Yom Kippur: The Shrine and the Wilderness

This Yom Kippur talk will be given at Congregation B'nai Jeshurun on Yom Kippur morning. Yom Kippur falls on the evening of Oct. 12 and during the day on oct. 13.

The two figures who enact the biblical drama of Yom Kippur look rather different from one another. There is just no good way to say this: one is a high priest and one is a goat. One is a human being appointed as the sacred representative of a people and a covenant. The other is a vaguely scruffy animal cast out of the sanctuary after being loaded down with the people’s sins. They look different, but they aren’t different. The high priest and the goat perform the same task. They both show us how to journey to a place of new beginning. Both are our teachers and spirit guides during the hours of Yom Kippur.

The high priest’s journey is from outside the sanctuary toward the center. He carries the incense and the blood of the sacrifices into the Holy of Holies, which is the symbolic heart of existence. According to the Midrash Tadshe, a 10th century collection of legends, everything in the Tabernacle reflects a part of the world: the wash basin is the sea, the menorah is the light, and the Holy of Holies is the core of the earth. The high priest’s task is to purify, not just one small space, but everything. Within the Holy of Holies, the high priest creates a cloud of incense, representing the Shekhinah, the Divine presence. The high priest sprinkles the blood of the sacrifices seven times, as if to recall the seven days of creation. The high priest then utters the Divine name, which means “being” or “becoming.” The spoken name signifies the process of making and remaking the world. The high priest’s task is to re-start, or in modern language, reboot creation. He represents us when we feel in harmony with the world, when we are ready to exercise joy and creativity. The high priest reveals to us the longing of Yom Kippur: to return to wholeness, to live, to feel that we are good and part of a good creation.

The scapegoat goes on a journey opposite the one of the high priest. The scapegoat moves from the sanctuary toward the margins of the universe. It carries not offerings of purification, but all the sins of the people, everything that is broken, misaligned, out of place, everything that is difficult to sort out and painful to repair. The horns of the goat are the opposite of the shofar: instead of sounding a call, they receive all the pent-up words and regrets and rage and grief. A chosen individual, not a grand religious official, but an ish iti, a temporarily appointed person, a random person, leads the goat away into the wilderness, and there the goat is set free. To do what? What is the goat supposed to do in the wilderness? The Talmud tells us the appointed person pushes the goat off a cliff to make sure it does not come back, bringing the people’s sins with it, but this is not what the text says and I do not believe it is what was done in the Temple period, and I will tell you why. The goat is not something you can push over a cliff and send away forever. The goat is us when we are struggling to return to harmony, when we feel alone, when we do not feel good or part of a good world. What the goat goes, and what we need, is wilderness.

The wilderness is the opposite of the Holy of Holies: it is open, not enclosed, marginal, not central. Yet wilderness is the place of Sinai. It is the place where slaves are liberated. Set free to wander in the wilderness, the scapegoat can shake the sins off its back and return to its real life as a free being. The scapegoat teaches us Yom Kippur means leaving our stale words and deeds behind, making a distinction between past and present, letting go of what has been central to pursue something else. It means discovering the freedom of the self. This is what we need before we can reconnect to the whole. The scapegoat and the high priest teach us different things, yet both show us something crucial about of Yom Kippur.

Which path do we need now in order to change? At this moment, some of us are high priests and high priestesses, ready to weave and build and tend ourselves and our world until we are whole, though we know how hard that task may be. And at this moment, some of us are scapegoats, carrying many sins on our back, maybe even some that were never ours to begin with, and wishing for freedom and space and strength enough to put down that burden. Some of us are waiting in the Holy of Holies for a mysterious encounter, a rebirth to transform the meaning of this day. And some of us are waiting in the wilderness, without hopes or expectations, feeling the wind blow us toward a future we do not know. Give it time, give it just a year, and all of us will be all of these.

If you look around you’ll see all the players in this Torah portion here in our sanctuary, though you may not recognize them for who they are. You may not even be sure who you are, and if you’re not, that could be good. Yom Kippur contains an element of surprise. Teshuvah means to turn, to change course. Teshuvah is the circle where the Holy of Holies and the wilderness become one.

Rabbi Jill Hammer is the director and co-founder of Tel Shemesh and the author of Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women.

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