Written by Rabbi Shulamait Ambalu
I really hope you will be able to spend Yom Kippur in a Reform Synagogue. But there was once a very different sort of ritual, as the Mishnah describes,1 over two thousand years in the past. The High Priest alone could enter the Temple’s Holy of Holies to perform the atonement ritual. As often happens, there was an underlying conflict about this should be done. Members of the priesthood were suspected of still being attached to the historic movement called the Sadducees, who believe that we must only follow the Torah’s accepted and written word. The rabbis, who write down the rules as we have them today, describe themselves as teachers and mentors of the priests, spending a whole seven days preparing the High Priest for his Yom Kippur moment. They are descendants of the Pharisees, a movement who believe in oral interpretation of the Torah. They force the High Priest to swear an oath that he will perform the actions according to their instructions, and that he will not change a single thing. After making him swear this oath, the high Priest turns aside and weeps. He does this because he knows he is not trusted. Then the rabbis also turn aside and cry; they are aware that it is forbidden to cast doubt on a fellow Jew; but they do it because they must.
I love this text. It’s a powerful and also helpful metaphor for change and for conflict. It’s also a story of two Jewish movements, who are in many ways different. In the late 1600’s Rabbi Jacob Emden says that in fact the differences between Sadducees and Pharisees are very few, amounting to only a handful of details. There is more that unites them then sets them against each other, and that it is the bigger tasks that they actually share, that causes them to weep!
I hope that this Yom Kippur, our tears bring us comfort. I wish you a good seal, Chatimah tovah, in life’s book
1-M Yoma 1:5