Yom Kippur: The Avodah Inspires Us to Actualize Our Unique Purpose

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz
September 3, 2013
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The “Avodah” service is a highlight in the Yom Kippur mussaf service. This unique recitation is a reenactment of the moment when the High Priest begged G-d in the centralized Jerusalem Temple for the atonement of the entire Jewish people. The narration of the service is already found in various forms during the Talmudic times (Yoma 36b, 56b). This particular service is thought to have been written in the fifth century CE and was later added to by other liturgical poets. The Mishnah and Talmudic explanations open a window into history and a window into the soul.

This is not a simple prayer. It is a prayer-action (a speech-act), where the very liturgy attempts to replicate a particular physical service and to fulfill the same purpose of the ancient rituals.

Today, without a singular centralized house of worship, we no longer have a High Priest who atones for us. To some degree, each of us might see ourselves as a Priest serving G-d and serving the nation. We might ask ourselves: What communal burden do we place upon our shoulders? How do we pray for others? How will our avodah affect our society and world?

The Slonimer Rebbe, the great 20th-century thinker, in his great work Netivot Shalom, writes:

“Every individual is a small world unto himself…. No person has ever been identical to another person since the creation of the world, and therefore each and every person has a special shlichut, a distinctive purpose for which he was sent…The beginning of all avodah, all service, is discovering for what particular purpose one was sent to this world” (Netivei Da’at 6:2).

To truly embrace this core Jewish theological principle (that each of us was created with a distinct purpose) we must follow the advice of Rav Tzadok HaKohen: “Just as one must believe in G-d, so must one believe in oneself” (Tzidkat HaTzadik, 154).

We must locate our unique avodah (service in the world) and actualize our own potential. No one can do that for us. There is (and will be) only one of us in all of eternity. We must cherish our uniqueness, our gifts, and our potential to serve G-d, those we love, our community, and the world.

When we surrender our own spirituality and blindly attempt to do the service of another it is called avodah zara (a foreign worship or idolatry). We must only do an authentic avodah (that comes from our own hearts and souls). No one can tell us how we must balance our work life and family life, our pragmatic life with our spiritual life, and our personal with the communal. Each of us must find our own balance with our life partners that ensure we fulfill the work that we must do on our own for our family, friends, communities, and society.

Our avodah (service) must become an avdut (slavery), an absolute commitment to fulfill our purpose. There is an avodah b’gashmiut (physical purpose) and an avodah b’ruchniyut (spiritual purpose). We must intertwine our pragmatic work of this world at this time with our work yearning for a new world yet to be built.

May our prayer service this year lift us up, inspire us, and reconnect us to our unique life task. May we all merit to courageously see, embrace, and actualize that revelation. May each of us lives as priests, seeking to carry more upon our shoulders than seems possible. This year, we pray for Divine support in achieving more than we naturally are able to achieve.

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Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder and President of Uri L’Tzedek, and the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Insitute. Rav Shmuly completed his Masters at Yeshiva University in Jewish Philosophy, a Masters at Harvard in Moral Psychology and a Doctorate at Columbia in Epistemology and Moral Development. Rav Shmuly is the author of Jewish Ethics and Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century and his second book was Epistemic Development in Talmud Study.

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