Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Day of Atonement

by George Otis Jr.

It was typical of many families in [ancient Israel], in lieu of dogs and cats, to keep other animals, particularly lambs, as pets. As in our society the young children would grow very attached to these lambs.

One evening as you and your brothers and sisters are running around outside your house, your father arrives to put a halt to the horseplay. After hustling you in for dinner, he snatches your favorite lamb up into his arms and ties it inside the door. On most days Dad’s arrival is a highlight, but today something must have gone wrong. He’s too serious tonight, not like usual when he throws you up on his shoulders and carries you through the door. Tomorrow, you discover, the family is going to the Temple; but what’s really great is that lamb gets to go, too!

Early the next morning your mother wakes you up, ordering you to clean up and put on your best clothes. The fact breakfast was skipped this morning for the Lord wasn’t new, but Dad has never looked so serious . . . so sober. Anyway, your guess is that he’s tying the lamb’s feet together so he won’t get loose in the Temple.

The family is finally on the way; Dad’s in front, with the lamb on his shoulders with Mom and all the siblings in tow. Nearing the Temple you notice some of your friends arriving but Dad won’t let you talk to anybody. Once inside the Temple, all you can see are the backs and legs of a forest of grownups. Nobody’s talking; they’re all just kind of crying and moaning real loud. Every so often a family or group of people press their way through the crowd heading for the door of the Temple. They’re always crying the hardest even the kids. It’s hard to figure out what’s happening. You had never really noticed the people’s faces the other times. This was the first time, too, that Dad had ever let lamb come, even though lot’s of other people brought theirs.

After a very long two hours you have crept near the front. Occasionally you can see the priests’ legs and bare feet around the altar through a crack in the crowd. The wailing and moaning near the front is almost deafening.

Finally, your family is standing in front of the altar. There is blood all over the ground and splattered on the priests’ clothes. While your attention is fixed on all the blood, Dad has handed the lamb over to a priest. After saying something to Dad he lifts his head and speaks again probably praying. His hands are both resting on the lamb when you notice for the first time the menacing, long knife on the side of the altar.

The lamb anticipates its future with a meek struggle but the leather cords hold firm. After the priest finishes praying he picks up the knife and puts his hand under the lamb’s jaw pulling its head back. Horror-struck, you watch the priest plunge the knife into its throat; the blood spills out onto the breast of the lamb, the priest and the altar. After one last spasmodic convulsion the life of your lamb is over.

As the priest spreads the blood around, the reality of the whole gruesome spectacle begins to melt your frozen stupor. Leaving the temple tears flow uncontrollably as you press through other Jewish families awaiting their turn. Nothing was said on the way home but no one noticed anyway.

That evening Father lifted your little frame off your tear-stained pillow and gently explained as he had to your older brothers and sisters in prior years. Explaining how a lamb could die instead of you.

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