I love the least popular moment of the High Holy Days
In the stillness of the afternoon on Yom Kippur, during the Mussaf prayer, many people take time out to go home to feed their children, or just rest before the emotions of Yizkor, the Memorial Service and the drama of Neilah, the closure of the day.
Synagogues are quiet and the atmosphere is reflective. And then it comes: an unusual re-enactment – the Temple Service.
Our High Holy Day prayer book, the Machzor, leads us superbly through the sacred drama where we re-interpret the Temple Service. It is an inspiring moment, encapsulating the central theological ideas of Reform Judaism. We confront elements of our history that could easily be rejected as anachronistic, and instead incorporate the powerful ritual of the High Priest asking for forgiveness on behalf of the whole people into our service.
Leading a community with the actions and words of the High Priest is the strongest moment of my Yom Kippur. I start by explaining that as rabbis, we are certainly not in any way priests, or high priests, conduits of holiness. We are all ‘Mamlechet Cohanim‘ – a Kingdom of Priests – and as such I invite all who might wish to join me as I prostrate three times on the raised platform of the bimah in the manner of the High Priest. It certainly feels bizarre to lie down in front of others in front of the Ark, but it is also humbling, jolting me out of my normal patterns, which above all is the point of this most challenging day of the year.
Reform Judaism takes the elements of the Temple Service and uses its symbolism to make strong value statements: “Since the Temple was destroyed no High Priest comes to serve our people… Each one of us is now a priest in the Kingdom of Priests, confessing our sins but asking for mercy for all.” Everyone is now part of the process rather than relying on someone else to atone for us. The liturgy reminds us that we now confess because we are just normal – just mortal and fallible – and it is out of our awareness of our mortality and fallibility that we confess and ask for mercy.
The Service continues:
“You who now hear this ancient ritual, consider it and ponder it in your innermost heart. Turn it, turn it for your life is in it. But though bullocks, temple and priest have gone, purity, sin and sacrifice remain, and they shape our life and transform our destiny… we read an unfamiliar language of lost symbols and seek the purpose of our life in this world.”
After prostrating and sharing the community’s confession, it is reciting the Yom Kippur prayer of the High Priest which resonates most with me as I stand, dressed in white, focused on the joys and pain of last year and the possibilities and anxieties of the incoming year. It is a prayer that places physical needs alongside our spiritual needs – all our needs bound together, a soul-filled melody of needs and aspirations:
“May it be Your will this year to bring us all good things that come from You, dew, rain and warmth. Let it be a year of ripening fruits, a year of atonement for our sins, a year in which You bless our food and drink, a year of commerce, a year of plenty, a year of joy, a year in which You bless the fruit of the womb and the fruit of the land, a year in which You bless our comings and our goings, a year in which You show us Your compassion, a year of peace and tranquility, a year in which Your people Israel will not require support from one another or from other people, the work of their hands being fully blessed by You.”
However, it is due to the appendix to the prayer of the High Priest that I love this moment most: it gives the hardest truth; one which sadly still resonates as we look at Israel and possibility of conflict with Iran. When all the practical and spiritual needs have being addressed, the High Priest’s prayer rises to its all-too-poignant crescendo:
“And for those who lived in the region of the Sharon, in danger of sudden earthquakes, he said a special prayer: “Lord our God and God of our fathers, do not let their homes become their graves.”
In prayer and in deed we do not shy away from confronting the terrifying possibilities, alongside the high hopes and our basic aspirations.
So as we enter 5773, I pray that our primary physical needs for joy, livelihood, and sustenance are fulfilled, and that our deepest concerns and fears are assuaged.