This week’s combined reading of Acharei Mot and K’doshim leads us just past the middle of the Torah into the second half of Leviticus, which has been called “The Law of Holiness” (or the Holiness Code). There are few lines of Scripture more uncompromising than the opening verses of K’doshim: “You are to be holy as I the Lord your God am holy” (19:2). Is this truly possible? Most of us would probably settle for “faithful,” or perhaps, “devout.” But holy? It seems an impossible ideal: parush, utterly “set apart.” We ought to be wary given that whole class of Yeshua’s contemporaries named P’rushim—the “set apart” Pharisees. He told us to listen to what they say and observe their lives. “But don’t do what they do” (Matthew 23:2). (Their own writings reveal the P’rushim were equally critical of each other.)
As a congregational leader, I’m often encouraging “survivors” struggling with mid-life faith—more likely to think of “being holy” as something to aim at well down the road, probably when they’re closer to heaven. Some are feeling this struggle even more intently during the COVID-19 pandemic while they’re socially distant from their faith family, coping with physical isolation. Along the pathway of years with lots of years to go, we easily lose the passion of our “first love.”
There’s a name for feeling stuck in the middle. Rosabeth M. Kanter, a Harvard professor posting in a well-known 2009 Harvard Business Review blog, called it: “the miserable middle of change.” She wrote, “Everyone loves inspiring beginnings and happy endings: it is the middles that involve hard work.” Dr. Kanter saw frequent evidence of the problem when institutions were trying to change and then more poignantly saw the effects while working with a team facing a mid-point crisis at an African solar cell project during the Ebola epidemic: “Tragically, it’s an unhappy ending for some . . . but for most, it’s a choice point. Do you give in and give up? Or do you find ways to get through . . . making needed adjustments, helping those who need help, but keeping your longer-term purpose in mind?”
It’s just past the middle of the year. We’ve just finished Passover, and yet this parasha points us toward the themes of holiness and even the details of Yom Kippur, our “holiest day of the year,” right in the opening chapter of Acharei Mot. So this is an interesting moment to step back and think about what the Day of Atonement means now, when it’s many months behind us with many more to go. Perhaps it’s even more consequential as we’re in the process of counting the Omer, literally counting our steps to Shavuot and the revelation of Sinai. After all, this is where Israel will verbally commit to following the God who reveals himself as the one true, sovereign God of Creation, and we all know how soon our people will revert to worshiping a golden calf.
In some ways, there’s holiness in the details. Every aspect of the offerings, both for the High Priest himself and for the people, is detailed with precise instructions for purging the Holy Place and the altar from sin and impurity. This ritual was initiated in the tabernacle and then duplicated in the great Jerusalem temples over a thousand years. During the Second Temple, even when there was neither an ark nor a visible sign of the Holy Presence, every movement of the High Priest was well-practiced, as he was considered under mortal risk should he have an impure thought. It’s the same warning that Moshe gives to Aaron in the Tabernacle as we open Leviticus 16 “so that he will not die” (vs. 2).
There’s also a unique, holy quality in the confessions of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest. This was the only day, according to the Mishnah (Yoma 6:2), when the Kohen actually uttered the Tetragrammaton—the four-letter name of God—as he confessed over the sacrifices: first for his own sins, then the sins of the priests, and finally for the sins of the people over the Azazel sacrifice—or as William Tyndale named him, the scapegoat—carrying our sins out of sight.
We often take it for granted, but one of the most refreshing aspects of the Yom Kippur service as we know it, is that during this very holy day, we do nothing to deny any of our sins. How many times have I been in services where there’s a call for holiness but few details on what’s wrong? For many years after I came to faith, I attended High Holy Day services with my father where the congregation’s first language was Hungarian, as was the lengthy d’rash. Nevertheless, as we read the Viddui, confessions from alef to tav in the Machzor, beating ourselves over the heart, I had to admire the extensive nature of that list. I couldn’t think of anything that had been left out in any language—or anything that I couldn’t reflect on without being amazed at God’s mercies.
As a Messianic Jew who has been frequently scourged by preachers warning me not to think that I can earn one iota of righteousness, let alone holiness, through attention to the Torah, I find something here of inestimable value. On Yom Kippur, there is no shame, no fear, no debasing of any who draw near—no matter where we think we stand: whether devout, just trying to be faithful, or downright unworthy. In fact, that’s how we open this most holy day of the year—declaring from the bima before Kol Nidre, “we hold it lawful to pray with sinners.”
Those words usher in a moment of sheer trembling reflection—as if, for a moment, we truly understand ourselves in the courts of God, and face as he does, in absolute acceptance, that human beings fall short, struggle with temptations and fail, and yet, are permitted to come before One who is truly holy—even when our temples are dust and we are guilty for the death of our King Messiah. This is the time to reflect that we too are a generation between “dust to dust.” But through a few hours of prayer, fasting and contrition, we find that we’ve been given sacred time and sacred space for teshuvah—repentance, to return and rediscover our eternal identity.
I recall many years ago meeting a dear brother in the Lord from Australia. We were at a Messianic conference and he told me about his brother who was appalled to know that he was fasting on Yom Kippur. Since then, I’ve heard a similar concern from other believers, but few of them know the depths of meaning to be found in the remarkable liturgy of the day—much of it calling us to be fully open to God’s call on our whole life. Several times during the Yom Kippur service we repeat: “For on this day atonement shall be made for you to purify you of all your sins; you shall be pure before Adonai” (Lev 16:30). And after we’ve spent time in prayer, fasting, and contrition, I feel genuinely ready to accept that this is my calling, to pursue purity, “to be holy.” And each year I learn a bit more—or perhaps the Torah is inscribed a little more clearly on my heart. I’ve been given a day that I choose to make “a choice point.” A day of decision to press on through the “miserable middle,” even if the journey is tough, lonely, or even impossible to see through the next obstacle. Day by day, year by year, he’s taught me not to give in or give up as long as I can keep his larger, eternal purpose in my mind and heart. Faith will find a way to get through.
After that final long trumpet blast on Yom Kippur, the day echoes the peaceful reassurance that brings to mind Sim Shalom, a closing prayer of the Amidah: chen v’chesed v’rachamim—mercy, grace and compassion, for us and for all his people of Israel. I leave humbled, acknowledging the incredible miracle of God’s forgiveness in Yeshua, and willing to begin again the journey to holiness.
Original source https://www.umjc.org/commentary/2020/4/30/the-choice-point
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