Here is the last of my High Holiday talks. Just as soon as I get back to writing real sermons, I’ll start posting them again…
Our Torah reading today, the 16th chapter of the book of Leviticus, tells the story of the very first Yom Kippur. In so doing, it presents us with some familiar details: “On the tenth day of the 7th month,” we read, bearing in mind that the Torah reckoned the beginning of the year from the month of Nissan, and not Tishrei, as we do, “you are to afflict yourselves—t’anu et nafshotechem. You are not to do any kind of work, neither the native nor the sojourner who dwells in your midst. For on this day, kapparah, atonement, will be made for you litaher etchem, to purify you of all your sins, lifnei adonai titharu. Before God, you will be purified.” This explains why we sit here, thousands of years later, hungry and smelly, wearing old pairs of Converse All-Stars as we seek, through prayer and chesbon hanefesh, the searching of our souls, to achieve atonement in the presence of the most Holy.
But the rest of the parsha doesn’t look anything like what we’re doing here today. The very first Yom Kippur, which this chapter describes in vivid detail, was an elaborate sacrifical service, performed by Aaron, the High Priest, with the assistance of his family, in the Mishkan, the portable tabernacle that was the focal point of Israelite worship during the 40 years of travelling through the dessert, and in the early days of their settlement in the Promised Land. On this day, Aaron sacrificed a bullock on his own behalf and two goats for the sake of the Children of Israel. In a memorable ceremony, one of these goats was slaughtered in the customary fashion, and the other, the azazel, set free as a live offering: a scapegoat wandering the barren wilderness, bearing the transgressions of the people on its head. With the blood of the slaughtered offerings, Aaron purified the vessels of the tabernacle, which were made susceptible to impurity through the sins of the people. Finally, when everything was set right, he was able to enter the kadosh, the Holy of Holies, where, said God, “I appear in the cloud above the cover of the ark.”
However foreign its particulars may seem, this service is an archetype that recurs throughout our liturgy today. Again and again, our tradition will conceive of atonement as the entering into a sacred space, into the holy place—into the presence of God. There is a force preventing us from entering, understood to be our sins and transgressions. We will seek to be purified. Like the high priest, we will seek to set things right, so that our experience of the holiness of God is unimpeded.
And, again and again, our tradition will tell us that there is a grave danger lurking in this process, one that should invoke within our hearts a profound fear. This warning is first issued subtly, in the initial words of today’s parsha: “And the Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, who had drawn near before the Lord and died.” Rashi tells us this verse is meant as an admonition: Aaron must take utmost care that he enter the holy place at the right time, and in the right way, remembering what happened to his sons, the negligent priests, when they failed to do so. This subtle warning becomes more explicit in verse 17, when God says: “There shall be no man in the tent of meeting, when Aaron goes in to make atonement in the holy place.” There is something so perilous about this moment of entry that even the antechamber must be evacuated of all but the high priest himself.
What is this danger? Why does the central spiritual gesture of Yom Kippur, doing what is necessary to move closer to the core of the sacred, inspire such fear? Keeping in mind this Torah portion, I want to draw upon two additional texts, both of which we experience today, to help us address these questions.
We will encounter the first of these texts, the “Avodah” service, or the service of the Kohen HaGadol, during the musaf section of this morning’s service. In an exercise of the imagination, intended to connect us to the historic solemnity of this day, we will participate in the prepartion and entry of the high priest into the holy of holies, not of the Mishkan, the tabernacle, but of the Beit HaMikdash, the Jerusalem Temple. In a sacred space, shifted from the tent of the wilderness to the imposing chambers of a grandiose sanctuary, we see the same ritual performed: the sacrificing of a bullock, the distinction between the slaughtered goat and the scapegoat, the purification by blood, and a man dressed in simple white linen garments entering into the kadsoh. But in this text, we are offerred perspectives that are not given us in Leviticus. Here, we join our emotions, not only with the high priest, but also with the spectators, standing with them on the outskirts of the sacred precint as the ceremony takes place—experiencing both their dread and their exultation.
What do they dread? What are they afraid of? We can learn this backwards from the prayer that the Kohen HaGadol, the High Priest, uttered after his mission had proved successful, after he had stood in the presence of God and survivied to tell about it: “May it be your will, our God and the God of our fathers, that this year that has now arrived…be a year of blessing, a year of good decrees…a year of happy life from you, a year of dew and rain and warmth…a year of atonement from all our iniquities.” By entering into the holy of holies, the priest, the people’s representative, had been given an audience with an awe-inspiring king, by whose power all of the anxieties and tribulations of life could be assuaged, if the king judged the request of his people favorably. As we watch the Kohen Ha Gadol enter into the holy place, we know it is a moment of mortal danger. The vision brings to mind everything that we fear as individuals and a society—our frailities, heartbreaks and sickness, the anguish of living at a time of deteriorating natural habitats and dwindling material resources. Everything we hesitate to name comes washing into consciousness. But we are told, too, that if he emerges alive, we are forgiven; we are cleansed. We are at one with God. Our hearts are pure. We are safe. We are told that when the people saw the radiant face of the emerging priest, “they rejoiced…and served in awe the Holy One of Israel, the sanctifier of holy beings; they uttered joyful song with the timbrel and the cymbal, playing on stringed instruments and singing sweet psalmody.” The Talmud says that if we never knew the rejoicing that took hold in Jerusalem at the close of Yom Kippur, then we have never known joy.
