YK Day 5777/2016: On Responsibility

4. On Responsibility

I wasn’t always a rabbi. I used to be a child, and when I was a kid, the High Holiday services I went to were very long. We did the whole book, and took pride in that fact. It was like having a yearly holiday in which the ritual was to read the entirety of Ulysses. A lot of it just washed over me in a big mass of liturgy, though we had a wonderful hazzan who brought the passion of the service to life in a way that has stuck with me to this day. But there were moments that I noticed, even then, more than others, particularly the part that sounded to my young ears like an inscrutable recitation of numbers: achat, achat v’achat, achat ushtayim, achat v’shalosh, and so on. I would guess that I perked up at this time because one of the earlier things I would have learned in Day School was to count in Hebrew, so I could recognize that something was being counted, albeit in an unusual way: one, one and one, one and two, one and three. And so forth, all the way though one and seven. Imagine my surprise when I learned, eventually, that what was being counted here were the drops of blood being splattered by the High Priest from the goat he had just slaughtered as he sprinkled them from his fingertips on to the appurtenances of the sacred precinct.

These lines come from a section of the musaf service for Yom Kippur, which we have the opportunity to encounter later today, called “Seder HaAvodah”, or, in English, “The Service of the High Priest.” There is a primitive virtual reality quality to this part of the liturgy. It hearkens back to the earliest days of Jewish mysticism, when, in the wake of the destruction of the second Temple, spiritual journeys would be taken by entering into a trance state while a guide narrated the experience of passing through a heavenly Temple that was even more grand and holy than the one that had been lost to Roman destruction. I can’t promise any mystical journeys in the musaf today, though I’m sure our hazzan will do beautifully, but the principle is the same. We will narrate the experience of the High Priest as he prepares for and then performs the ancient, cultic sacrificial rituals of Yom Kippur–the way it used to be done when the Temple was standing in Jerusalem. It is a more ornate version of the original desert ceremony in the mishkan, which God instructed Aaron and his sons to perform, as we read in today’s Torah reading from Leviticus.

There are a few details of this service that I want to call our attention to today, and invite us to consider. I think they might provide us with some insight, as we try to get our minds around the subject of atonement, and wrestle with the time-honored question that the caterpillar first addressed to Alice: who are you? which, really, is not a very easy question to answer.

As we learned from the Torah reading, Yom Kippur originally played a crucial role in the yearly ritual cycle of the sacrificial cult. It was the day on which the High Priest entered the most sacred part of the the mishkan, or, later, the Temple, an area known as the Kodesh Kodashim, the Holy of Holies. To do so, he underwent a very painstaking series of preparatory activities, understanding that what he was about to do was a matter of life and death. As part of this preparation, he made three distinct sacrificial offerings of atonement, the first for himself and his family, the second for himself and his fellow priests, and the third for himself and all of the Israelite nation, to which he belonged. Then he went inside, on behalf of this nation that he represented, to purify this sacred place that was held in common by the entire society, and, in fact, represented what they valued most highly as a people.

It was understood that over the course of the year this sacred place became overlaid with a kind of spiritual plaque, called tumah, which accreted there because of the sins and misdeed of the people, against God, against the land, and against each other. If this plaque went unchecked, it could lead to disastrous consequences for all of these relationships, resulting ultimately in the dissolution of the community through destruction and exile. What the High Priest did every year at Yom Kippur was enter into the Holy of Holies and, essentially, scape away all of the plaque that he could, like a sacerdotal dental hygienist. Only in this way could the people be assured of another year of life and thriving–which is why we are told, in the later stories related about this day from the Temple period–that they were very happy to see him come out alive, and Yom Kippur would culminate in celebrations of ecstatic joy.

Although, since the destruction of the second Temple and the transitioning of Jewish spirituality from animal sacrifice to verbal prayer, there is no longer an actual service of the High Priest, tradition teaches that none of this has simply vanished into thin air. Instead, not only do we read about it in our prayer book, but we are meant to see it as the template of our own individual experiences of atonement. In this sense, on this day, each of is the High Priest, entering into the Holy of Holies to effect a purification that enables life to flourish. So stop thinking about the High Priest as someone else–he is you. He is the avatar of your subjectivity. What the Torah says about what he is responsible for has something very important to suggest to us about what it is we are responsible for, and, in fact, who “we” really are. And the most important point to draw from this is the recognition that nothing that he did was simply for himself as an individual. Every ritual of atonement–the preparatory offerings as well as the scraping of the sacred plaque–was done in the context of a relationship of responsibility, whether to family, or caste, or people. This should make us think.

I’ll try to clarify the point by telling you how it occurred to me. Actually, it came in two different guises.

The first has to do with being Jewish. Though, in keeping with the tenor of our times, we may tend to think of religion as a personal matter of individual spirituality, Judaism has always meant more than a private confession or practice. Instead, it has represented a global and historical experience of community and peoplehood. It has meant partaking in an identity that transcends the individual lifespan in time and space, and claiming ownership of, and responsibility for, that broader sense of self. You may think I’m going to harangue you about paying membership dues to the synagogue, but actually I thought I’d say a few words about a less fraught topic: the State of Israel.

