Sermon for Yom Kippur Shacharit: ki vayom hazeh – on this day

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.

Korach:the Brexit challenge of its day

Sometimes the concatenation of torah portion and world events is simply eerie.  In the UK we are dealing with the fallout of a leadership bid that spectacularly exploded outside of the narrow boundaries of party politic where it should have remained, and in bible we are dealing with the fallout of a leadership bid where the ambition of the leaders of the revolt harnessed popular opinion from those who felt marginalised and deserted by the ruling elite leading to a spectacular implosion of those ambitious challengers.

Korach, a Levite and cousin of Moses and Aaron (his father Izhar and their father Amram were brothers) felt that Moses and Aaron had taken too much power, and that others in the community were equally competent to lead and were dissatisfied at being treated as being less than the ruling group. Along with Datan and Abiram and On ben Pelet and two hundred and fifty men of standing in the community he came to challenge the right of the leadership to continue.

רַב־לָכֶם֒ כִּ֤י כָל־הָֽעֵדָה֙ כֻּלָּ֣ם קְדֹשִׁ֔ים וּבְתוֹכָ֖ם יְהוָֹ֑ה וּמַדּ֥וּעַ תִּֽתְנַשְּׂא֖וּ עַל־קְהַ֥ל יְהוָֹֽה:

You take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Eternal is among them; why then do you raise up yourselves above the assembly of the Eternal?’ (16:3)

Moses’ response was to fall on his face. He did not argue back, nor justify his leadership at this time, but seems to have been paralysed for a moment, and then he puts the onus for supporting his status on to God. A charitable reading would be that Moses was prostrated in prayer, to ask for divine guidance, but this is not recorded in the text, so what happens next seems to have come more from Moses’ mind than from God.

He spoke to Korach and all his company, saying: ‘In the morning the Eternal will show who are God’s, and who is holy, and will cause them to come near to God; (16:5) and then told Korach and his followers to take their firepans the next day and put fire and incense in them, and God would show who would be chosen, who was holy. He challenges the Levites in Korach’s group – they already have a role and status in supporting the worship ritual, are they trying to take on the role of the Cohen, the priest, as well as that of Levite, the enablers of the priests?

Then follows a strange hole in the narrative – Moses says:

לָכֵ֗ן אַתָּה֙ וְכָל־עֲדָ֣תְךָ֔ הַנֹּֽעָדִ֖ים עַל־יְהוָֹ֑ה וְאַֽהֲרֹ֣ן מַה־ה֔וּא כִּ֥י תַלִּ֖ונוּ [תַלִּ֖ינוּ] עָלָֽיו

Therefore you and all your company that are gathered together against the Eternal–; and as to Aaron, what is he that you murmur against him?’

What is the ‘therefore’ referring to? What causes the leap from accusing the rebels of challenging for the priesthood to accusing them as rebelling against God? Why does he appear to break off from this startling reframing of the rebellion and ask about Aaron specifically?  The rebellion is against both Moses and Aaron, but Moses seems to be taking himself out of the equation, viewing the – quite legitimate – complaints as being about the priesthood, and not about his own style of leadership.

Having categorised the rebellion as being about something rather different than what it really was about, he turns to the sons of Reuben, the descendants of the first born of Jacob, the tribe who might really have had a claim to leadership on the grounds of primogeniture and the inheritance hierarchy of the biblical world.

But Datan and Abiram are not cowed and they are not willing to come to him on his call, interestingly saying   לֹ֥א נַֽעֲלֶֽה we will not come up. Not that they will not come to him, but that they will not ascend/rise up. There are two very different understandings of this odd verb – one, that even while professing that they have an equal right to leadership their language betrays them – they see Moses as having a rightful higher status than them; or that while challenging Moses’ right to hold leadership, they refuse themselves to step up to the role, preferring to complain and challenge from the sidelines but without any intention of taking responsibility for the consequences of what they are doing.

