This drash was given at Minyan Segulah in Washington, D.C.
Shanah tovah. Yom Kippur is often characterized as being a day of great solemnity but also great joy. The Seder Avodah, which we will be reciting momentarily, speaks to both of these themes. Avodah is, for so many of us, the most perplexing and confusing part of the Yom Kippur liturgy, but for the rabbis of the Talmud and beyond, it was and is still seen as the most important part of the Yom Kippur davening.
When the Temple still stood, the Kohein Gadol, through his proper performance of Avodah, was able to effect atonement for all of Israel, as would be made apparent by the bit of ribbon--ribbon that had been tied to the cliff off of which the goat designated for Azazel--turning white. Traditionally, our recitation of Avodah has been seen as not only allowing us to maintain our connection to The Temple, but it was also meant to instill within us the solemnity, and indeed the fear, trepidation, and dare I say terror, that our ancestors must have felt, as so many of them stood in the Temple courtyard on Yom Kippur and prostrated when they heard the Kohein Gadol pronounce the ineffable Name of G-d.
For them, everything hung in the balance. If the Kohein Gadol did not emerge from The Temple, or emerged harmed, Israel was not forgiven. I found it incredibly striking that part of the elaborate preparations for Avodah was the tying of a bit of rope to the foot of the Kohein Gadol, just in case he did not make it out alive and needed to be dragged out.
The Avodah was incredibly complicated, involving numerous changes of clothes, multiple washing of hands and feet, several immersions in the mikvah, and the proper performance of animal and incense sacrifices. Prior to Yom Kippur itself, the Kohein Gadol spent the previous week in seclusion, studying Seder Avodah with the elders of Israel. This period of seclusion enabled him to physically, emotionally and spiritually prepare for the momentous task that lie ahead of him.
At the conclusion of the Avodah, the Kohein Gadol would pray that Israel have a good and prosperous year. "Ma’areh Kohein," the piyyut which we will be singing at the conclusion of the Avodah, is an expression of our boundless joy that with the emergence of the Kohein from the Holy of Holies, without injury, we have all been forgiven and made it through another year, with hopes for another good year ahead.
Although the Avodah is doubtless for so many of us the most difficult part of our davening to connect to, I feel that there are many lessons that we can take from this ancient rite and apply to our lives today.
During the Ten Days of Repentance, we ask G-d to write us in the Book of Life in the daily Amidah. We are reminded so often in the liturgy of the High Holidays that we are guaranteed nothing in this world, that each and every day that we are granted on this Earth is a precious, irreplaceable gift from G-d and that we should use every day to our fullest. We are far too often not cognizant of this, and at this time of year we are reminded of the precariousness of life.
Just as our ancestors felt that everything hung in the balance on Yom Kippur as the Kohein Gadol was performing the Avodah, so, too do we, as we think back on the past year and look to the next with all of its newness and fresh possibilities.
Although we no longer have a ribbon which turns white as a surefire sign that G-d has forgiven us, our tradition teaches us that through sincere teshuvah and kapera, we, too, are forgiven. We have faith, just as our ancestors did, that though Yom Kippur is a very solemn, introspective day, we will make it through another Yom Kippur, able to begin anew. The vehicles are quite different, but the desire is the same.
This is indeed what I find so powerful about our liturgy. Although we no longer perform the Avodah in the Temple, we are all still feeling, to some degree or another, the precariousness of life on this holiest of days, and just as our ancestors knew joy without bounds when the Kohein Gadol emerged and that ribbon turned white, so, too, do we. Tzom kal, and may you have a meaningful Yom Kippur.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Lauren graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary in May of 2011 with a Master of Arts in Judaic Studies and holds a BA in religion from Dickinson College. Lauren's interests include the intersection between religion and disability and religion and gender studies.