon earth who does good and sins not.” (Ecclesiastes 7:20)
Since another great festival—Passover (Pesach), the day on which the Israelites ate the Passover lamb—begins Monday, this Shabbat is called Shabbat HaGadol(the Great Sabbath).
“On the tenth day of this month [Nissan], each man is to take a lamb for the household, one for each household.” (Exodus 12:3)
What is the connection between these two great Biblical festivals, the Day of Atonement and Passover?
They both point to Yeshua HaMashiach (Jesus the Messiah), the Lamb of God, who died on Passover to redeem us from the power of sin.
“The next day Yochanan (John) saw Yeshua (Jesus) coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)
The Scapegoat for Sin and God’s Sign of Acceptance
On Yom Kippur, Aaron cast lots for two goats: one offered as the sacrifice and the other— the azazel (scapegoat)—sent alive into the wilderness.
“He is to cast lots for the two goats—one lot for the Lord and the other for the scapegoat. Aaron shall bring the goat whose lot falls to the Lord and sacrifice it for a sin offering. But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord to be used for making atonement by sending it into the wilderness as a scapegoat [azazel].” (Leviticus 16:8–10)
Azazel is a rare Hebrew noun meaning dismissal or complete removal.
To symbolize the entire removal of the sin and guilt of Israel, Aaron lays both his hands on the head of the live goat and confesses over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel. All their transgressions are laid upon the azazel, which is then sent away into the wilderness.
“The goat shall bear all their iniquities to a land which is cut off.” (Leviticus 16:22)
Rabbinic tradition states that the Cohen (Jewish priest) would tie a scarlet cloth to the horn of the goat. When the sacrifice was fully accepted by God, the scarlet cloth became white.
This symbolized God’s gracious promise in Isaiah 1:18: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow.”
Tradition adds that this miraculous sign from God did not occur from about AD 30 to AD 70, at which time the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans stopped all sacrifices.
God showed His acceptance of the azazel in the past, so why did He stop for these 40 years?
Near AD 30, Yeshua made atonement for sin once and for all as the Azazel.
Yeshua became the scapegoat for us, taking on Himself all of our sins and removing from us all the punishment that we deserve.
“There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. By God’s grace, without earning it, all are granted the status of being considered righteous before Him, through the act redeeming us from our enslavement to sin that was accomplished by the Messiah Yeshua. God presented Him as a sacrifice of atonement [Kaparah] through faith in His blood.” (Romans 3:23–25)
The Removal of Sin
While ordinary sacrifices were limited to atonement for involuntary or unintentional sins, this special sacrifice of a goat on Yom Kippur also atoned for willful sin.