Yom Kippur and Sustaining the Earth

This reflection was written in September 2009.

After a long summer hiatus, it was wonderful to see the harvest moon this week and begin to write and share this newsletter with all of you. Rosh haShanah, the new year, is approaching, and the ram’s horn is being sounded each morning (see below, the article The Ram’s Horn, for reflections on this). Autumn is nearly here, fruit is gathered in, and once again Jews are performing ancient rituals of abundance, reflection, loss, and return. Yom Kippur stands at the heart of these rituals: a mysterious rite where we enter the world of death (by not eating, dressing in white, etc.) and return to life renewed.

Recently, in my neighborhood, there was a microburst, which is also called a reverse tornado. This rare kind of storm has very high vertical downward winds as well as intense rain. I stood at the window amazed by the solid sheets of rain, the intense thunder that shook the windows, the daggers of lightning, and the branches whipping around in ways I had never seen. The storm ripped straight through our neighborhood and into Central Park, where it broke or uprooted more than one hundred trees. This was a great loss, all the more so since Manhattan has so few trees. The trees of the Great Hill, which is often a Tel Shemesh ritual location, were decimated. The thick old tree that stood at the center of our Lag b’Omer labyrinth is gone, as are many others. As I write about Yom Kippur, during which we reflect on the mysteries of fate and the impermanence of life, I’d like to dedicate my words to the memories of those trees.

The central Yom Kippur ritual of our ancestors included fasting, but it did not take place in synagogue. It centered around an ancient rite of cleansing the sacred shrine of the tribe. This cleansing was done to free the earth from the pollution of sin, because our ancestors believed that wrong deeds literally dirtied the land and made it less fertile (Lev. 18:28 writes: Let the land not spit you out for making it impure.) Therefore Yom Kippur had to occur before the harvest festival of Sukkot, when the land was blessed and dedicated anew. Biblically speaking, Yom Kippur is intrinsically connected to the land. In our modern times, when we know that many of our sinful actions do pollute the land physically, this is a consciousness we should reclaim.

The shrine, and the land, were cleansed in two ways. One way included the sacrifice of a bull and a goat within the shrine, and sprinkling the blood of the sacrifice seven times on the curtain of the holiest part of the shrine: the Holy of Holies. These seven sprinklings represented the seven days of creation, and the ritual re-dedicated all of creation. The blood-sprinkling ritual also recalled how the temple is like a womb, cleansing itself through blood. The sacred space represented the potential for new life at the heart of the world, and the Yom Kippur ritual reclaimed the life-giving powers of creation.

These powers could only take their full force when wrongdoing had been expiated. So too, on Yom Kippur we can become aware that our deepest powers of life have more room to operate when we are not weighed down or hemmed in by illusion, resentment, and other negative consequences of our deeds. And, during this holy time we can have awe for the earth’s powers of life and resolve that our deeds toward the earth contain fewer pollutants, fewer hindrances to creation. We can add to our Yom Kippur liturgy that reminds us to atone for sins to the earth, and this will not be a contemporary addition but a return to Yom Kippur’s original intent.

The other way that the ancient ritual of Yom Kippur cleansed the tribe, the shrine, and the land was by sending a goat into the wilderness, bearing the sins of the people. (Goats are part of the Yom Kippur ritual partly because many herd animals were slaughtered in autumn for food, and partly because the horns of the goat represent the new moon and/or the spiral of life.) This goat was sent to Azazel, which may be the name of a demon, or simply of a place in the desert. Amichai Lau-Lavie, director of Storahtelling: Ritual Theater Revived, suggests that Azazel represents an earlier understanding of God, the God of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, and that this face of God also had to be propitiated during Yom Kippur.

In this understanding, Azazel is the wilderness itself. If the ritual of sprinkling blood on the curtain represents the cleansing of the settled earth, the ritual of sending away the goat could be said to remind us of our continuing need to honor the wild places. Just as we have sinned against one another and need to reflect and change, we have also sinned— though our lifestyle and the waste it produces—against life forms and places we know nothing about. Perhaps this year our “goat for Azazel” could be represented by a promise to share some of our abundance with the wild places of the world.

This summer the Kohenet Institute, which trains women for spiritual leadership in earth-honoring, embodied, and feminist ways, had its seventh week-long training retreat. I had the privilege, along with Holly Shere and Shoshana Jedwab, of ordaining eleven kohanot, priestesses in the Jewish tradition. Holly, Shoshana and I also received a title from them: rav kohenet, high priestess or rabbi-priestess, a title that existed in ancient Phoenicia (a language and culture connected to the Israelites) and that works very well in modern Hebrew too. So this autumn I am thinking a great deal about the role of the priest in the ancient Yom Kippur ritual, and what we can learn from the concept of priesthood. My sense is that by performing the two rituals above, the priest acted as a healer, making whole a societal and natural fabric that had been broken.

Perhaps this is what the Bible means when it calls the Israelites a nation of priests. We all have the potential to be healers, all of us on earth. We have the gift of making whole what is broken. May we use this gift for the benefit of all beings. May this new year be a year of respect for life and its holiness.

Rabbi Jill Hammer is the director of Tel Shemesh, the co-founder of the Kohenet Institute, and the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy of Jewish Religion. She has written two books: The Jewish Book of Days and Sisters at Sinai.

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