Yet they are certainly prepared to complain and to paint a picture of failure and fault.

“Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, but you must also make yourself also a prince over us?  Moreover you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards; will you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up.'(16:13-14)

Fabricated nostalgia paints a false picture of the past which is the set against the present situation. One might paraphrase it as “We came from milk and honey and we are not now given milk and honey, nor the other benefits you told us we would acquire on leaving Egypt and going to the Promised Land. And you are creating a climate of fear here where people who dissent fear for their health and wellbeing, so we will not do as you ask”  The Reubenite challengers are constructing an alternate reality in public view in order to bolster their position without in any way arguing their case or indeed using factually correct information. Egypt was most certainly NOT a land of milk and honey for the Israelites, the people are not yet arrived at the destination they are travelling towards and therefore the inheritance is not yet possible, and nowhere has the putting out of eyes of the men been mooted. But now this view is in the public domain, put forward by men of standing in the community, and there will be those who will believe it to be true, whose anxiety and disaffection can be harnessed, and the pressure is on Moses and Aaron to disprove it.

Datan and Abiram are gifted demagogues, agitating the people with manipulative appeals to popular prejudice and unfulfilled wishes. This is a dangerous moment for the people of Israel, with discontented murmurings and denigrations of the leaders’ activities and plans. They have used the language of future prosperity against current reality and against a rose tinted past that had never existed. Should they take over the leadership, what would have happened? God had not chosen them, did not seem to speak to them nor, from what the text tells us, had any relationship with them. The tribe of Reuben, who should have ordinarily have had access to leadership had lost it through the selfish and transgressive act of Reuben himself, who slept with Bilhah, mother of some of his brothers.

As Jacob lay on his deathbed, he addressed parting words to his sons, and spoke of Reuben like this:

Reuben, you are my first-born, my might and first fruit of my vigour, Exceeding in rank and exceeding in honour.Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer; For when you mounted your father’s bed, you brought disgrace-my couch he mounted! ((Gen. 49:3-4)

And yet Datan and Abiram chose to ignore the shame that lost them their tribal dominance, and stand against Moses and Aaron, presumably in the hope of restoring that advantage for themselves again.

The rest of the story is simply awful. God enters the narrative, telling Moses and Aaron to “separate yourselves from this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment” and they respond by asking God “Shall one man sin and you be angry with the whole community?”  Should the whole community pay the price of the arrogance of the group who challenged?

The test of the firepans leads to the public and horrible spectacle of the rebels and their families swallowed alive when the ground beneath them opened up momentarily, so that they fell into a pit which closed over them.  The two hundred and fifty men of renown who had supported the rebels and who had brought their fire pans and incense were destroyed by a fire that came ‘from the Eternal’ and the rest of the Israelites fled in panic and disarray, terrified by what had been unleashed, terrified for their futures.

So what do we learn? We learn that rebellion against leadership that comes from thwarted ambition is a dangerous event, all the more so when those who lead the rebellion are skilled demagogues who manipulate the language and the reality so that the majority of the people are left confused and unclear.  We learn that leadership needs to be firm and fairly applied, that leaders should not distance themselves from the people and their concerns, take them seriously rather than see them as distractions to the long term plan and irrelevant. We learn that ALL the people have value, all of us matter, and to discount us or ignore us is a strategy that will backfire in time as enough frustration and anger builds for someone to come and use it for their own purposes. We learn not to trust thoughtlessly, but to research and learn for ourselves, to see the world around us through our own eyes and not through the filter of those with an agenda of their own.

Sometimes the Torah portion speaks to the moment in a particularly powerful way. Korach and his fellow leaders were not ab initio coming from a false position, all the people ARE holy, Moses and Aaron’s style of leadership WAS autocratic and did not take account of the feelings of the people enough. But from a platform of rational and defendable positions they shifted to irrational and indefensible actions and a terrible scenario was let loose which had implications for the entry into the land for a generation.