Who in the garden planted trees?
For fruit and shade, of all species.
For fruit and shade, of all species.
And in the fields, grain did seed?
To whom our thanks?
To whom our blessing?
To ‘avodah’ and to ‘melakhah.’
— Hayyim Nahman Bialik,
“Shir Ha-Avodah ve-ha-Melakhah,” 1932
“The windows of this house will be open
on every side, that the fairest fruit produced by man’s creative spirit in every land
and every age may enter.”
— from a speech by Bialik at the cornerstone- laying ceremony for the Hebrew University, 1925
The ecstatic superlatives of the Yom Kippur musaf piyyut, “Mareh Kohen” (the Kohen’s Appearance), which describe the splendor of the High Priest as he emerged from the Avodah service alive and unscathed, conveys the relief of an entire people that has escaped death. The Temple service, in particular the Avodah ritual, was the vehicle for Jewish continuity. And when the Temple was destroyed, memory replaced it.
Unlike the handful of modern literalists who dream of a Third Temple on Mount Moriah, Bialik, the self-proclaimed draftsman for the perpetuation of Jewish culture, seems to have envisioned a Third Temple just one peak over, on Mount Scopus. His speech at the cornerstone-laying ceremony for the Hebrew University is rife with Temple imagery; he refers to the imagined structure as a “house” to which the masses will throng bearing the “fairest fruit,” the bikkurim. Bialik envisioned this Temple as open to “every land,” recalling “a house of prayer for all the nations.” (Isaiah 56:7) Perhaps Bialik, in his famous chorus, nods to the High Priest, with his words: “To whom our thanks? To whom our blessing? To ‘avodah’ and to ‘melakhah.’” How might we reinterpret specific elements of the Avodah — “High Priest,” “confession,” “goat for Azazel” — in keeping with Bialik’s modern incarnation of a Temple that integrates particular and universal, tradition and renewal?
— Jessica Bonn
For whom are the trees planted? For whom the fruit and the shade?
Who is deserving of the fairest fruit produced by man’s creative spirit in every land?
Do we dare to be extraordinary? Does Israel dare to be different from other nations and go beyond the murkiness of other countries both east and west?
That seems to be the call of Yom Kippur. Our avodah, our work, is a call to travel further from the mundane, and in that journey to relive the majesty and splendor of our faith and hopes.
We have a choice, in the words of T. S. Elliot’s “The Love Story of J. Alfred Prufrock,” to measure out our lives with coffee spoons or to dare to disturb the universe. Yom Kippur is a moment each year for us to grasp at such opportunities for meaning and to ask questions that move worlds. That is the purpose of the Avodah service: The High Priest lifts us up so that we will not be found wanting under the scrutiny of God’s gaze.
To surrender to the power of prayer and devotion, to dare to change the order of worlds through our desire to do and mean real things, to make a difference in our lives —these are the prayers of Bialik and the pious alike. — Abram Sterne
American Judaism in the latter half of the 20th century distanced itself from those aspects of the tradition that seemed antiquated. Many approached prayer and ritual with academic rationalism and removed or downplayed references to the Temple and its sacrifices. Much of this change was necessary in order to speak to Jews living in the modern world. But something was also lost along the way.
The scene painted by the Avodah service may make us squeamish as moderns, but the Yom Kippur service in the Temple must have been powerful and moving for those who experienced it. The dramatic confessions of the High Priest, the pageantry of sending our sins away on the goal to Azazel, the mystical enchantment of hearing God’s ineffable name, the sensation and pathos of bowing low to the ground — all of these elements had to touch something very deep.
Today, Jews are expressing a longing for a new sort of Mikdash — one grounded in tradition and open to creativity. We seek an experienced and embodied Judaism that speaks to our modern sensibilities but also cuts deep into our souls and our need for what the Avodah service provided — renewal (teshuvah) and rebirth (kapparah). — Salomon Gruenwald
How do we value human creativity in the form of avodah, understood as work, worship, and service, in contrast to melakhah, understood as creative activity? In the two narratives of human creation, the Torah reveals the purpose of human creativity. In the first, after six days of creation, God forms humans to emulate God’s powers of melakhah. In the second narrative, God forms humans to complete a world that lacks a person to engage in avodah with the formed earth. How does the human, created to creatively act, differ from the human intended to work, worship, and serve the world?
The answer lies between these two narratives, when God rests. Like God, we rest on Shabbat — embracing avodah, yet desisting from melakhah. Through havdalah, we distinguish between our creative capacity to be engaged in creating something in its complete form (melakhah) and the creative engagement in process (avodah). While melakhah births a moment of creation into the world, avodah continuously creates for the world. Avodah fulfills the human desire to find purpose through experiencing the world. Yearning to connect with our selves, others, and God, avodah, as a continuous creative encounter with the world, offers a means to this journey. Let us learn not only to produce but also to work within worship, and to serve in the garden of God’s creation. — Yechiel Hoffman