We were in the library of a synagogue in Washington, D.C. The man at the bimah had short red-blonde hair and wore wire-rim glasses. He was on the small side and his voice was high. I remember marking the paradox: that someone singing something so weighty could do something in such a high pitch.
It was the first time that I remember feeling moved by a religious service as an adult. I had grown up Traditional, and so was used to the booming baritone of a cantor, his voice carrying with ease across the expanse of my large suburban shul, his robes swaying, his chazzan’s kapel placed just so on top of his large head.
The man at the bimah was no professional chazzan, but the sound coming from his mouth was angelic. It was Yom Kippur, and he was singing the Avodah service during Mussaf like it was a story. And that’s when I understood it for the first time: this actually used to happen. There was a time when the high priest – in yet finer arraignment and before the whole of the nation – would stand before the people and perform this elaborate ritual. First he would be separated and prepared by fellow Cohanim. Then he would purify himself and don his vestments. Then he would make the first of his sacrifices and immerse himself again.
And we, b’nei Yisrael, would watch. That’s what I saw in my mind’s eye, all of Israel gathered at the Beis Hamikdash watching this happen. It wasn’t a story; it was history. And it was history that we remembered so that we could reenact it again some day.
The small man with the reddish-blonde hair began to plead with G-d: Ana Hashem. Please Hashem. Chatati. I have sinned. Aviti. I have erred. But now Hashem, as representative of this people, forgive me and forgive them. We aren’t perfect, but you are compassionate, so please cleanse us.
And then he got down on his knees, bowed his head to the floor, and in a muffled voice, along with the other congregants, begged for his life: Baruch Shem Kavod Malchuto L’olam Vaed. You are the only thing that matters, Hashem. If we could just keep that idea ever-present, our sins would appear as they really are, not only errors in judgment, but also missed opportunities to serve you.
It was the first time that I ever cried in a shul. I cried for the beauty of the service, for the past that has been lost to us, for the missed opportunity to serve G-d in his house. But I also cried for myself, and in that small opening, my stiff heart began to soften.