Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

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

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Walk Article-Yom Kippur


Yom Kippur-5774

Rabbi David Walk


            One of the more popular songs played during the dancing at religious weddings these days is the upbeat tune for the poem Mareh Cohen (the appearance of the cohen), which comes from the Yom Kippur services.  We sing this melody not only because of the great tune, but also because the radiance of the bride and groom reminds us of the magnificence of the High Priest emerging from the Holy of Holies on this most sanctified occasion.  One of the verses actually compares the spectacle of the Cohen Gadol to the 'Kindliness emblazoned on the face of the bride groom.'  We say that our weddings days are like a personal Yom Kippur, and now we compare the appearance of the groom back to that of the Cohen Gadol.  Both of these phenomena should inspire a special reaction deep inside of us.  Since the sight of awe on the face of a child is the most moving, it's appropriate that this now famous tune was written by Yigal Cilak back in the sixties when he founded the London Boy's Choir.  But what is the significance of this poem and song?

            It's hard for us to imagine the scene in Jerusalem two millennia ago when the Cohen Gadol came out unscathed from the Kadosh Kadoshim.    We have accounts which describe the hills surrounding the Temple Mount crowded with hundreds of thousands of Jews who came from near and far to witness the spectacle.  The climatic event of the day was the emergence of the Cohen Gadol.  The huge throng initially heaved a collective sigh of relief that he had survived the ordeal, then broke into great joy, based on the conviction that they had been forgiven for all iniquity.  Our poem, written in the fifteenth century, tries to dramatically capture the feeling of that moment.  The High Priest is compared to the patriarchs, angels, the rainbow, and the morning star in his radiance.  It must have been a magnificent moment in an otherwise dreary existence.  We try to capture that moment, too.

            In our repetition of the Musaf service, we initially remember all of the order of the service in the Temple.  This includes the three recitations of the vidui (confession) by the Cohen Gadol.  In each of these declarations he pronounced the Ineffable Name, which we never recite.  The hearing of the Holy Name prompted all within earshot to prostrate themselves on the stone pavement of the Temple Mount, and we emulate that practice today.  The three pronouncements were in confessions for himself, the family of Cohanim, and all of Israel, and accompanied the three special sin offerings of the day.  These were:  the bull, the goat offered in the Temple and the goat sent to the wilderness. The Cohen Gadol personally did all the service for this awesome day.  From dawn he had lit the golden menorah, brought the daily incense, offered the daily sacrifice, and then did all the special offerings of the holiday.  All of the services performed outside the sanctuary building required him to be dressed in the magnificent eight vestments of the High Priest, but all the ministrations inside the building were done in the simple white garb of an ordinary cohen.  There were five costume changes, but each change required an immersion in the mikveh, which he did a total of ten times.  Phew!  What an ordeal!

            When he was finished he donned his own clothing, and went home.  The Mishneh (Yoma 7:4) records that he didn't go home alone.  Many of the joyous throng escorted him to his residence in what we call the Jewish Quarter today.  This procession was full of joy and thanksgiving.  Rabban Gamliel, who saw it with his own eyes, tells us that Yom Kippur afternoon was the most joyous moment of the year.  The High Priest exulted because he had successful navigated the complex rituals of the day; the people because they were confident that their blood red sins had been bleached white as snow.  The aftermath was that the Cohen Gadol threw a great party (everybody loves a Kiddush.), and blessed the nation with great prosperity and security.  Our Machzor records all this delight, and culminates the tale with the paean to the High Priest's splendor, Mareh Cohen.

            So, what do we do?  We read this complicated poem recording these bygone events, but few fully realize the import of this account.  The last selicha (penitential poem) recited on the eve of Yom Kippur informs us of our predicament, 'Notice that there is no one to atone for us.  There is no one to perform the Temple service.  There are no white priestly garments, and no magnificent mantle.'  We want to know how to fill this void.  The poem concludes, 'Your banished children come under the shadow of Your roof.  They assemble in Your house, agitated and anguished.  Remember the kindness of their ancestors when they assemble to plead, and let this be in place of that.'

            In place of the splendor and pomp of the Holy Temple we have two items:  the merit of our ancestors and the sincerity of our plea.  That's what this poet, Rabbi Yitzcahk Barceloni, wrote a thousand years ago.

            I understand his point, but I can't refrain from adding what Rabbi Akiva said another thousand years before that as the final idea in the Mishne about Yom Kippur (Yoma 8:9), 'How fortunate are you Israel!  Before Whom are you purified?  Your Parent in Heaven!'  We've lost the Temple and the glorious ceremonies, but we're still connected to God, if we just access the link.  We've only lost the visual aids.  The essence of the process still exists, namely God's love for the Jewish people.  Let us have a meaningful Yom Kippur and a wonderful year full of the Cohen Gadol's blessings.