Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, contains some incredibly strange moments when viewed by year-round Jewish eyes.
For instance, the Hineni prayer, which introduces the Musaf service, is recited by one person on behalf of the many, placing a religious intercessor between the many and their God. How strange. Though strains of “intercessional prayer” exist in biblical and rabbinic literature, the notion that one person speaks to God for another person stands in stark comparison to the predominant Jewish belief that God is “near unto all who call.” (Psalms 144:18) And yet, on Yom Kippur, as congregations reach the highpoint of Musaf, one appointed person truly does carry on his or her shoulders the prayerful hopes of the many for the year to come. The very first word of Hineni translates as “here I am,” testifying to the central role the prayer leader will assume during this singularly fragile encounter.
But the strangest moment of Musaf, the climax of the whole day, is the Avodah, the High Priest’s service. The Avodah is an elaborate ritual of animal sacrifice, including the sprinkling of the slaughtered animal’s blood, and, finally, expiation prayers recited by the High Priest on behalf of self, family, community, and the entire world. (A direct translation of “avodah” is “work” or “service.”) And, for most attendees of modern synagogue communities, it feels completely foreign. In fact, many communities create alternatives to this liturgical moment. The intense detail, the graphic description of the sacrifice, and the stark hierarchy of the priesthood do not feel familiar to the modern Jew.
That foreignness is not, however, what keeps most people, even engaged shul-goers, from embracing the Avodah. Rather, we keep our distance because we are afraid of the implications of this work; we fear becoming exposed to the uncertainty of the future. We are afraid of dying, of mortality, of fading legacies. These fears — which are a primal aspect of an informed Jewish spiritual life — define the language of our prayer. It is understandable that our liturgical choices correspond to our readiness (or not) to confront these very scary emotions.
The choice to avoid the anxiety of the Avodah makes sense, even if the costs of its omission are high. Even the masterful new Conservative High Holiday prayer book, Mahzor Lev Shalem, adds a line to the end of the Avodah that historicizes and transmutes the ritual: “…but today we are blessed to have another way to serve.” These seemingly inoffensive words transform the Avodah into something it is not: a recounting. Framing the Avodah as a historical rite reduces the experience into the telling of a story. We shouldn’t be watching a drama but rather standing with the High Priest in the Holy of Holies, unsure if we’ll get it right — unsure if we’ll live or die!
Our reluctance to engage with the Avodah is informed by that fear of death, that anxiety about an unwritten future, that terror of confronting our primal mortality narrative. But in that avoidance, we avert our eyes from the possible paths ahead. In fact, central to the Avodah is another Jewish ritual particular to Yom Kippur: full prostration. We cannot long endure the intimacy with God, and so at several points of the Avodah, each of us falls to the floor. Our bowing corresponds to the ancient practice during the course of the Avodah, when the High Priest would call out God’s name, and those assembled would fall to the ground in an awestruck act of humility.
The big gift of this intoxicating mix of rituals is this: After solitary prostration, we rise together; we are reduced to our essence by the experience of confronting our deepest fears. We fall, aware of our limited days on earth, and we rise with immeasurable gratitude for just one more moment of life. That first glimpse into the eyes of a fellow supplicant, after we each rise from full prostration, is a taste of the world to come.
Unfortunately, if we step outside these encounters, we become outsiders to the potential of our own growth.
The totality of who we are — embodied souls, each and every one of us — requires visceral experience. We need to experience the blood of the Avodah. We truly are that fragile.
This year, during the Avodah, consider closing your eyes and imagining the feel of the soft hair, the warmth, the pulse of the sacrificial goat. Remember that one of the two sacrificial animals designated for Yom Kippur was sent into the wilderness, perhaps to live. But the other animal would certainly die. Know that the future is uncertain. Allow your pulse to quicken. Feel your own life force. Fear for it — for you, for your family, for your community, for the world itself. Pray for us all. Then, open your eyes to the beauty of the paths ahead. You haven’t died. You’ve lived through the experience. Thank God!
I close with the words of poet Rebecca Kai Dotlich. Though she writes of poetry, her words can also describe visceral prayer such as the Avodah: “A good poem takes you to the city, to the sea, to the heart of any and all matters; you see it, taste it, belong to it. …A good poem is the arrangement of enchantment.”email print