D'var on Leviticus 16 for Yom Kippur 5769 (2008)

Our readings for today from the Torah [Lev 16] and Haftarah [Is 57:14-58:14] are like two sides of the same coin.  Each deals with the same questions: How do we protect ourselves from God's wrath for our mistakes?  What behavior does God seek from us?  How do achieve atonement?

But the Torah and Haftarah answer these questions in very different ways.

Lev 16 focuses on one man - the High Priest.  We have the story of the two goats, one sacrificed to God, and the other goat is laden with the sins of the people before being sent out into the wilderness.  Although this goat metaphorically bears our sins, it is the High Priest who is really burdened with all the tasks and responsibilities to successfully gain forgiveness for Israel.

So Lev 16 is a play with one actor and two goats.  And this one actor is a whirlwind of activity - He must dress up in special holy garments, take a bath, prepare a ram and a bull for offerings, select the two goats and assign them by lot for their special roles, slaughter the ram and bull, scoop up ashes and sprinkle blood, slaughter one goat and sprinkle some more blood.  Then he must sprinkle some more blood, lay his hands on the other goat and confess the sins of all the people on it and then send it off into the wilderness.  Then he takes off his special garments, takes another bath, and makes burnt offerings.

And what is the outcome of all this effort by the High Priest?    If this one man does the thing right, God forgives all the people of Israel.

 What can we say about this whole process:

  1. It is purely ritual; the acts are not inherently moral.
  2. It is very physical - burning animals and sprinkling blood, laying hands on the goat and watching it wander off in the distance until it disappears.  I find that I am affected by this type of ritual.  When we did Tashlich after the First Day's Rosh Hashanah Service last week, we recited sins we want to free ourselves from, and then we threw pieces of bread upon the water.  The act of throwing the bread caused me to feel lighter - not because my sins were actually leaving me, but I think because the physical movement helps me realize that I have the capacity to cast off behavior I want to avoid, a realistic opportunity to do better.  Actions of the body help clarify, and reinforce, and connect with intellect, morality and spirit.
  3. Another interesting aspect of this process in Lev 16 is that it is essentially dependent on one person, the High Priest - and all Israel vicariously gains forgiveness from God as a consequence of the High Priest's actions.  For this one day, the High Priest in Lev 16 is a model for a redeeming Messiah.
By the way, can you think of other Jewish examples of the people being redeemed vicariously through the acts of another?  The most prominent is the patriarchs and matriarchs - we still ask God to remember them and save us for the sake of their merit, not our own.

We could infer that in Lev 16 there is only one hero in this ritual - the High Priest.  But the real hero of the chapter may be the goat that is laden with sins and led out to wander in the wilderness - where this sad creature is supposed to encounter Azazel.  Azazel, according to Midrash, is a fallen angel, who teaches men to make weapons, lusts after earthly women and devises sensual ornaments so women can lead men astray.  The goat released into the wilderness may be a symbol of what will happen to the people Israel in their constant wandering in Exile from land to land, allowed to reside only at the pleasure of foreign rulers and exploited or banished at whim.  Azazel could be a symbol of the tyrants that make trouble for Jews in their wanderings.

Now what does the Haftarah say.  The prophet Isaiah is also concerned with atonement in his time, which is seven centuries after the time of the first High Priest, Aaron.

Isaiah in this passage detests ritual that he perceives to be hypocritical, and instead demands deeds of loving kindness.

Isaiah clarifies what God wants - not a fast to mortify the body, not ritual without righteousness or human connection.  Isaiah passionately calls on the people to free the oppressed, feed the hungry, take the homeless into your home, and clothe the naked.  Isaiah seeks social justice, and moreover, he seeks it at a very high level.  He demands more than charity.  He wants those in need to be integrated into the community and the lives of the people.  These ringing words lay the groundwork for important later texts, like the Rambam's 8 levels of charity, where the highest level is to go into partnership with a needy person and personally build up his capacity to earn his own living.

From this Haftarah one could get the impression that rituals are less important than good deeds.  Rituals are important to bring people together to genuinely express devotion to God, and connect with others in the past, present and future who do these same rituals.  In a physical way they embody and reinforce our thoughts, words and feelings.  They allow us to relive experiences in Jewish history and affirm our identity.  They also structure our time; when we do a ritual we are connecting with a specific day, week, month, year or life cycle event.

Which is more important to do on Yom Kippur, and throughout the year - ritual or kind deeds?  As with other either-or choices in Judaism, the best answer is: Yes.  Both are essential.  It is significant that the well-known Jewish trinity from Tractate Avot says: On 3 things does the world stand: On Torah meaning study, on Worship meaning ritual, and on Deeds of loving kindness

For our Congregation, I'm glad that for these High Holidays we have collected many items to deliver to Project Homestart.  Throughout the year, we should continue to combine our Services with Social Justice Projects.


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