The Avodah Service

Rabbi Ben Goldstein
September 30, 2013
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There is a Chasidic story told about the great Baal Shem Tov.[1] When misfortune was threatening the Jews, it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to call for help for the Jewish people. He would light a fire, and say a special prayer. Time after time his attempts were successful, and the Jewish people would be saved from a crisis or tragedy.

After the Baal Shem Tov passed away, this task was passed on to his disciple, the Magid of Mezritch. Learning from his teacher, he would go to the same place in the forest and say:

‘‘Master of the Universe! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer!’’ And even though he didn’t have all of the components that the Baal Shem tov did, his attempts would prove successful.

After the Magid of Mezrich, the task fell to Rabbi Moshe-Lieb of Sasov, who would go into the forest and say: ‘‘I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place. It is my prayer that this be sufficient.’’ Thankfully, it was sufficient and the crisis would, once again be averted.

In the fourth generation, it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to help his people avoid tragedy. Sitting at home, his head in his hands, he would speak to God: ‘‘I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is ask You to redeem us. This must be sufficient.’’ And it was sufficient.

I have spent the majority of my life studying Judaism. In that time, I must have heard that story more than two dozen times, and, until recently, it always brought me comfort. The story always seemed to be about the continuation of our tradition, of being one link in a larger chain stretching for untold miles and through millennia. The story taught me that we don’t have to be exactly the same as our grandparents, that Judaism allows space for innovation and improvisation.

It’s a cute story, one that rings with a sentimental view of our past. But there is a problem with that story. The story means that in order for us to find authenticity, we must constantly look to the past. It says that those who came before us were the authors of the prayers, and we are merely the mouthpieces for their words.

On Yom Kippur, on our holiest of days, we are asked to read and remember a service that was performed in the great temple in Jerusalem. The Avodah service called on the High Priest to enter into the Holy of Holies with a specific mixture of incense and fire to say precise words at the precise time in order to seek absolution for him and for the nation of Israel.  It demanded that the holiest person would speak the holiest language at the holiest time in the holiest place for the holiest nation on earth.

The power and ominous nature of that service fits with the overall tone of Yom Kippur. Recalling that service seems like it would be a perfect way for us to get into the mood and nature of Yom Kippur. But it’s not. Our recollection of the Avodah service does not serve as a warning to us to live every moment like it’s our last. Recalling the service does not give people the Goosebumps. No, instead, it bores people, it makes them look at their watches and calculate just how many more hours and minutes are left before they can eat.

In 2013 we no longer believe that the Jewish people are the holiest nation on earth. We have seen the holiness of too many people and of too many nationalities to believe that one person of one nation can be the holiest person in the world. We do not think that the bringing of incense or the banishment of an animal are the holiest of acts. Few of us believe that God sits in the heavens on Yom Kippur, acting as an accountant king and counting up our sins and good deeds to see who shall live and who shall die.

We can no longer find the place in the forest. We cannot hold ourselves to saying someone else’s words. It is time for us, as a Jewish community, to find a service or ritual that is as meaningful to us and to our theology as the Avodah service was to the people living at the time of the Temple.

[1] This version of the story is taken (although paraphrased slightly) from the Gates of the Forest by Elie Wiesel

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Rabbi Ben Goldstein was ordained from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in May of 2010. Since that time he has been working as the rabbi for a congregation in suburban New Jersey (yes, that’s right, I said New Jersey). He has been watching television and movies ever since he was old enough to have the core strength to sit up without falling over. Goldstein's love for the performing arts led him to pursue it as a career and he even managed to star in such cinematic triumphs as Jewz N The Hood. After a number of Signs from our Creator (and more than a few casting directors) he realized that actors don’t take themselves nearly serious enough so he needed to find something else to do. Taking a look at the job description of a rabbi (writer, counselor, teacher, performer, student) he thought it sounded like a really great way to spend his life. In addition to being trained as a rabbi, Goldstein has an encyclopedic knowledge of television and movies from the mid-80s to today. That makes him either a fantastic Jeopardy contestant or the world’s most boring cocktail party guest. You can reach Rabbi Goldstein at

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