Yom Kippur Talk by David Herskovits

L’Shana Tova I was sure I could do it.

At this time last year, I thought hard about it—well I tried to—and I was sure I could be compassionate patient reasonable generous. I failed. Too many selfish moments, stubborn moments, moments when I lost patience, spoke or acted intemperately, or even hurt someone else. I failed. So here I am to try again. I don’t know what your own failures have been, where you want to atone—but I imagine you are here to try again too.

In ancient theater a hero fails, and we call that failure a “tragic flaw.” But the word for that in the original Greek is Hamartia, and it doesn’t mean “flaw” at all; it means, literally, “missing the mark.” Sound familiar? Yes, the Hebrew word we use when we recite our “sins” on this day is Chet and it denotes exactly the same idea, “to miss the mark.” For me this is a moment when Judaism touches back to an intensely ancient version of the world and what it means to be a person. Our idea of “Sin” is an internal notion; it entails our intention, our inner character, even our feeling about the things we do. If we turn the word Chet toward this side, it conjures very modern ideas of psychology, character, and guilt. But turn it to the other side, the ancient side, and none of that attaches to Chet or hamartia. You shoot. You miss. It is what you do and what happens that matters. As Aristotle says when discussing hamartia: ethos he praxis “character is action.” We are the sum of our actions and there is no idea of a “character” or “inner life” or “psychology” inside of us. Our character is the thing we build every moment of every day by our actions.

I love these moments when Judaism recalls its ancient, even pagan, roots. I hear these echoes and they make me enquire newly into the meaning of things we are praying. I learn from them. At Rosh Hashanah our new student Rabbi Miriam Grossman reminded us that Avinu Malkenu means “our father, our king.” We may not like that; we may resist saying it and hearing it; maybe it enrages us. But so it is, and that ancient version of a god has a place in our tradition. Wrestling with the fact is the only way we will continue meaningfully to renew that tradition. We still sing the song Torah tells us our ancestors sang when they got free from slavery: Mi chamocha ba elim—ba elim means “among the gods.” Yes our ancient cult evolved when dozens of cults were flourishing and worshipping many gods, and we tend to forget the force of that polytheistic spirituality. Those idols were real. Maybe they still are. So. How does that kind of resonant ancient thought help me now? I am not a hero but I sure have missed the mark. How am I to repent? How am I to seek atonement? How can I hit the mark this time?

Of course (of course!) there is not just one Torah reading for today. There are at least two. We are Jews. There is never an answer; there is always only a conversation. Just as with the word Chet there is a modern and an ancient side at play. The newer reading, the one the Reform Jewish movement has settled on as more meaningful for us today, and the one we are reading, is Nitzavim—it reassures us. Moses gathers the Israelites to enter a new covenant; he talks about how the choice is ours. “What I am telling you is not in the heavens. It is not across the sea. It is near you. You can do it.” We can do it! There’s the modern spirit, that American self-invention and can-do-ism to cheer us on. And then there is the older reading. Yikes. Talk about pagan. It is a different version of how to repent and atone, a description of the High priest at the Temple conducting blood sacrifice and ritual scapegoating, in a cloud of ancient mystery and mortal danger. Is that how to repent? Let’s look at the modern side first.

Yom Kippur is traditionally likened to a wedding. Just like Moses’ new covenant, we are entering a sacred relationship, a new life, dressed in white, full of hope, sober and serious but full of joy. But whom are we marrying? Maybe you think it is God; maybe you think you are marrying the vision of your new life, or the intention to do better, or maybe you even imagine you are marrying your Jewish faith anew. You probably know the story of the atheist, socialist, Bund member who brings his young child to shul every week, until the kid is finally old enough to challenge the father: dad how can you go to shul every week when you don’t believe in god!? “Shmulke Bernstein goes to shul to talk to god. I go to shul to talk to Shmulke Bernstein.” So I like to think we are here to marry each other. We are here to renew our commitment to everyone around us, as individuals, as a community, as human beings. I don’t know about you but whenever I am at a wedding, somehow I am reliving my own wedding, not just remembering it, but renewing it. And at our wedding, the late great Rabbi Michael Robinson reminded Jenny and me that our promise was to love the other person not when everything is great and it is easy, but “to love them when they are at their least lovable.” The point is that we are not only here to atone to others we have offended; we are the other who has been offended and we are here to forgive. We can do it! We have the power to get it right, and we can help each other get it right.

My favorite version of this “You can do it” parsha comes from Talmud. In the days of the Babylonian exile a group of learned rabbis sat by the banks of the Euphrates debating a fine point of Jewish law—was a particular oven pure or impure. They all agreed except for Rabbi Eliezer. “If I am right, let this carob tree show it!” he said, and the tree pulled its roots from the earth and moved to a new spot. Nope, the Rabbis rejected the testimony of a tree. “If I am right, let this river show it!” and the river sure enough reverses direction and flows backwards. The Rabbis were unmoved. Finally Rabbi Eliezer said “let Heaven show that I am right!” The heavens open, and a divine voice from above speaks: “Why do you disagree with Eliezer? He is right!” But the Rabbis cited this very verse: it is not in heaven. Lo ba-shamayim hee. The answer is not in heaven; It is not over the seas; it is near you. Adonai laughed and said “They have defeated me. My children have defeated me.”

