Parshat Aharei Mot deals with the rituals of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, as they were to be practiced at the time that the Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple, still stood. Most of it is unrecognizable. Today, our Yom Kippur focuses on reflection, teshuva (repentance), and reconciliation with God and other people. In the Torah, the Yom Kippur ritual was intended to cleanse the altar and the Holy of Holies from the ritual impurity caused by the people’s sins.
But, as is often the case, even when the ancient ritual is no longer practiced, there are elements of the biblical text that have important lessons to teach us. The Torah says:
Thus [the high priest] shall purge the Shrine of the uncleanness and transgression of the Israelites, whatever their sins; and he shall do the same for the Tent of Meeting, which abides with them in the midst of their uncleanness. When he goes in to make expiation in the Shrine, nobody else shall be in the Tent of Meeting until he comes out. When he has made expiation for himself and his household, and for the whole congregation of Israel….
It is clear that the kohen gadol (high priest) was not able to offer the atonement sacrifices on behalf of the people until he had first acknowledged his own sins and offered his own sacrifice.
The kohen gadol was instructed to do the exact opposite of what most people do. When there’s a problem, most people first try to blame “them,” the anonymous other guys, and if that doesn’t work, they claim it was the fault of a friend or coworker. (“Well, OK, I missed the deadline, but Fred was late getting the budget estimates to me.” In other words, it’s not my fault.)
Most people will accept the blame themselves only as a last resort. It reminds me of a “Family Circus” cartoon that showed a broken lamp and the oldest brother pointing to his sister who was pointing to her younger brother who was pointing to the baby who was pointing to the dog.
None of us likes to admit we’re wrong, to acknowledge failure, or to accept blame. It’s so much easier and more comfortable to say, “It’s someone else’s fault, I’m the innocent victim here.” Of course, sometimes that’s true — but sometimes it isn’t. Still, people really don’t like to accept responsibility when things go wrong. A number of years ago I read a news story about a woman who was suing a man she had hired to take a college exam for her because he had flunked. None of it was her fault.
The Torah teaches a different approach. The kohen gadol was required to acknowledge his own sins before he could atone for the sins of others.
There is a hasidic teaching that people are very good at identifying their own needs and other people’s faults. It would be a much better world if it were the other way around.