Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Walk Article


Yom Kippur-5772

Rabbi David Walk


            Every year Yom Kippur looms as a major presence on the Jewish calendar.  Sadly, I think, most people approach this occasion with a certain dread.  As a rabbi the day intimidates because of the high profile speaking spots which must be prepared.  Many are concerned about the fasting, others are freaked by the long services, and still others have spiritual concerns that they will be found wanting and religiously inadequate.  None of these reactions to the approaching date are really appropriate according to Jewish tradition.  Our Sages go out of their way to encourage us about the great gift of this awesome day.  We should have faith in the redemptive power of this holiday rather than stress the trepidation before the task of fasting and repenting.  Whence does this holy day derive its curative capacity?  According to the Torah, the powers derive from the worship in the Holy Temple.  The vast majority of what the Torah records about this holiday describes the impressive ceremonies performed in Jerusalem's Holy Temple.  On Yom Kippur it's harder than at any other occasion to ignore the former centrality of sacrifices to our religion, and our present consternation over the inability to fulfill these Torah demands.        

            So, what should we do?  Some people like to ignore the problem, and just assume we're not going back there.  Others devoutly pray for the resumption of these ceremonies.  Still others (following a conjecture from Rav Kook) believe in a middle path of, perhaps limited offerings, like grain, wine and oil, excluding all the mess of animal entrails.  I, personally, have no idea, and will accept the eventual outcome as God's plan.  I think God's knows best.  However, I don't think it makes any difference how we view the now in abeyance practice.  Our job is to give the material chosen by our Sages meaning.  We have to come to grips with the prayers we chant.  These sacrificial rites occupy the central place in the Musaf service for Yom Kippur.  Much of the cantor's repetition of the prayer is a detailed step by step description of the actions required of the High Priest to attain the atonement for the nation.  What am I supposed to think and feel while the slaughtering, splashing and burning are described?

            One could take a detached position, and, just believe that we're learning some history of ancient Jewish practices.  We could react by thinking, how quaint of our ancestors to perform such rites.  I'd like to think that our service require a greater emotional involvement than that.  I think that a good prayer must be passionate.  We could believe that by reciting this material we have mystically accessed the power of these acts so that I have magically fulfilled them.  Job done or mischief managed.

            I'm not enamored of either approach.  I think that we have to think more deeply about the power of these ceremonies.  What did the penitent have to think when offering the animal?  I believe that in many societies and, sadly, amongst some Jews the feeling was popular that the sacrifice acted as a bribe.  I did something which angered the Deity and I must appease through a valuable gift.  It's sort of a quid pro quo to placate God.  I understand that idea, but I don't like it.  Since I have nothing of value to God, how can I bribe the Omnipotent?

According to many Jewish authorities and also many anthropologists studying this issue, the penitent must identify with the animal.  In our Torah and in many sacrificial societies the donor must establish a metonymy or transference of identity with the sacrifice.  This relationship is established by touching the victim on the head.  The Rav, Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik (1903-1993) commented on this concept:  Repentance takes the place of the sacrifice of myself which I had a duty to offer upon the altar.  It stands in my place and it is as if I myself were stretched out upon the altar (On Repentance, p. 246)

I think that we are saved from this view by the prophets.  On many occasions our Prophets decry the abundance of offerings.  Isaiah said:  Of what use are your many sacrifices to Me? Says the Lord. I am sated with the burnt-offerings of rams and the fat of fattened cattle; and the blood of bulls and sheep and he-goats I do not want (1:11).  He later explains that they are empty or vain offerings which vex God's spirit.  Hosea, perhaps said it best: For I desire loving-kindness, and not sacrifices, and knowledge of God more than burnt offerings (6:6).  Again, Rabbi Soloveitchik comments:  When a Jew brings a sacrifice, how are his sins expiated?  Is it by virtue of a two shekel lamb?  Certainly not!  Atonement comes through the recognition and confession of sin embodied in the act of sacrifice.  This confession means abnegation and annihilation of the self, as though one were oneself laid upon the altar (On Repentance, p 242).

The Rav continues to explain that the animal is a surrogate, but nowadays it's an emotional state, not a technical transfer.  We are raising our awareness of guilt, remorse and responsibility.  Hopefully, the sacrifice is an impetus to spiritual renewal.  So, once we have disposed of a mechanistic approach to the sacrifices, we can understand that atonement is achieved through sincere remorse.  This we can achieve without the animal, if we only understand the principle.  Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, who witnessed the destruction of our holy Temple, taught us this two thousand ago when he comforted Rabbi Joshua who mourned our loss of the Holy Temple:  My son, do not grieve.  We have a greater atonement, and what is it?  It is sincerity and deeds of loving kindness.

May our recitation of these rites inspire us to the proper emotional and spiritual state so that we can reconcile with our Maker, our fellow humans and, most significantly, ourselves.  May your fast be easy; may your experience be meaningful.       



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