D'var l'Yom ha'Kippurim 5773 - Scary Holidays

2012 S.H. Parker

There are two "religious" days in the year that have always frightened me.

The first is Easter.

For the chronologically gifted among us, this needs no explanation. For those of you less chronologically gifted, you should know that for centuries, Easter has been "yom ha'pogrom," the day of the year most likely to feature a pogrom.

My ancestors are from Galicia and the Ukraine. As I am standing here with you, clearly I come from "survivor stock." And the sad truth is that, after several centuries, recognizing the coming of Easter must have imprinted itself on my fore-bearers' genes. So, Easter frightens me ... it's genetic.

The second holy day that frightens me is Yom ha'Kippurim.

Yom ha'Kippurim is downright scary to me. Why? Because, even though I have learned and know better and I do know better I have never shaken the image of "the Book of Life," that big ledger in the sky, from childhood Hebrew School. That big ledger, in my mind's eye, open to a page with my name on it and two columns, "naughty and nice" (if you're wondering where the lyricist got "he's making a list and checking it twice," now you know) -- even though my mind's eye doesn't show me the writing-in-the-book, I have a pretty good idea of what that page looks like.

Come Ne'ila, the idea of that big ol' ledger slamming shut, with no recourse, until next Rosh ha'Shannah truthfully is frightening.

"On Rosh ha'Shannah it is written;
"On Yom tzom Kippur it is sealed"

we sing this repeatedly on Rosh ha'Shannah and Yom ha'Kippurim.

"Who will live and who will die...."

The "Book of Life" metaphor is also seriously out of keeping with both Torah and Rabbinic thinking. Seriously.

Do we not learn that G-d waits for a person's repentance every moment right up until his final breathe? "Every moment," we are taught, "every moment" does not always come conveniently between Rosh ha'Shannah and Yom ha'Kippurim to affect the ledger in a timely manner.

Do we not also learn that both ourselves, individually, and the world as a whole are redeemable at each and every moment of the year? We learn "one must view his next action as if it were his last." Why? Because "a man should view his life as equally balanced between good and evil; his next act tilts the balance of his life for good or for evil." Similarly, "view the world as if it were evenly balanced between good and evil ..." with similar conclusions.

As I said, scary stuff.

And it doesn't help that I recently read and I cannot for the life of me remember where that the idea of the "Book of Life," that big ol' ledger in the sky, this metaphor comes to us from, of all people, the Essenes! (There's whole d'var, maybe a d'var and a half, in that group!)

But wait! There's more!

Yom ha'Kippurim, even without "the list," should stand out and get our attention.

Why?-Glad you asked.

(And please note that I have not been saying "Yom Kippur." If you look in the Torah, you will see that today is called "Yom ha'Kippurim." "Yom Kippur" describes what happens on Yom ha'Kippurim. "Yom ha'Kippurim" is the proper name of the day.)

Think of all of the other holy days commanded us in the Torah, the raglai'im: Succot, Pesach, Shavuot.

Each is clearly tied to the agricultural calendar. Utterly removed of the pagan mythology that accompanied the harvest and planting cycle, certainly, but nonetheless clearly reflecting it. 

Succot, soon upon us, corresponds to the fall harvest but commemorates the fragile dwellings we lived in in the wilderness (though, I thought we lived in tents). Pesach corresponds to the spring planting but commemorates our liberation. Shavuot corresponds to the spring harvest but commemorates our entry into and taking possession of our land.

The post-Biblical holidays all commemorate an historical, or alleged historical, event.

But Yom Teruah, known to many as Rosh ha'Shannah, and Yom ha'Kippurim are not agricultural in any way, shape or form. Neither are they historical. These are completely new, completely unique. And, therefore, we should infer that someone is trying to tell us something.

What is different about Yom ha'Kippurim? What is different is that Yom ha'Kippurim appears to be about sin.