But Eliezer was censured, his rulings overturned, and he was brutally excommunicated. Hmmm. This story amuses me, and it flatters my ego as a wrestler with the sacred, but it also reminds me: you can get it wrong. The Rabbis are wrong. But they win. They are wrong, but they even defeat Adonai. They go on to perpetrate further injustice. Am I getting it wrong? Even at the very moment that I remember that wonderful verse—it is near me, not in the heavens—I might be using that scrap of Torah to get it wrong, to miss the mark. And do you know what being wrong feels like? When you are sure about your course even though a voice from heaven says no? What does it feel like when you are wrong? It feels exactly like being right. As I said, I like confronting the ancient and pagan darkness in our tradition. As Arthur reminded us, Torah wants it darker. So let’s look at the older traditional parsha for Yom Kippur, the ancient blood-soaked mystery version. We are not reading this selection today (though sometimes at Kolot we have), but I will read a little of it to you now: The lord said to Moses, “Warn your brother, Aaron, not to enter the Most Holy Place behind the inner curtain whenever he chooses; if he does, he will die. For the Ark’s cover—the place of atonement—is there, and I myself am present in the cloud above the atonement cover. “When Aaron enters the sanctuary area, he must follow these instructions fully. He must bring a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. He must put on his linen tunic and the linen undergarments worn next to his body. He must tie the linen sash around his waist and put the linen turban on his head. These are sacred garments, so he must bathe himself in water before he puts them on. Aaron must take from the community of Israel two male goats for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. “Aaron will present his own bull as a sin offering to purify himself and his family, making them right with the lord. Then he must take the two male goats and present them to the lord at the entrance of the Tabernacle. He is to cast sacred lots to determine which goat will be reserved as an offering to the lord and which will carry the sins of the people to the wilderness of Azazel. Aaron will then present as a sin offering the goat chosen by lot for the lord. The other goat, the scapegoat chosen by lot to be sent away, will be kept alive, standing before the lord. When it is sent away to Azazel in the wilderness, the people will be purified and made right with the lord.

That’s just a taste.

It goes on like that. It’s all there, the horror and danger and fear are all there. Death. We have just been reminded how Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu were struck dead for bringing the wrong kind of fire before the almighty; and if Aaron comes into the place of atonement at the wrong time he will die. He enters into it alone, washed and shrouded and hedged about with all sorts of ritual ceremony. The danger of death is real. Then there is sacrifice of blood and fire. Not only does he burn the ram and slaughter the bull and goat, Aaron is instructed to sprinkle blood from the sacrificial animals on the “atonement cover” with his finger. Okay, cut the animal’s throat and then smear the blood around with your bare hands; that’ll keep things holy. Does it get any more pagan? There is incense and pure linen garments and the delegation of the single sacred priest to confront God vicariously for the community as a whole. Above all there is mystery. “One goat for the Lord, and one for Azazel”; the version I read has this wonderful footnote: “the meaning of the Hebrew for this word is uncertain.” Uncertain? I’ll say. What is that Azazel, where a goat can carry our sins? A place? A demon? A demon’s place? What is that “atonement cover?” What on earth was that “strange fire” that got two men struck dead? Is this the way we should atone? Is this the way we should repent? Is this our new wedding, pagan, bloody, and terrifying?

Yet I want to take seriously this dark vision of atonement that Torah also offers us. I want to turn Torah to its ancient pagan side and learn from that too. Maybe our new covenant is not near. Maybe it is something distant and mysterious, something dangerous, mortal even, and maybe we cannot always join together to support each other. Maybe I have to go in alone. It’s great to support each other; it is essential. But maybe we also have to take a real risk and face some things individually.

Of course it is all true. Shiv'im Panim laTorah – the Torah has seventy faces. Or is it seventy thousand. The modern, humanistic, reassuring spirit of Torah is real, and it is an endless source of light and inspiration. We can do it! But the ancient, brutal, dark vision is real too. We cannot just pat ourselves on the back for using the right language, for voting the right way, or going to the right rally. We have to do it when it is hardest to do, as Rabbi Robinson might say. We have to love one another when we are least lovable.

I don’t know what you have to atone for. I don’t want to even try to tell you how you should think of these things and where your own covenant must be renewed. I am far too busy trying to face up to my own hamartia, the ways I miss the mark. But for me, it is a deep and powerful principle never to operate from a position of fear. Never to operate from a position of fear. The place of atonement is surrounded by incense, fire, and death. The meanings within are opaque and hard to grasp. The dangers are real, suffering, sorrow, hurt to others and to ourselves. We know we all will pass away, and today the endings will be sealed. But still. But still. Aaron prepares himself, he cleanses and dresses himself, and he steps forward. Aaron. The High Priests after him. Me. You. We are not high priests—we are not even regular priests—but Torah is near to us. Torah does still say, we can do it. Aaron sets his fear aside and faces the blood-stained place of atonement. And he goes in. Go in.

Go in and confront whatever that mystery is for you; go in and wrestle with whatever shape your atonement may take; set aside your fear and go in.

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