The description of the Avodah service, the “work” that the High Priest would engage in on Yom Kippur, is the centerpiece of the Musaf service. It is primarily a piyyut, a poem, written in the tenth century by Meshullam ben Kalonymos. The poem is fragmented by three confessions that the High Priest makes in the Temple while performing the special services of the Day of Atonement.
Hearing this poem-prayer invites the individual to enter the process of self-seeking. As we shall see, it is a process that requires “work,” reflection, and thoughtful scrutiny of self. This process is crucial to one’s presenting one’s self by name. (And we will see that one’s “name” is important.)
The three confessions, as described in the prayer (based on the Mishnah and Talmud), open each time with the words: “Please, O, God I have sinned,” using “The Name” (HaShem) to refer to God. After listing different types of sins, the High Priest requests forgiveness and atonement, opening again with a similar formula: “Please, O, God, please forgive the sins…” using again “The Name.” To augment his request, the Priest would quote a verse from Leviticus 16 that also appears in each of the three confessions in the prayer: “For on this day God will grant you atonement to cleanse you from all your sins; before God you shall be cleansed (purified).” This time, God’s ineffable name is used. We do not know enough about the exact sound of the name of God that was uttered at those three moments, but, as we shall see, it clearly was unique and by the description of the response it elicited, was also quite significant.
In each appearance in the poem-prayer, the verse’s flow is interrupted by a response of the audience upon hearing God’s name. So the poem-prayer includes the following lines three times: For on this day, God shall grant you atonement to cleanse you from all your sins; from all your sins shall you be clean before the Lord. And the priests and the people who were standing in the Temple court, upon hearing “The Name” in its glory and awesomeness, explicitly coming forth from the mouth of the High Priest would kneel, bow down, thank God, and fall on their faces, saying “Barukh shem kvod malkhuto l’olam va’ed,” “Bless ‘The Name’ of his glorious kingship forever.” The High Priest would lengthen the uttering of “The Name” and would respond with the last words of the verse, “You shall be cleansed (purified).”
I would like to focus on two biblical associations that give meaning to this calling of “The Name,” associations that provide guidance and a framework for the “work” that Yom Kippur suggests.
After the children of Israel construct the golden calf, they engage in a long process of reconnection, atonement, and covenantal renewal with God. The process is marked by Moses bringing them the second tablets, which is thought to have taken place on the tenth day of the seventh month, Yom Kippur. At the meeting when Moses negotiates with God for the second tablet, names play a significant role. Moses turns to God and says: “You said to me, ‘I know you by name and I like you.’” (Exodus, 33:12) Moses associates God’s knowing him by name with God’s fondness of him. The knowledge of another’s name is perceived as a deep acquaintance accompanied by acceptance and approval.
Moses’ moving request to God at that moment focuses on making the relationship mutual. And God obliges, again associating the use of a name — in this case, “The Name,” the name of God — with an intimate meeting, a meeting that is a critical moment on the way to God’s feeling reaccepted by the people. “I will pass my entire being/goodness before you and call out My Name/the Name before you.” (Exodus 33:19) God’s self-knowledge, on the one hand, and God’s willingness to share and be exposed, on the other, are foundational in enabling the relationship with Moses to deepen. Having knowledge of self and revealing it are encompassed by the use of one’s name, and are the basis for meeting intimately and with acceptance.
In Deuteronomy 6:12-13, Moses warns the children of Israel not only against taking what they have for granted, but also against forgetting God. In that warning, Moses tells the Israelites that the particular act that will protect them against forgetting is the use of God’s name. Using “The Name,” and names in general, protects against a danger often present in relationships — the danger of being forgotten or being taken for granted.
A more complete picture is now apparent: A lack of acquaintance with self is mirrored by a lack of acknowledgment, an absence of acceptance; a lack of self-recognition is reflected by not being recognized — being taken for granted. These are resolved by the use of names — a name that reflects to another how I understand myself or how the Other, God, presents Himself to people — a name that is necessary for meeting, knowing, and accepting. A moving double process takes place: A meeting and defining of self parallels and enables a meeting and a revealing to another. The hope is that these — self-knowledge and exposure — stem from and culminate in acceptance.
The three confessions using God’s name are an invitation to engage in a process of self-knowledge, an invitation to give one’s self a name and to share it, a name that will lead to acceptance of self by self and others, and maybe by the Other. This finding and sharing of names is our “work,” our “avodah,” our imitatio Dei triggered by the “avodah,” the High Priest’s “work” on Yom Kippur.email print