The Yom ha'Kippurim liturgy includes one of the most fascinating passages, in my opinion outside of Parsah Beshalach's scene at the sea, the most fascinating passage, the Avodah service. Each year, I study this carefully, with a sense of wonder.

Forgetting those Hebrew School teachers who taught me that our repetition of the Avodah service substituted for the actual Avodah service -- the Avodah service (noting that "Avodah" just means "service") is more than the lead-up to the Kohen Gadol's entry into the Kadosh Kadoshim. But, that's where most discussions leave it, as a precursor to entering the Holy of Holies. I wonder if they thought through the consequences of equating repetition with the actual sacrificial service.

On its surface, what amazes, what stuns me, about the Avodah service is that it is about sin, entirely. Almost nowhere else in our Torah is "sin" even mentioned and nowhere is "sin," as we understand that term today, even a concern of Torah. (The word translated as "sin," averah, probably should be rendered more as "crossing the line," crossing the line of the the Devine mandate.) There are many things Torah is concerned with, many things it talks about, some more than once, some at great length, often (as with manslaughter) not quite making sense to us moderns.

One thing Torah rarely mentions is "sin;" twice only that I can think of. Yes, Torah is clearly concerned with how we behave; Torah is clearly, therefore, very much concerned with what kinds of people we are, with our character. But it is, with but two minor exceptions, never concerned with our psychological states, with what we think and what we believe.

The seminal occurrence of the concept of "sin" in Torah is at Bamidbar 5:5-6:

When a man or a woman commits one of the sins of man [thus] acting
treacherously against G-d; that person is guilty.

Here, the use of the word "sin" simply describes a behavior ("sin" really is just a synonym for "wrong act," on a more traditional view, "violating God's law"). In this pasuk what is important, what is essentially "Torah-think," is that Torah teaches us that our fellow-man is more than simply G-d's representative, that doing our fellow wrong is to do G-d wrong. (Or, as my Rabbi taught me, "'sin' is simple: if you do something you're not supposed to do, you're guilty," that's it - he doesn't attach any eschatological meaning to "sin.")

But wait! There's more!

Wrong-doing is dealt with in Torah, rather thoroughly don't you think?-Traditionally, there are 248 "thou shalt not's."

Ritually, Torah does prescribe a "sin offering" (better rendered as "guilt offering"). But this sacrifice can only be brought after restitution has been made, where restitution is possible. And it may only be made for unintentional actions.

The Avodah service makes no qualifications, none whatsoever. There do not appear to be any limitations on the sins which the scapegoat can take out in to the wilderness (thus, literally "kapper-ing," hiding, them).

Any and all transgressions, any wrongs done in the past year are "kapper," covered over. Gone. Out of sight, out of mind; we are no longer responsible for these actions, we no longer "own" them.

I do not think it necessary to argue how utterly different this manner of thought is from the rest of Torah, much less how completely inconsistent it is with core Rabbinic thinking.

I can just see our First (and Second) Temple period ancestors saying: "If I can just make it to Yom ha'Kippurim, I'll be clean!" Amazing and you will not find attempts to reinterpret this; there aren't any and to even attempt to do so would do such violence to the text as to render the gloss laughable. And all the evidence from Rabbinic literature, too, confirms that the early Rabbis thought the same way about the Avodah service.

But wait! There's more!

The Kohen Gadol changes his clothes -- a lot. He takes baths ... a lot (five, actually). And he kills a number of animals.

At each step, before he sacrifices each animal, he lays his hands on the animal and confesses; first, his sins, then his family's sins, then the sins of the kohanim -- until finally he confesses the sins of all Israel.

But that's not the amazing or even the important part. The amazing part is that this process, the smicha, laying on of hands, transfers the sins to the animal. Literally, not symbolically, the sins cease being the property of each of us and become the property of the animal, who atones with its blood, "the life thereof."

