Today is our Independence Day and it is my great joy and privilege to congratulate my readers on Israel’s 74th Birthday. Most of my readers, for years or even decades, have been faithfully interceding for the Land and the people – have been standing together with Israel and the God of Israel. Therefore, this is also your joy and your celebration!
Some of you probably know that our Independence Day starts immediately after our Memorial Day. Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembrance for fallen soldiers and victims of terror, is a national day of mourning – and considering the disproportionately high number of orphaned families, a tally almost impossible to fathom for a country as tiny as ours, one can only imagine how heart-wrenching this day is. Therefore, one of the most peculiar experiences one can have in Israel is this incredibly jarring transition from the most difficult, the most tragic day of the year, to the most joyful and festive day of the year! It is hard enough that these two days follow one another, but if I remind you that in Israel the day starts at sunset, this transition becomes almost surreal. “And there was evening, and there was morning” – Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day, the most difficult day in Israel’s year: memories, ceremonies, sirens, tears; and then, once again: And there was evening, and there was morning – and with tears still lingering in the eyes, the country is plunged into the festivities of Independence Day.
Of course, a lot of questions could be asked on these special days, all of them pertaining to the Israel/Arab, or Isaac/Ishmael relationship. Shouldn’t we look for answers in Scripture? Shouldn’t we try to recognize the biblically-based, spiritual reality in the everyday lives of these two different peoples, who are both incredibly close and incredibly hostile at the same time? I have written several times that I believe that God speaks to us, even today, through weekly Torah portions – and sometimes, when the Parashah seems especially important, I feel prompted to talk about it. This is the case with last week’s Torah Portion, Acherey Mot, and it is against the Memorial and Independence days’ background that we approach this portion today.
The mysterious Leviticus 16 discusses the special Yom Kippur service in the Tabernacle and in the Temple. The chapter describes the highlights of this service: the sacrifice of a goat for a sin offering, the High Priest’s confession on behalf of Israel, his entry into the Holy of Holies, and the dispatching of the Azazel Goat. Let us read those verses together:
He shall take the two goats and present them before the Lord at the door of the tabernacle of meeting. Then Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats: one lot for the Lord and the other lot for the scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring the goat on which the Lord’s lot fell, and offer it as a sin offering. But the goat on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make atonement upon it, and to let it go as the scapegoat into the wilderness.
Sin and guilt offerings were common in ancient Israel, but this ceremony was absolutely unique. Why is this so? As Charles Feinberg wrote, “no more significant truths could possibly engage the mind of the believer than those set forth in this chapter of Leviticus.” So, what is the meaning of this ceremony? And what is the connection between Leviticus 16 and our Independence Day?
There are many commentaries on Leviticus 16 – both Jewish and Christian. Today, however, I want you to see the profound connection that, for some reason, has been overlooked for centuries. Years ago, I was writing a book about Abraham’s sons, Isaac and Ishmael – and to my great surprise, in order to unlock the ancient mystery of Abraham and his two sons, God had led me to the scriptural key of Leviticus 16. Before that book, I had spent a lot of time contemplating he sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22. However, when I started to write the book, I began to see Genesis 21 side by side with Genesis 22. I started to realize that Abraham had to sacrifice both sons; that there were actually not one, but two sacrifices in the old patriarch’s life; that Genesis 21 – the banishment of Ishmael – was also extremely tortuous and painful for Abraham and was just as much about sacrifice as Genesis 22. Of course, there is no point of comparison; we cannot ask Abraham whether Genesis 21 or 22 was more difficult for him, or which devastated him the most. The two sons of Abraham were chosen for two completely different destinies, and therefore these two chapters are very different. Still, both chapters speak about sacrifice, and nothing makes this more clear and convincing than Leviticus 16!
I was absolutely stunned when I saw the incredible resemblance between Leviticus 16 and Genesis 21 and 22. How perfectly Abraham’s double sacrifice is reflected in the sacrifice of the two goats! Abraham had to sacrifice two sons: one was sent into the wilderness, the other offered as a burnt offering. Likewise, the High Priest had to sacrifice two goats: one was sent into the wilderness, the other, burned as an offering.
How do I know that this connection, between Genesis 21-22 and Leviticus 16, is not just something far-fetched by my imagination? Well, I do have solid proof of this connection. As most of you know, the High Holidays are the crucial points in the Israel calendar year. These days, starting from Rosh HaShanah and ending with Yom Kippur, are very important for almost everybody in Israel – and they are clearly very important to God. Therefore, it’s impossible to ignore the amazing fact that the Rosh Hashanah reading consists of Genesis 21 and 22, while the Yom Kippur reading is Leviticus 16. It does make this connection very clear, doesn’t it?
Leviticus 16 might help us understand better the Isaac-Ishmael dynamic. A scapegoat was sent out alive into the wilderness while another was sacrificed! In this sense, Ishmael should be happy that he is not the one chosen for death. I often think that if Genesis 22 had come before Genesis 21, the whole history of humankind might have been completely different: Instead of envy and jealousy, Ishmael would have had compassion toward his brother and gratitude for his own destiny. The terrible hostility and tension that have marked a large part of the Isaac-Ishmael relationship might not have been there from the outset. However, this is not the case, and we might ask, why? Why are these crucial chapters set in this particular order?
I do believe that this reversed order is part of the mystery the Lord wants to reveal to us here – and you can read my book in order to uncover this mystery. One of the main themes of this book is that of restoring what was broken and making it whole again. That’s why I turn to Scripture: we do need a spiritual X-ray here. Yes, of course, real life is much more complex and multi-faceted than a biblical story, but isn’t that the case with an X-ray as well? A person is much more complex and unique than his or her X-ray shows: we see no personal features on an X-ray; we can’t recognize the individual by his X-ray, – and yet, an X-ray is definitely needed in order to see what must be healed: to see where the fracture is and what should be done to heal it. The broken has to be healed! Abraham had two sons—and the family picture will not be complete until they are both in this picture. These are my thoughts on our Independence Day.
 Leviticus 16:7-10
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