The Temple Sacrifices
The prophets repeatedly assured us that God forgives our sins when we repent (Isaiah 55:7; Ezekiel 18:23; 33:11). The prophets did not tell us that there is no forgiveness from sin without a blood offering. In fact in the book of Deuteronomy we read how God will accept Israel’s repentance even when they are in exile and without the ability to present a blood offering to God (Deuteronomy 30:2). The book of Jonah describes how God accepted the repentance of the Ninevites and how He rescinded His decree of destruction that their sins had brought upon them and no mention is made of a blood sacrifice (Jonah 3:10).
The question then arises; if all that is necessary to obtain God’s forgiveness is repentance then what purpose is served by the blood offerings of Leviticus? Why was it necessary for Israel to go through the elaborate rituals of the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:1-34) if repentance alone can bring about the same results?
This same question can be asked concerning the fast of Yom Kippur as observed in our day and age. Why is it necessary for Israel to fast and refrain from work on this day (Leviticus 23:26-32) if all that is necessary for atonement is repentance?
In order to find the answer to this question we need to go to the heart of the Temple sacrifices. No; it is not the blood that is the heart of the sacrificial system, it is the commandment of God (Jeremiah 7:22,23). Just as bread is not what sustains a person’s physical body but rather it is the word of God that gives us life (Deuteronomy 8:3) so it is with our spiritual life. It is not the blood or the incense that provides forgiveness but it is the power of God’s command. The heart of the Temple sacrifices is the obedience and submission to God’s command that is inherent in the sincere fulfillment of those rituals.
God’s commandments sanctify us (Numbers 15:40). When we obey God’s directives He infuses our lives with sanctity and holiness. Each of the commandments is a gift that allows us to come closer to Him and to be suffused with His holiness. The commandments are God’s way of extending His hand towards us to draw us closer to Him.
God provided the commandments relating to the Day of Atonement so that our repentance can be infused with the power and the sanctity of His commandment. God granted us this way of giving concrete expression to the contrition of our hearts as a gift to His people. By following the path that God mapped out for us we take hold of God’s hand extended towards us and our repentance is empowered and sanctified by God. This is God’s way of smoothing out the path for His people.
The same concept applies to the Temple sacrifices. The opportunity to offer the atoning sacrifices is a gift that God granted to us that draws us towards Him as we repent. These concrete expressions of repentance ordained by God empowered and sanctified our constant return to God. On the basis of the infusion of sanctity that we were granted through these commandments God’s presence was manifest in the midst of our nation.
Now that we are in exile; some of these gifts have been temporarily withdrawn from us. We still have the fasting and the refraining from work on Yom Kippur but we do not have the offerings of that holy day. This does not mean that we have no forgiveness from our sins. What it does mean is that the added sanctity that God provided through obedience to these particular commandments is no longer being extended to us. This lack of sanctity is expressed in the fact that we have no Temple and God’s presence is not manifest in our midst in an open and obvious way.
But God did not leave us in the dark. God told us exactly what we need to do to merit that His presence return to dwell in the Jerusalem Temple. We need to return to the teachings of Moses and obey them together as a national unit in sincere submission to God’s command. And God assured us that the suffering of our exile will one day bring us to this national repentance (Deuteronomy 30:2). When that happens God will bring us back to His land and rebuild our Temple (Ezekiel 37:28). We will then offer the sacrifices that God has commanded us to bring to His altar in purity and in righteousness (Ezekiel 20:40; Malachi 3:3,4).
To come back to our original question we will reiterate that God never spurns a heart that is broken in contrition before Him (Psalm 51:19). God is slow to anger, abundant in kindness and He forgives those who return to Him in sincerity and truth (Psalm 86:4; 103:8-10; Jonah 4:2). God’s forgiveness is available to everybody all the time. God made this foundational truth abundantly clear through the teachings of His prophets. What we are lacking today without the Temple sacrifices is the added sanctity that allowed God’s presence to be manifest in our midst (Leviticus 16:2).
We yearn for that closeness to God that we experienced when His presence was manifest in the Jerusalem Temple and we constantly pray for its restoration. But we know that there are no shortcuts. The only path to God is obedience to His commandment and hearkening to His voice (Jeremiah 7:22,23). And He has already told us what is good for us. It is to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God – and nothing else (Micah 6:8). God promised that He will eventually hear our voice and take up our cause (Micah 7:7).
May it happen speedily in our day.
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Yisroel C. Blumenthal