The Avodah: Showing Us The Way To Go

Rabbi Amitai Adler
September 6, 2013
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I have heard many people expressing discomfort with or disconnection from the Avodah service. As many in this month’s issue have noted, it can seem archaic, foreign, bloody, even disturbing to modern eyes.

And this is unfortunate.

I should note, for the record, that I am not a fan of animal sacrifice. I have no problem with the idea that our ancestors sacrificed animals. But when I pray for the restoration of the Bet Hamikdash– which I do– and envision a Third Temple to come in the time of the moshiach– which I do– I neither hope for nor envision that Temple to focus on animal sacrifice. We offered a lot of things besides animals in the first two Temples: grain, oil, wine, water, matzah, first fruits, incense, and prayers. I see no reason that a Third Temple could not largely focus on prayer, with the addition of incense, first fruits,  and the occasional offerings of wine, grain, and oil, in various forms. I trust that, when the moshiach comes, and the Sanhedrin is re-instituted, and thus we can re-make and re-envision halachah on a profound and fundamental level unavailable to us today, they will find the appropriate solutions to make this vision come to pass.

Yet I value the readings in the Torah about the sacrifices, as they establish continuity between our prayer services (also called avodah) and the avodah of the Temple rituals. They teach us about how our ancestors dealt with religion and ritual, how they dealt with the issues of purity and impurity, life and death, value and worth, which constitute the utmost foundations of how our modern Judaism deals with these things.

And I value them, along with the Avodah service in especial, because they show us how serious our ancestors’ ritual practice imperatives were, how deep and dramatic their ritual sense was, and how important the experience of the holidays and the covenant was to them (ideally, at least at such rare times when these things were done properly).

The Avodah service is exquisitely full of ritual drama, of theological pomp and orchestration. It is a rich recounting of an extraordinarily visceral experience of tension, of suspense, of awesome release.

I often hear people say, after Ne’ilah is finished, something along the lines of, “You know, I really do feel lighter! A little clearer or cleaner! I really feel forgiven.” Most often this is said lightly, with a self-disparaging laugh, as though the speaker were just a little embarrassed that they actually experienced a psychoemotional response to Yom Kippur. It is, unfortunately, an altogether typical modern and Western response– that they should actually be moved by something spiritual!

But for our ancestors, there was no shame or embarrassment. They understood that this was the purpose of ritual: to engage people, to help them connect fully to important moments and enrich their lives thereby. And as most often, the road to spiritual awareness and experience begins with being moved, with shaking one’s emotional and psychological responses out of the banal, into the extraordinary, they understood that engaging the senses with stimuli– sounds, scents, tastes (though not so much tastes, on Yom Kippur), tactile experiences, and sights– and making dramatic ritual were ways to provoke people to increased spiritual connection.

So people pilgrimaged together to the Temple, they burned pungent and heady incense, they laid hands on the animal over which they confessed their sins, the Levi’im sang and played instruments, and the people sang with them or responded to them, and the kelim (Temple instruments) were artistically made of gold and silver and copper, the garments of the Kohanim brilliant white linen and techelet (blue-purple), ornamented with gold.

And they had these rituals of confession: the personal, which everyone was involved in, and the national, which the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) conducted as the shaliach tzibbur (agent of the community). How the people must have tensely awaited word of each new thing the Kohen Gadol did, knowing that his actions were bringing them all closer to the release of forgiveness and clarity of communal conscience! How they must have felt shock and awe when they heard him pronounce the four-letter Name of God that normally is never pronounced aloud (and which now we no longer know how to pronounce at all)! The power of all those people simultaneously falling korim (prostrate) and shouting baruch shem k’vod malchuto l’olam va’ed (“Blessed is the glorious Name of His Kingship forever!”)! It must have been like nothing else we know in our modern lives. And the communal release of tension, of suspenseful expectation– which must have been enough to make people sweat, breathe harder, their hearts beat a little faster– when the word was given that our sin had been remitted, and the people were forgiven again…I can imagine people hugging those around them, laughing, crying.

This kind of drama is absent from our ritual experience today. And that is a damn shame.

I wonder, sometimes, if we read the Avodah service less to remind ourselves of what our ancestors did, than to make us ask ourselves why we do nothing like that anymore? We don’t need a Temple or animal sacrifices to create that level of ritual drama. What we need is willingness to be engaged, willingness to throw ourselves into the experience of ritual. We need people not to be afraid or ashamed of their spirituality, of their need to be moved and shaken. We need ritual to be a welcome and much-desired tool rather than a word implying something archaic or foreign or irrelevant to “real life.”

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Rabbi Amitai Adler is a Conservative rabbi. He is a teacher and writer, and serves as the Rabbi of Temple B'nai Israel in Aurora, Illinois. Rabbi Adler lives in Deerfield, Illinois, with his wife, Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler and their son and daughter.

1 Comment

  1. I imagine that Rabbi Adler and I are very different in many ways (I, for example, do not imagine that I will ever pray for the restoration of the Beit Hamikdash), I just love the questions he asks. Particularly: “I wonder, sometimes, if we read the Avodah service less to remind ourselves of what our ancestors did, than to make us ask ourselves why we do nothing like that anymore?”

    Thank you for writing, sharing, and making my Rosh Hashanah more meaningful.

    Posted by
    Jake Goodman
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