“Ki vayom hazeh y’chaper aley’hem, le’taher et’chem; mikol hatotey’chem lifnei adonai tit’haru. (For on this day atonement will be made for you to cleanse you, of all your sins before God, you shall be cleansed” (Lev 16:30)
On Yom Kippur, when the High Priest entered the inner Temple, dressed in special robes and breastplate, the priestly garments including the frontlets on his head, the vestments of fine white linen, he would repeat this biblical verse in each of the three confessions he made. And the people would crowd around outside in the temple courtyard, listening hard, and when they heard the the glorious and awesome four letter name of God we write as yod hey vav hey, the name which would be uttered only by the High Priest, only within the Holy of Holies, only on Yom Kippur, only as part of the confession ritual, then they would bow down with their faces to the ground and respond with the blessing of God’s name. This annual ritual of confession and sacrifice was a dangerous one, surrounded by mystery, perfumed by the incense, veiled from the community. Tension mounted as the confessions grew, as the animals were sacrificed and the hopes pinned upon them being favourably received reached some form of expression.
My sympathies have always been with the high priest, upon whose shoulders rested the burden of so much expectation. The fate of the whole people seems to have been given over to this one man on this one day – so he had better get it right. The ritual was complicated, the choreography of washing and changing clothes, of sacrifice and prayer awesomely elaborate, the consequences of making a mistake unthinkable. We don’t know much from either biblical sources or first temple texts, but by the time of the Second Temple the Day for Atonement was focussed on the actions and intentions of the High Priest, and the role of the people was to listen, to be awe-struck, and to hope that he got it right.
That was then, but since the Temple days Yom Kippur has developed a different set of rituals, and while we re-enact part of the Avodah, the temple service of Yom Kippur, during the mussaf service, experiencing just the echo of the thrilling gravity and overwhelming power of that ceremony, our own liturgy and imagery takes us to a different religious place. Yom Kippur is no longer the Day for Atonement for the people Israel, it is by far a more personal and individual experience for we children of modern times. The High Priest has long gone, the sacrificial system consigned to a stage post in history that no longer speaks to us of religious action, and the corporate nature of the people Israel has been changed as we have become a different category altogether – Jews, and while we consistently create community we see ourselves in the main as individuals, individual Jews.
The structure of the ritual and the philosophical underpinnings of the day have undergone a radical transformation, and so, I would posit, has the meaning of what Yom haKippurim means to us. While we still translate this obscure name using the invented composite word ‘at-one’, we have changed both meaning and purpose of the day for our own spiritual needs. I would even go so far as to say that the day is not really about sin and atonement any more – how would we even define those terms today? – but that Yom Kippur for us is about something quite other – Time. Yom Kippur is about our use of time, about our location in time – it is in particular a day for us to focus on our own mortality.
Interspersed in our machzor with the major themes of sin and repentance, of forgiveness and atonement, we hear the insistently repeated motif of life and death. We talk for example about the Book of Life, we read the Martyrology, we recite a service of Yizkor, our traditional clothing for this day is to wear shrouds and we are called to abstain from the physical pleasures of living, eating, drinking or washing. We take a day right out of time and act as if the world outside is irrelevant to us, as if we are, for the moment, temporarily dead.
What message do we take from the prayers and texts as we sit through Yom Kippur. It is probably true that we examine our lives and find our behaviour wanting. It is probably the case that we make our stumbling attempts towards recognising and harnessing our own spirituality, yearning as we do for a sense of meaning, for a firm belief in a greater being. It may well be that we feel momentarily inspired to change some part of our lives, or that we experience the satisfying of a need for connectedness which tends to be submerged during the busy weeks of the rest of our lives. As the day rolls on, the ancient formulae about sin and loss swirl around us, as do the equally ancient phrases about return and forgiveness. We know that we are less than perfect and we look for ways to deal with both the knowledge and the reality. But we cannot retreat into the Yom Kippur of the Temple period and leave the whole religious business to someone else. The Yom Kippur of our time looks us in the face and says – you are mortal, you only have a limited time on this earth – and you do not even know how limited it may be – so what are you going to do about your life?
