Throughout this year’s high holidays, my sermons have connected the major Jewish lifecycle events with the High Holidays. On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, when the world was born and we read of Isaac’s birth, I spoke about birth and children. On the second day, with the binding of Isaac as our Torah reading, I spoke about adolescence and the Bar Mitzvah. Last night for Kol Nidre I spoke about weddings and marriages, and today I will talk about death.
The holiday of Yom Kippur is our day of atonement, it’s a yom tzom, a day of fasting, AND it’s the day we rehearse our deaths. Fasting makes us look and feel like ghosts, mere shadows of our fullest selves. On this important day of prayer, why would we fast? Shouldn’t we be able to bring our fullest and most energized selves to the davenning, to our prayers?
My personal practice is to try to always pray on an empty stomach. In more traditional Jewish communities, the morning service, which lasts about an hour, is always done BEFORE eating breakfast. I think that the reason behind this is that when our stomachs are empty, we are necessarily put into a place of need, of desire, of lacking. We want to eat, we want to feel full, and we want to enjoy all of life’s fruits. And from this place of lacking and need, we cry out to G-d. G-d, you’ve been so gracious to me all the years of my life, please grant me one more year – One more year to thank and honor you by living joyfully and righteously.
Throughout today’s services we are repeatedly confronted with death and mortality. For example, we recited the fearsome Unetaneh Tokef prayer, describing ‘who shall live and who shall die, who shall live out his days and who shall not live out his days.” Even the Shema, which we will recite together at the very conclusion of Yom Kippur, resembles the final words of the Vidui, the deathbed confession. This confrontation with mortality may be one of the most important and powerful themes of Yom Kippur, but that doesn’t mean that anyone actually wants to think about it. I think we would take any opportunity to deny that death is something that is ultimately going to happen to us.
The Book of Psalms teaches us – limnot yameinu, ken hoda, ve-navie levav chochma. Teach us to count our days, teach us to regard our days as numbered – and
then may we attain a heart of wisdom.
This valuable insight of reminding ourselves of our mortality is mirrored in every religion throughout the world. When I was living in a Buddhist Monastery in Thailand after I graduated from college, nobody was allowed to speak the whole time we were there, which for me was around 2 months. My only opportunity for “communication” was a daily lecture given by a Thai monk. One of his lectures that I recall most vividly is his teaching on death. The main point of the lecture was that we should think about death as often as possible because it helps us to make the most out of life. By reminding ourselves that life is short, we are pushed to strive harder to accomplish everything we want to in life.
The monk related this story to illustrate his point. After one of the Buddha’s lectures, four of his students approached him and asked, “Wise Buddha, how often should we be thinking about death?” The Buddha responded, “Well, how often do you think about it right now?” The first student said, “I think about death once a week.” The Buddha said, “Good, good.” The second student said, “I think about death and mortality every day!” The Buddha responded, “even better!” The third student replied, “I think about my death every hour!” The Buddha smiled and nodded, and the fourth student then said, “I think about death in every moment of my life.” And the Buddha said, “You, you got it!”
The point of this story is to show that the more we think about our deaths, the more we embrace our lives and live them to their fullest.
It is for this reason, I believe, that we are reminded of death so constantly in Jewish liturgy and rituals. When a baby is born, it’s traditional to give the baby a name that echoes the names of previous generations, so the birth of a baby is often commemorated by focusing on prior deaths in the family. The traditional text of the ketubah – the marriage contract, signed on a day of maximum joy in a couple’s life – includes a provision for what would happen upon the death of one of the partners. Also, every single synagogue service includes the Mourners Kaddish – a memorial prayer and an opportunity to comfort the mourners in our midst.
Interestingly, our Jewish rituals, ceremonies, and traditions would be nearly unrecognizable to our Ancient Israelite ancestors, but they were also confronted with death on Yom Kippur. When the Temple stood in Jerusalem, the whole structure of services was based on sacrifices, not prayers. In fact, it was only the educated Cohenim, the priests, who prayed, and all the Israelites would simply respond with, “Amen.”