One can see how my teacher, Rabbi Joseph Radinsky, could claim that Paul took this one holy day, indeed one part of this one day, and made an entire religion out of it.

But wait! There's more!

When our Temple was destroyed, we lost this "atonement for sin." Yochanan ben Zachai comforts Rabbi Joshua (see Avot D'Rabbi Natan 11A, citing Hosea) by reinterpreting gimilut hasadim as serving the same function. We read this pasuk each day in Pseukei D'zimarah.

Persuasive? I don't find it so....

And if ever something needed reinterpretation, the Avodah service, as ben Zachai intuitively understood, is it. How can we, by driving some poor little goat into the wilderness and off a cliff, become unaccountable? How can we transfer our evil deed to another being?

The first thing we need to understand is that "Yom ha'Kippurim" means "day of covering over." Because "kippur." from the shoresh "kapper" (also the root of kapporet), "cover," "Yom Kippur" means "the day on which a cover up is made" or "day of covering over."

We need to give up thinking of Yom ha'Kippurim as "the day of repentance," at least in the sense that "repentance" is an inner state, a sense of remorse over not doing something that we should have or having done something we should not have. If we do Yom ha'Kippurim correctly, we haven't "repented" in this sense, this is one of those psychological states that Torah just never talks about, but we have covered up all our wrong-doings; we are changed. And the Torah does seem to buy into the notion of "out of sight, out of mind." If we do Yom ha'Kippurim well, we are -- here's Paul again, snatching up an idea in isolation from its context -- born anew, fresh and clean (and you all thought "born again" came from the Rabbinic conversion process!) ... fresh and clean, starting over, as it were.

That said, the reinterpretation of "Yom ha'Kippurim" as a day of repentance has merit. If we understand what "tsuvah," really means and what it really is. Because what I'm saying is that feeling sorry or remorseful neither "cuts it" nor helps us.

So, what does "tsuvah" mean if not "repentance"?

Is there anyone in this room who does not know the term "ba'al tsuvah?" If someone becomes ba'al tsuvah, does s/he become a "master of repentance?"

Here "tsuvah" means "return." And that is much closer to what "tsuvah" means. "Return."

"Return" to the right way, to the way Torah wants us to be and to behave. Note how, stated this way, "tsuvah" is much different than "avoiding sin." "Avoiding sin" is negative, like a negative mitzvah. Doing the Torah way is, I think, much more positive. One avoids evil, the other way promotes good.


This is much simpler to understand. And much simpler to accomplish.

It takes only knowing that "tsuvah" actually means "to turn around." "Return" indeed!

As my Rabbi once explained, "if you can't resist temptation, just don't go into the situation where you know you will experience temptation." (Not unlike "if you eat too many sweets, just stop buying them.") Similarly, if you perceive the opportunity to do evil, turn around and walk away.... Tsuvah.

The positive conceptualization of this is found here, I think:

The Gemara (Pesachim 50B) cites a contradiction in psukim between Tehillim 57:11 and Tehillim 108:5: "ki gadol ad shamayim chasdecha (Your mercy is great unto the heavens)" and "ki gadol me-al shamayim chasdecha (Your mercy is great beyond the heavens)." The resolution to this contradiction ["up to" in the first Psalm; "beyond" in the second - clearly a bit of pilpul] is: "kan beosin lishma, vekan beosin shelo lishma" "Here [the second verse] it speaks of those who perform a Mitzvah for its own sake, and there [the first] it speaks of those who perform a Mitzvah not for its own sake but for the sake of a reward Rav Judah said in Rav's name: 'one should always occupy themselves with Torah and good deeds even if in hope of a reward, because out of doing mitzvot, even for the wrong reason, comes doing them for their own sake'."

(If this sounds like Cognitive Dissonance Theory, you'd be right.) This is why many Rabbis advise us to "pick a mitzvah, just one, and do it until you master it." Then pick another one. Then, another. And so on until you are a ba'al tsuvah.

Gamar tov.