AVODRASH: a drash for Avodah on Yom Kippur 5773/2012


Arthur Strimling

‘Coffee! I can’t let Yom Kippur be just about lack of coffee. That’s what my friend Harry Cohen was thinking last year about this time, willing himself to pay attention through the headache, irritability, sleepiness and general malaise caused by the lack of one cup of good coffee in the morning.  Fasting for 24 hours, no big deal; no coffee, a disaster.

But Harry was determined. Kol Nidre and the morning service were beautiful and deep, and it felt good to have his daughter, Zoe, sitting next to him. But now, in the afternoon, he was alone, because Zoe hates this part of Yom Kippur with its bloody sacrifices and total focus on the High Priest standing in for all of us;  “It’s so patriarchal!” she spat over her shoulder as she headed home to lay out the spread for tonight’s break-fast.  She’ll be back for Yizkor. 

When Harry was a kid, he loved climbing into caves and dark tight places for the thrill of it, riding the edge of terror, challenging himself.  So the image of a man entering a forbidden cavern echoes nicely.  But he also can’t forget that time he got caught in a crevice, deep in the big cave on the edge the town. For maybe an hour he thought he was a goner, but someone’s mom came by and heard him and pulled him out, giving him a good tongue lashing in the process. So the Avodah story of the High Priest crawling into the holy of holies restimulates terror and humiliation.  He thinks that maybe that’s what Yom Kippur should be about.

Harry follows in his book as the rabbi reads, ‘The ritual begins at dawn, great crowds converge from far and near upon the Temple.’  His mind wanders, so Harry does what a lot of us do, he listens through one ear as he flips through the machzor.  He comes upon a poem; he likes poetry; he reads, and a few lines jump out at him:

Blessed is the one who in the beginning gave birth.

Blessed is the one whose womb covers the earth.

Blessed is the one whose womb protects all creatures.

Blessed is the one who nourishes those who are in awe of Her.

Blessed is God’s name. [1]

Harry finds these lines unnerving.  Not the idea of a female God;  Harry is used to that by now – Zoe and his wife and Kolot have brought him a long way.  But, ‘the one whose womb covers the earth?’  Harry had never thought of that. ‘So the earth, and all of us? We’re all in God’s womb? … like amniotic fluid is the Higgs Boson that connects everything to everything? Eeeeeooooo!.  A female God ok,’ but inside her womb?’  it’s frankly scary, chilling, like being back in that cave.  Harry is not sure…. 

He hears the rabbi:

Alone he enters the holy of Holies, that curtained chamber, mysterious yet simple, containing nothing…

Out of the blue, Harry remembers something his therapist said -- in retirement, he has gone into therapy, because his wife and kids think he needs to be more in touch with his feelings.  They chose for him Helene, a feminist Jungian.  He likes her.  And one day, Helene said that we all yearn to return to the womb.  ‘Yearn to return to the womb.’  Harry can’t forget how she said that:  We yearn to return to the womb …

Harry closes his eyes, folds his arms, slides down in the uncomfortable pew, and for a moment his head drops forward.  And while the rabbi and the congregation read  responsively, Harry’s reverie takes him to a place where it’s dark and enclosed … he feels suspended … fearful, but also, yes, held and warm. 

‘Oh, Lord, pardon the sins, iniquities, and transgressions that we, your people, have committed before you,’

And in that dark warm place he is luminous, floating and free … no need for fear,  he can just be … without doubt or threat or sin or repentance, without will or effort just be and grow and recapitulate phylogeny …

You shall be cleansed from all your sins before the Lord.’

And he is not alone. All the world is in there floating with him, all the people and the planets and the stars and space.

Lord, let our homes be dwelling-places of Your presence … May we always enter them with eager hearts

it’s luminous in there, like a starry night forever; Harry is floating, held, protected, nourished in the great universal womb.

‘How splendid the High Priest looks in his glittering array … as alone he enters the Holy of  Holies, that curtained chamber, mysterious yet simple … ‘ 

There is a cord  connecting Harry to everything, living,  breathing moving around him.  He floats for a moment

So may we too be priests… making clear the beauty of holiness …

And magically the space changes from dark to light from warm to cool, infinite to tiny, barely enough room to crawl in; and the cord is now red and wool, and he is dressed in exquisite white linen, and he hears himself pronouncing sounds he has never heard before, inchoate sounds.  He knows what it is, the Tetragrammaton, the secret sacred unpronounceable name of God.  He says the name over and over, but he cannot hear it, and he knows he will never remember it.  Harry is in the presence of God, but not only in the presence, inside the presence.  And he knows in that instant that God is female and male, mother and father, all in one … no contradiction, no seams. 

And then the Cantor’s pure voice wakes him, and he looks down at his book; they’re in the third chant. He has seen and heard all this in only a few moments. And Harry can barely contain himself. Right here in Kolot, amid everything, he, Harry Cohen, has had a mystical moment, one of those perfect moments Spalding Grey used to go on about.  Harry Cohen, retired attorney from Park Slope with a brownstone and a lovely wife and two grown kids, nothing special, has experienced the oneness of the universe and the awesomeness of God.  Harry feels honored.

And he can barely contain himself.  He wants to jump up and run to Zoe, his beloved prickly daughter,  to tell her that God is both male and female. That at the heart of this Avodah, the service she hates the most, is a feminist act.  It’s just like Helene said, ‘We yearn to return to the womb.’ And he wants to tell Zoe that maybe entry into the holy of holies is a vestige of when Judaism or whatever came before was a female centered religion. For just this moment at least, even the Patriarch of Patriarchs, the High Priest himself acknowledges and honors the earthly Eden from which we all derive. The High Priest has returned to the womb, to Eden, to that place of pure being and timeless bliss. Harry has, the whole congregation has; and we will again next year and the next, time out of time, l’dor v’dor. Shanah Tovah.

[1] From, Naomi Janowitz and Margaret Moers Wenig, in Kol Haneshema

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