Yom Kippur was the biggest day of the year for the High Priest of the Temple, the Cohen Gadol. Today’s Torah reading described the process by which Aaron obtained atonement for himself and for the entire Jewish people on Yom Kippur. Aaron was Moses’ brother and the first High Priest, and he became the exemplar of High Priests for all future generations. G-d told Aaron to take from the entire Israelite community two male goats, shnei seirei izim, for a sin-offering. Aaron was to bring these two goats in front of the Tabernacle, and place lots on each of them, marking one goat for G-d and one for Azazel. Azazel is only mentioned 3 times in our scriptures, so we know very little about him, but he is understood to be a demon of some sort that can absorb our sins.
The goat designated to G-d (ha-seir la-Adonai) was sacrificed as a sin-offering, and its blood was used to purify the communal shrine from the community’s sins. For the goat designated for Azazel (ha-seir la-Azazel), Aaron was told to lay his hands upon its head and to confess over it all of the community’s transgressions, symbolically transferring all of the Israelites’ guilt to the goat. Then the goat was let loose in the wilderness, carrying all of the peoples’ transgressions to Azazel. It was from this ritual that we get the concept of a “scapegoat,” the vicarious bearer of society’s sins.
By transferring their errors onto the second goat for Azazel and sending it off to the wilderness, our ancestors symbolically released anything that prevented them from living life fully, joyfully, and purposefully. The goat for Azazel purges us of all those moments of waste, of cowardice, of indecision. To renew ourselves for a new year, we need both goats: we need the goat for G-d, which reasserts our commitment to life, and we also need the goat for Azazel, by which we release the toxins that poison us both emotionally and spiritually.
The other unique ritual that the High Priest performed on Yom Kippur was to enter the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctum of the Temple where both the Ark of the 10 Commandments and G-d were believed to reside. In order to enter the Holy of Holies, the High Priest went through all kinds of intricate purification rituals, and garbed himself completely in white. If the High Priest was ritually pure enough, he could enter the Holy of Holies and attain atonement for everyone, but if he didn’t meet G-d’s standards, the High priest would “get zapped” and die in the Holy of Holies. According to the Talmud, a golden string was attached to the High Priest’s ankle before entering the Holy of Holies, so that if he died, the other priests could pull him out.
According to the Talmud, the majority of the High Priests in the Second Temple period were ignorant and unworthy and bought their way to the position; some, in fact, got “zapped” on Yom Kippur. Only twelve High Priests served during the 410 years of the First Temple. In contrast, during the 420 years in which the Second Temple stood, there were only four righteous High Priests, and more than 300 others who did not even serve a full year.
Today, Cantor Jon Tepper and I are standing up here in continuity with these traditions. We wear white as a symbol of our ritual purity, and also as our burial shrouds. In contrast to Biblical times, when a goat was sacrificed to expiate everyone’s sins, today each of us is individually responsible for our atonement. The Yom Kippur liturgy provides us with language for this, and interestingly, much of our atonement is sung using joyful melodies, even in Orthodox synagogues.
In music there are two main types of chords, major and minor. Major chords have a brighter, more cheerful sound, while minor chords tend to evoke a sadder, more melancholy feeling in the listener. So what would you think, when I come on Yom Kippur before G-d and I say, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” You would think that that would be in minor…But for some reason, we come before G-d and we say I’m sorry I did this wrong and that wrong, and we chant it in Major!! We daven and pray and sing in major because we’re joyful that we’re in G-d’s presence, the presence of the Creator the world. If the Queen of England or the President of the United States walked in right now, would we greet them in major or minor? Of course it would be in major because we’re honored and privileged to be in their presence. So when I realize it’s my Parent in heaven, The King of Kings is who I’m praying to, I pray to G-d in major. So instead of saying Ashamnu Bagadnu (minor), I come before G-d on Yom Kippur and I say “ay yay yay yay ya yay ay dad a da day day day, I did this wrong, I did that wrong, but I know, that you’re giving me a chance to fix my mistakes, to become better, ay day day day day ay ay de da day day day ay de de day day day. That is major.
Even in the midst of our rehearsal of death, we offer joyful prayer. We continue to stand in awe of the great mysteries of life. The ancient sacrifice of the goats was a good, joyful thing for the Israelites. Similarly, just as watching the ritual slaughter of an animal may have been tough to watch, so too is it tough to hear all of our wrongdoings. But just as the ancient Israelites achieved atonement and cleansing with the sacrifice, so too do we achieve atonement and cleansing on Yom Kippur with our joyful melodies. On the day we rehearse our death, we embrace life.