Acharei Mot: The First Yom Kippur

V’hayta la’chem l’chukat olam: ba’chodesh ha’shvi’I be’asor lachodesh t’anu et nafshoteichem, v’chol m’lacha lo ta’asu, ha’ezrach v’hager hagar b’tochechem. Ki va’yom hazeh y’chaper aleichem l’taher etchem mikol chatoteichem…

And this shall be for you a law for all time: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall practice self-denial, and you shall do no manner of work, neither the citizen nor the stranger who dwells among you. For on this day atonement shall be made for you, to cleanse you of all your sins… (Leviticus 16:29-30)

Chapter 16 of this week’s portion describes in detail how to enact Yom Kippur: dressed in plain white linen (as opposed to his regular very elaborate vestments) Aaron, the Cohen Hagadol, the High Priest, is to enter the Holy of Holies alone. There he is to offer sacrifices of a bull and a ram. Then he takes two goats and casts lots upon them. One goat is slaughtered and offered to God on behalf of the people’s sins. The other goat is chosen as the scapegoat. Aaron lays his hands on the scapegoat, confessing all the sins of the people and transferring them onto the goat. The goat is then sent away into the uncharted wilderness, carrying the people’s sins away. The people are now purified of their transgressions, so that God can continue to dwell in their midst. At the end of the description, the Torah announces, “And this shall be for you a law for all time.”

What’s wrong with this picture?

Well, thousands of years later we are still marking the tenth day of the seventh month, Yom Kippur, as a day when we practice self-denial and seek atonement for our sins. That much is consistent – miraculously so. But we practice none of the ritual described in the Torah: no High Priest, no animal sacrifice, no Holy of Holies, no scapegoat. Yom Kippur today resembles the Yom Kippur of the Torah in no way at all.

This makes Yom Kippur a signal example of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s description of Judaism as the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish People. Through numerous disruptive historical, geographical and cultural upheavals and transformations we Jews have succeeded in retaining the inner meaning and purpose of the Day of Atonement. The outer form has evolved so dramatically that a contemporary Yom Kippur would be unrecognizable to our Biblical forebears: across time prayers replaced animal sacrifices; communal confession replaced the work of the High Priest; fasting – which is not explicitly instructed in the Torah – became the accepted form of “self-denial”; synagogues replaced the mishkan and its Holy of Holies; the compelling ritual of the scapegoat has long since disappeared – we still read about it on Yom Kippur, but no longer enact it – and has been superseded by the rabbinic commandment that the ritual of Yom Kippur does not atone for wrongdoing unless one has already attempted to reconcile with one’s fellow. And you might notice that rabbis weren’t even invented back then!

Our longevity as a people is not a result of our unwillingness to change. On the contrary, we are still here precisely because of our ability to evolve and adapt to changing circumstances, while still retaining the life-sustaining teachings of our ancient roots.

We draw this same lesson when we compare the Holiday that just passed, Passover, as it is described in Torah to Passover celebrations today. Readers of the Torah are always surprised to discover that there is no mention of a Passover Seder in the Torah, yet the Seder is the central feature of the Passover observances that we know. The external form continues to evolve, so that it can carry the timeless truth ever forward: that tyranny defies the moral law of Creation, and therefore tyranny must give way to freedom.

The central message of Yom Kippur also has not wavered, despite (or perhaps as a result of) the evolving outer form of the Holy Day: we must be accountable for our actions; we must make amends for our misdeeds; when we feel separated from God and from one another, forgiveness and reconciliation are always possible. I picture our ancestors following that scapegoat with their eyes as it wandered out of sight into the trackless wilderness. I imagine the relief and release they felt as they knew they had been offered a chance to begin again. I think of us singing Avinu Malkeinu together, swaying as one, our hearts all aiming at that distant horizon and I feel that same relief and release: we too can begin again.

What a marvelous paradox. The form must evolve so that Judaism can continue to reveal its timeless teachings to a changing world. Only in this way can the link to our Torah remain intact, so that we are still able to fulfill its instruction.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan