PARSHAT AHAREI MOT

YOM KIPPUR AVODAH SERVICE

“Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat; and it shall be sent off to the wilderness through a designated agent.”  (Leviticus 16:21)

            One of my favorite parts of the Yom Kippur liturgy is a section most people miss.  We have a full house for Yizkor (memorial prayers) in the late morning, then people start to leave synagogue, and many come back for the closing prayers (Neilah) at the end of the day.  But in the early afternoon during the Musaf service is a section known as the Avodah (“Service”).  It is a reenactment of the ritual described in this week’s Torah reading.

            In the Torah reading, the Kohen Gadol (“High Priest”) enters the holiest inner sanctum of the Sanctuary.  There he speaks a series of confessions.  The first confession of the High Priest is for him and his family, the second confession is for his fellow priests, and finally the third confession is for all the sins of the people Israel.  When the priest makes this third confession, he places his hands on a special goat designated for that purpose.  The goat is then sent off into the wilderness, as the Torah describes it, to Azazel – (a strange term that is sometimes translated, “to hell.”)   The English word “scapegoat” comes from this ritual.

            The goat sent to Azazel carries away the sins of the people.  It is a vicarious atonement for those sins.  This ritual is at the heart of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, at least when the Temple was still standing.  In order properly to perform this ritual, the High Priest has to do ritual washings, change his clothes several times, and be in a state of both physical and spiritual purity. 

            Perhaps most fascinating about the ritual, the real unpronounceable name of God is used during each of the three confessions.  The name can never be pronounced out loud at any other time.  Only the High Priest, only on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, only in the Holy of Holies, could the name be spoken out loud.  When the people hear the holy name, they bow down and call out, Baruch Shem Kavod Malkhuto L’Olam Vaed – “Bless be the glorious name of His Kingdom forever and ever.”

            In synagogue we reenact the ritual.  The cantor plays the role of High Priest.  During each of the three confessions the cantor bows all the way down until he or she is flat on the floor.  (In some synagogues, everybody who is physically able bows all the way down.)   The cantor does not pronounce the real name of God; we no longer know how to pronounce it.  But everybody does call out the line Baruch Shem Kavod Malkhuto L’Olam Vaed.  Adding to the power of the moment is the music, the nusach or melodies which are part of our Cantorial tradition.

            Usually, this moment in the service comes around 1 in the afternoon.  By then I have been fasting about 18 hours, with another 7 or so to go.  I am a bit lightheaded, very exhausted, and I find the entire ritual has a strange sense of mystery.  It is almost as if I am carried back to the ancient Temple.  To add to my own interpretation, several years ago one of my members brought me a small stuffed goat, a children’s toy.  It is not the real goat, but I hold it up to show the congregation who is carrying away the sins of the people.

            This moment stands out in my mind during the complicated liturgy of Yom Kippur.  One of the problems of religion today is that we have lost our sense of mystery.  We are too practical and too logical.  But religion needs this type of ancient mystery.  And when we think of the holiness of using God’s real name only once a year at this special moment, it adds to the mystery of the day.

            Yom Kippur is a day dedicated to the atonement for our sins.  We no longer have ancient rituals, we no longer have a Temple, we no longer use a real goat, we no long use God’s name.  But as human beings, we still need the power of the holiest day of the year.  We need to walk away at the end of Yom Kippur feeling that we have been cleansed from our sins.  The Avodah service, in the middle of the day, contributes to that sense of purification.