But beyond the nervous expectation of a favorable judgment—the gathering and dispersal of the primal terrors of life—it has long seemed to me that there is another kind of fear at play here, a lurking anxiety unakcnowledged by the traditional text. As I play the role of Israelite, I wonder about the experience of the Kohen HaGadol as he passes from my view, beyond the curtain, into the place of holiness. What does he find there? What if, instead of the awesome presence of God, he encounters only silence, the murmuring of his own thoughts, the scuffing of his feet on the floor echoed in an empty chamber? What if it’s all nothing more than a show, ‘sound and fury signifying nothing’? What if, in the midst of the glorious temple, the vessels of gold, silver, and bronze, the ornaments, the tapestries, or even just the organ pipes, stained glass windows, and ceiling fans, we are met not even by the anger of God, but only by God’s absence?
This may be a particularly modern fear, the fear that at the heart of our search for God through ritual we will discover that God is not there; the fear that God is no longer in the places we were taught to search for God, if God ever was; a dissapointment leaving our terrible anxieties gathered but unrelieved. There may even be a hint of this melancholy fear, however, in a verse of the song traditionally sung at the close of the avodah service: “Happy is the eye that saw all of these things, but truly to hear of them makes our souls sad.” We have no Temple, no physical space in which God appears to us in incontrovertible majesty, and we may even be prone to doubt that such a place ever really existed as it was said to. We stand in uncertain relationship to the concepts of sacred space and divine forgiveness, fear and the presence of God. But, fortunately, there is a traditional text we read today that addresses this uncertainy, that speaks directly to our experience, even if it is the story of a man who spent three days in a fish’s belly.
We will chant the book of Jonah today at mincha, the afternoon service. Jonah was not a priest, and the book that bears his name never explicitly identifies him as a prophet, though this seems to have been the nature of his mission. We do not know precisely where Jonah lived, what he believed, how he worshipped. We do not know if he ever saw the Jerusalem Temple, but we do know that he had an understanding of what it meant to inhabit a sacred space, and that he knew what it meant to be afraid.
God calls upon Jonah to preach repentence to the great city of Ninveh, and Jonah runs away. He takes a ship to Tarshish but God raises a storm, and the sailors, to save themselves, cast him overboard. He sinks to the bottom of the sea and is swallowed by the fish. In the belly of the fish he prays. Following the ordeal of drowning, Jonah believes he has been saved. Like the High Priest in the Holy of Holies, he has been judged favorably and spared the full wrath of the Lord. Now he is communing with God in sacred space, not the inner room in Jerusalem, but an impromptu chamber fashioned in the innards of a whale. And so, he says, “’I told myself, “I am banished from before your eyes,” yet I once again look upon heykhal kodshekha, the sanctuary of your holiness.’”
The text, however, makes it clear that Jonah’s sanctuary is the one place in the story where God is absent. “And the Lord prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish 3 days and 3 nights…And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited out Jonah on to the dry land.” God is portrayed as maintaining a respectful distance while Jonah communes with himself in what he nonetheless believes to be the presence of God. God provides Jonah with a godless refuge, because God knows that Jonah is not quite ready to face what Jonah truly fears.
What does Jonah fear? We know he is afraid because we see him run away, running from the task that God has appointed to him; he runs from d’var adonai, the word, or the matter, of the Lord. God pursues him, but Jonah is not afraid of the storm—he sleeps peacefully in the shelter of the ship’s hold. But he hesitates to make himself known, until God points the finger at him, in the form of a cast lot, and he can no longer remain incognito. He finds shelter in the belly of the whale, until God makes the whale vomit him up on dry land. But Jonah is not afraid of God’s wrath. He longs to witness the destruction of Ninveh, and he has no qualms about raising his own voice in complaint when this destruction is averted. And yet he is angry when, on the outskirts of Ninveh, the shelter of a gourd is denied him, and he wants to die. But it is here, on the outskirts of the city, that Jonah tells us what he truly fears, that Jonah acknowledges why he ran: “This is why I feld to Tarshish,” he says, “for I knew that You are a gracious God, and compassionate, long-suffering, and abundant in mercy.” He does not fear God’s judgement. He does not fear God’s absence. Jonah is afraid of God’s compassion.
Jonah’s only observable traits seem to be fear and anger, and yet God makes him the most successful prophet of all times. Everyone he meets, from the sailors on the ship to Tarshish, to the citizens of Ninveh, is encouraged to seek God—to seek life and the gratitude for life. But Jonah himself asks only for shelter, for death, and for destruction. He wants safety from what he is afraid to partake of, or he wants it to end. We can explain this paradox, the dissonance between the man and his mission, by understanding this book not as the record of Jonah’s prophecy, but as the testimony of his atonement. God calls on Jonah not to preach to Ninveh, but to make him abandon his shelter, his sanctuary, for a ferocious experience of God’s compassion—to live in the face of the possiblity, agonizing precisely in its uncertainty, that life might occasionally triumph in the midst of death. God says to Jonah: “You may long for the power of my wrathful judgment, you may claim to commune with me in the safety of an empty room, but if you truly seek my presence, you must acknowledge your own name, you must accept the burden of your experience, and you must be ready to live and encourage life, not in the belly of the whale, but in the midst of the storm and in the face of the wickedness of the world.”
The light of the legacy we have received from Aaron and his descendents, the essence of Yom Kippur, may then finally shine through to us in Jonah’s story. We may tremble as we approach the kadosh, not because we think a king may judge us favorably or wrathfully, or because we are anxious about the absence of God, but because it is difficult, even terrifying, to abandon our shelter and take up the raw task of living for the sake of the sanctification of life—truly acknowledging that there is only a possibility, and never a certainty, that life and blessing will persist in the face of death and change. We discover that we sin and transgress, we need purification, precisely when fear and anger cause us to turn our eyes away from living, and to seek its destruction. We see that atonement itself is the process of coming to terms with the awesome responsibility of standing in the compassionate presence of God.