A Nation of Priests

| Yom Kippur By :  JTS Alumni Posted On Sep 25, 2004 / 5765 | Prayer

By Mallory Probert (DS ’05)

This is the way of summer. The earth spins more slowly. Food tastes better. Friends are more engaging. We rediscover the joy of taking afternoon naps during the middle of the week. But then September comes, and it’s dearth of community activities. Back to school, the return to a jammed schedule, and this year, the ritual (pretense?) of selecting our next president. We shed our shorts, flip flops and baseball caps and abandon any hope of finishing the Sunday Times on Sunday. I imagine that I feel the transition a little more acutely than many of my fellow students. When autumn comes, I add carpools, soccer games and homework (in addition to my own!) to my agenda. Such is the rhythm of a full and rewarding life. We enter into most of these activities as a matter of course, without much introspection. But is it truly enough? Has a leisurely summer adequately prepared us for the oncoming year?

Perhaps this is the hidden wisdom behind the timing of the Days of Awe – for they occur precisely at the same time as our secular lives resume their frantic pace. There is a piece of us that may see the Days of Awe as unwelcome additions to the burden of our increased secular responsibilities. And yet, in a deep and powerful way, the approaching yamim tovim enjoin us, as Jews, to suspend our routine anew. At a time when we are so outwardly focused, the season directs us to turn inward. We disengage from the roles and statuses we hold in the workaday world. We are called upon us to stop and consider where we have been, where we are, and where we hope to go – both as individuals and in relation to our community. We may think that this task is very modern, but it is in fact very ancient.

Consider the Torah reading for Yom Kippur, Leviticus 16. The deaths of Nadav and Avihu remind us – as they must surely remind Aaron – that his role as Kohen Gadol carries with it grave responsibility rather than egocentric privilege. Aaron is charged with teaching the Israelites how to distinguish between the sacred and the profane, between the pure and the impure. Aaron stands physically cleansed and humbled. He offers a sacrifice on his own behalf and presents his sins to God. Only then can he hope to expiate the transgressions of his priestly household.and thereafter, the entire Israelite community. Through these actions, God’s presence in the midst of Am Yisrael is insured.

We have traveled a great spiritual distance from the Yom Kippur of Biblical times, yet despite the chasm in time, in many ways this is still the Yom Kippur we know. We forget from season to season that God still resides in our midst. The rites of the Days of Awe come to remind us. Rabbi Danny Gordis, in his book God Was Not In The Fire, states that the purpose of Jewish ritual today is to create or reinforce the connection between ourselves and God. Rabbi Gordis suggests that we need Jewish ritual in order to interrupt the pace of modern life – and these are his words: “to provide a chance to think about and to celebrate that which is more enduring, more compelling and more important.”

The Days of Awe come to teach us that the most profound relationships are those of struggle and growth. Like Aaron, we are challenged to separate the sacred from the clamor of daily life. We appeal to God for the opportunity to reinvest ourselves in the pursuit of clarity, holiness and intimacy with the Divine. “By observing a Sabbath of Sabbaths, we draw the sanctity of the superior realm down, nearer to us.” (Ta’amei HaMinhagim) Prayer creates space for renewal. Thus each year, we recite the Al Cheit – beginning with aleph and continuing through the alphabet; reconstructing our world – one letter at a time. When the shofar is blown, we put our lips to the smaller rather than the larger end. We represent only one facet of God’s infinite Glory, thus like the shofar we begin in the narrow places and address ourselves before focusing on our families, our community and ultimately the restoration of the Divine Light in our world.

On Yom Kippur we are a nation of Aarons, joined in common purpose. Privilege and authority are subordinate to the task of self examination and atonement. We reinvest in the struggle to conduct our lives in consonance with Jewish values and morality, so that God will forget that which we remember. May our efforts to collectively and publicly acknowledge the present while striving for a more promising future render us worthy of another year.

Ken yehi ratzon.

The publication and distribution of the Taste of Torah commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.