Yom Kippur is no longer a day simply of general and ritual atonement. It is a day for us to restructure our lives, to reconcile our realities with our requirements. Loud and clear through the prayers comes the reminder – we are mortal, we, and those around us do not have all the time in the world, and so if there are things we want to do, we should be planning to do them now, if there are things we need to change, we should be arranging to change them now, if there are things we want to say, we should be saying them now.
Nothing is so precious as time, nothing is so consistently abused. We waste time, we kill time, we fill in time – rarely do we actually use time appropriately. Yet our tradition has been able to transform a day of communal awe and professional ritual activity, and give it to us in a new form – personal time for us to spend reconciling and reconstructing the lives we are living with the lives we already know we could be living.
As a community rabbi I have sat and listened so many times to the laments which begin ‘if only’, I have witnessed the rapprochements which have sometimes come too late, I have heard the stories of fractured relationships which have entailed years of lost possibilities; I have met broygas individuals (note for translater – people who have taken offence) who are determined that the other person should make the first move towards reconciliation – sometimes about an argument the reason for which is lost in history. We don’t tend to use the word ‘sin’ for such behaviours, but surely to fail to make or maintain relationships in this way is one of the biggest sins we currently commit. We all live within the constraints of time, we all know what is truly important to do in that time, yet most if not all of us regularly fail to acknowledge that we should be making our priorities so that when the time runs out – be it our own time in this world or the time of a loved one – we have done what was important and responded appropriately, addressing the most meaningful issues of our lives rather than reacting to what is presented as the most urgent.
On the tenth of Tishri the bible tells us to come together as a holy assembly for Yom haKippurim. It is clearly to be a day of repentance, of hard thinking, of reconciliation and reconstruction of relationship. We are used to the imagery that reminds us that we are to reconcile and reconstruct our relationship with God, and parts of us are able to do so. And we manage it without the intermediary of the stylised actions of the high priest. We sit and think and pray, hear the voices inside us as they speak of loss and pain, of comfort and of peace.
But today isn’t only about our working on our relationship with God, it is about using that work and the understanding brought about by such a relationship so that we make substantial changes to our relationships with others. As Morris Adler wrote:
‘Our prayers are answered not when we are given what we ask, but when we are challenged to be what we can be’ .
Yom Kippur has been many things for we Jews during our history. The most solemn day of our calendar it is described as ‘shabbat shabbaton’ – the Sabbath of Sabbaths. There is a tradition that when God had finished creating the world, God created the Sabbath, and scripture tells us “uvayom hash’vee’ee shavat va’yinafash” (Exod. 31:16-17) And on the seventh day God stopped all work and restored his soul. This word va’yinafash is a strange one – often translated as “God rested” it really means something to do with restoring the soul. From it comes the idea that on Shabbat we are given an extra soul or measure of soul, with which we can discern and taste the world that is more usually hidden from us, we can experience something outside of normal sensation. If we have an extra dimension of soul on Shabbat, how much more so on shabbat shabbaton – today, Yom haKippurim? On shabbat we use it to experience a taste of the world to come, but today we can use it for something else entirely – we can use it to understand more about this world and our place within it. The liturgy of today reminds us about time, about the fleeting nature of our life in this world, about the end which all of us will face. Yom Kippur gives us the time and the space to consider our part in our world, gives us the extra measure of soul we need to really consider and construct our lives as we mean to live them. We have about another seven hours today, and the real world will begin to crowd in once more and drown out the world of prayer and thought we have created. We do not know how much time we will have after that. So today let’s face the time and let’s spend it wisely, rather than profligately allowing it to run away. Who knows how many tomorrows there will be?
“Ki vayom hazeh y’chaper aley’hem, le’taher et’chem; mikol hatotey’chem lifnei adonai tit’haru. (For on this day atonement will be made for you to cleanse you, of all your sins before the lord, you shall be cleansed” says our machzor, quoting the book of Leviticus. There is no High Priest to do the cleansing, only ourselves and our dedication and our desire, and of course this very special and holy block of time – today.