Avodah She’Balev – Service of the Heart

Alex Braver
September 4, 2013
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The Holy of Holies was a sacred, mysterious, dangerous place.  It lay in the center of the Temple, in the center of Jerusalem, in the center of the universe, and was the place where God’s Presence was most imminently and overpoweringly felt.  To enter it at the wrong moment, unprepared and unpurified, carried grave consequences, like walking into the center of a nuclear reactor without radiation shielding.  Never accessed directly, this site still provided a centering Presence that was felt by all of Israel.

Yet, once a year, the High Priest would undergo intense ritual preparations to actually enter this volatile yet powerful space.  He would perform the avodah – the service – of God with sacrifices, and would purify himself with ritual baths.  Then, in fear and in awe and with a rope tied around his leg to yank him out lest he die in the process, he would enter the site of this overpowering Presence to encounter God directly and name God with the unpronounceable name.  Upon leaving this place in peace, he was greeted with great joy.

There are also parts of ourselves that are sacred, mysterious and dangerous – places formed from our deepest experiences of joy or suffering that make us who we are at the core of our being.  These places are at the center of our psyches and our souls, the Holy of Holies in each of our hearts, where we keep hidden away our deepest truths.  We rarely confront them directly, yet they nevertheless guide us – consciously or unconsciously – in everything we do.  To enter these places unprepared, to touch the sacred fragments within us at the wrong moment, can be extremely damaging or overpowering.

Yet once a year, during the Yamim Nora’im, we undergo intense rituals of purification and reflection.  We sit and stand and bow in synagogue for hours, we try to focus and pray and sing and read.  Once a year, something drives us Jews by the thousands to our houses of worship to undergo this grueling ritual.  And sometimes, if the avodah she’balev – the service of the heart – is performed properly, we can enter our inner Holy of Holies to safely name the Presence at our core with its unpronounceable name.  And, if this inner service is performed successfully, we might be rewarded with real joy.

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Alex Braver is a rabbinic fellow at B'nai Jeshurun and a third-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He has also served as a student chaplain, studied at Yeshivat Hadar, and tutored remedial math and English at a charter school in Boston. He graduated from Brandeis University in 2009 with majors in history and politics.


  1. Thank you so much, Alex! I needed a last-minute reading for a “Zekher l’Avodah” service for YK, and you have done it for me! I will be sure to quote it in your name.

    G’mar Chatimah Tovah,

    Posted by
    Hazzan Shoshana Brown
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