It has been said, and even demonstrated, that the relationship between the American Jewish community and Israel has entered a new era of tenuousness, especially when we consider the progressive or unaffiliated segment of American Judaism. The existence of Israel reaches back into a Jewish past of collective existence and experience–a sense of shared destiny–that has drastically diminished since it was founded just after the Holocaust, leaving the endeavor high and dry, or at least reliant on some very virulent and religiously-infused forms of nationalism for its most salient motivating force. There have been years of bad action by successive governments in prolonging a brutal occupation, but there has also been an unending campaign of vicious and traumatic attacks perpetrated against Israeli civilians, beyond what we can understand from our position of relative comfort, and a global culture prone to double-standards and, at the very least, tinged with anti-Jewish sentiment. The result is a reality that leaves many of us, by turns, feeling queasy, disgusted, fearful, alienated, ashamed, angry, and despairing, and has conditioned what I think is the most prevalent response among those with the luxury to do so–a shrug of the shoulders and a walking away.

Talk about a once sacred project– like the holy of holies in the mishkan–that has become overlaid with a virulent plaque! I wish I knew a simple method to scrape it off. I don’t, but all I can say is that nothing is served by forsaking our collective priestly duty to seek atonement, to purify, as best we can, the terms of our shared identity. I hope you will pay attention to, and participate in, the programming we have upcoming later in the fall–a visit from Rabbi Donniel Hartman and a follow-up community conversation–as we search together for a way forward.

I mentioned there was another way in which I was thinking about this point–that our responsibility for atonement, like that of the High Priest, lies less in the individual realm than in our relationships and the identities and sacred trusts we hold in common. I could certainly mention climate change and ecological catastrophe, once again, but I assume you know about these problems and know, to some extent, what needs to be done, so I thought I’d spend my time today on something not unrelated, but a little more cheerful: American politics.

To say “I am Jewish” is not merely a statement of individual predilection, but an affirmation of connection to others. The same is true with the phrase, “I am an American.” Think about that for a second–think about the phrase itself: “I am an American”. What do you think and feel when mouthing those words? Do you say it comfortably, or with reservation? I don’t think I am the only one, over the past year, who has felt that to be an American in these times is to perceive an almost unbearable sense of vulgarity, corruption, division and pollution emanating from our American Holy of Holiness–the civic public sphere that, because it is so determinant of our well-being, we should hold as sacred as anything we know.

I’m not going to point fingers here, though I will encourage you, as the saying goes, to vote, and vote your conscience, and, maybe, if you know some millennials, have a real heart-to-heart with them. But this problem won’t go away in November. Whoever wins next month, we are going to find ourselves in a situation where approximately half the nation consider the president to be a liar and a miscreant unworthy of their loyalty, and the other half to be fools, dupes, and traitors. And so, right or wrong, we are faced with a tremendous crisis of collective identity, another coating of pestilence on our national altar.

I think our tendency may be, and I know my tendency is, to assume that the impurity arises because of the actions and opinions of people, parties and movements, that I find abhorrent, and my major point of concern is in fact the implementation of partisan policies that I consider to be a matter of life and death. By all means, we should fight for what we know to be right. But at the same time, we must reserve some headspace for another approach, based in a teaching from Pirkei Avot, the tractate of the Mishna often called in English “Ethics of the Fathers”, which says that when there is a dispute you are to consider both parties guilty, and when it is resolved you are to consider both parties innocent. This is a tall order, and the only practical step I can think of to try and realize it is to take some time this year to step outside your enclave, and consider America from another perspective, at least for a few minutes, because, as strange as it may seem, we share this American identity even with people that we hate, and there is no way forward that does not involve at least a minimal effort to take that paradox into account.

I’ve worn myself out talking about currents events, which is not my strong suit, so I want to go back to the interpretation of texts and symbols, where I feel more at home. There are a few traditional terms in Judaism to describe the individual’s obligation to the collective, one of the more prominent being the phrase ahavat Yisrael. Literally, it means “the love of Israel”, and in its narrowest sense it refers to a religious, ethnic or national love that we are meant to feel for our fellow Jews, though there are some sources who suggest that ahavat yisrael is merely a training ground for ahavat habriyut, the love of all creatures. But I want to read the phrase another way this morning. Remember that Yisrael, Israel, wasn’t always an abstract collective identity, whether a confederation of tribes or a modern nation state, but was originally the name of an individual. It was what Jacob was called, as we learn in the book of Genesis, after he spent the night wrestling with a mysterious “other”, a being who was never clearly defined but instead came to represent some entity beyond himself–whether God or his brother–with whom he had a crucial relationship. He wrestled with this being all night, never certain where he ended and it began, and feeling the pain and challenge of being called out of his narrow sense of self, and into the bond of obligation toward some greater identity. It was not for winning this struggle, but rather for engaging it, that he was given a name that came to bridge the gap between the one and the many, the solitary person and the people. So let’s say that the term ahavat yisrael, this form of love demonstrated by the man who was called Israel, refers to the yearning inherent in the tumultuous struggle to break out of the saferoom of the circumscribed spirit, and into meaningful and holy identification with others.

In this sense, Yom Kippur is not merely a day of self-analysis but self-expansion. Just as the High Priest was meant to perform rituals that emphasized his relationships–himself and his family, himself and his peers, himself and his nation–so we might use this time not to just to contemplate ourselves, but ourselves in the aspect of our larger names: I. I and my family. I and my community I and my people. I and my country. I and my world. Achat. Achat v’achat…One. One and one. One and two. One and three. One and four. One and five. One and six. One and seven. Because what we really learn from the service of the High Priest is that there is no such thing as individual atonement on Yom Kippur. The origin of the holiday lies in the purification of something that is meant to be shared and toward which we all have an existential relationship of responsibility; something that we all must hold together if we all don’t want to fall apart.

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