— posted in memory and honor of Jean Stapleton (1/19/1923 – 5/31/2013)
Yom Kippur Avodah Service, Fabrangen Havurah 5770
The High Priest’s Bull
In place of the machzor’s prologue to the Avodah Service, which begins in with “let there be light” and order out of chaos and closes with the establishment of Jewish sacrificial rites, I would like to offer an alternative introduction. [See Mahzor Hadesh Yameinu Renew Our Days a Prayer-Cycle for Days of Awe R. Ronald Aigen, ed., p.611]
One of the things I learned in preparing for this service this year is that the bull of the first sacrifice must be one that belongs to the high priest, not a communal offering. My children will tell you that most of what I say is not connected to any given topic in a “normal” way. I’ll surmise that the following memory offering would be more evidence for their position. In the spirit of the first sacrifice, though, it may not be connected to the Avodah service in a “normal” way, but it is mine.
I’m Trying to Talk to You
A television mother and daughter are in the kitchen of their small Queens, NY, household. “Ma, I have to talk to you,” announces the young woman, Gloria. “All right. I’m all ears,” Edith, the mother, responds. But Gloria is too distraught to speak and cries, “Well, I can’t start talking just like that.” So, the mother begins raising a range of topics from making gingerbread men to the closing of a nearby movie theater, carefully watching her daughter’s reactions. Frustrated, Gloria breaks in, “I am TRYING to talk to you,” to which Edith replies: “I’m just talking until you’re ready.”
In the next moments, Gloria begins to recount a painful experience. There is no doubt that Edith hears every word her daughter is saying, but she continues talking, recounting — as she takes her daughter in her arms — how her friend Mabel Hefner bought a new sofa but thinks it might be too dark for the room. So, details of upholstery choices and those of Gloria’s trauma are woven into a strange crescendo of sound in which mother and daughter, embracing in tears, finish speaking simultaneously.
This 37-year-old scene came to mind, no doubt, because it, like the Avodah service, was filed in my brain under “simultaneous speech.” In the Temple service for Yom Kippur and in the re-enactment we are about to commence, three times the high priest prolongs pronouncing God’s Name until the people have finished their response. But I think the TV scene has other connections to our service.
(Pertinent scene begins at 3:10 in video below.)
I Can’t Start Talking Just Like That
When I saw the TV show as a young woman, I recognized and was moved by Gloria’s struggle to speak. I was also moved, but kind of puzzled, by how hard Edith had to work just to remain present for her daughter’s revelation – Gloria was the one who’d been hurt, right? As a whole, though, the joint word-offering of the mother and daughter moved me to both laughter and tears and created a powerful memory that was stored away for decades. Thanks to YouTube, I was able to re-run this episode of “All in the Family” in preparation for today, and Edith’s struggle was no longer a puzzle to me.
Decades before I’d seen a rather goofy woman – it was, after all, a comedy — babbling irrelevancies while her daughter tried to share something difficult. Viewing the scene now, as the mother of young adults myself, I was in tears from the first moment Edith – in a lovely performance by the amazing Jean Stapleton – suspects that her daughter was harmed. This time, talking loudly about upholstery seemed as good a way as any for a mother to contain her own anxiety while creating the space her daughter needs to speak.
In actual plot-line, there’s no direct parallel between this television scene and the Avodah service. Neither Gloria nor Edith is confessing a sin or asking for forgiveness. Neither is making a sacrifice or pronouncing the ineffable name of God. But the basic arc that unfolds between mother and daughter —
“I’m all ears,”
”I can’t start talking just like that,”
“I’m just talking until you’re ready”
— is not unlike what takes place during this service and throughout the Days of Awe.
God, as well as individuals in our lives, may be “all ears,” today or any day, ready to hear about whatever it is that is weighing us down or interfering with our relationships. But we “can’t start talking just like that.”
the shofar sounding all through the month of Elul to awaken us
and the selichot (forgiveness) prayers to prompt us
and the hours and hours in Rosh Hashanah services.
We’ve had the intermediate Days of Awe
and then today’s prayers and readings
…all to suggest that we get ready.
But, still, my guess is that each of us has a thing or two that we’ve just not managed to say to whomever needs to hear it, even if only ourselves.
Approaches to the Avodah Service
Fabrangen, as I understand it, has never been quite sure how to handle this recitation and partial re-enactment of the Temple service. An array of teachings and alternative theater has been offered to replace or supplement the words in the machzor. And Fabrangen is not alone in its experimentation or discomfort. There are handouts circulating with sources on the practice of prostration, from another congregation struggling with this concept, which seems foreign to many Jews, given that bowing to the ground is unique to the high holidays in Jewish liturgy and restricted to the prayer leader or not practiced at all in many congregations. Moreover, arguments have persisted for millenia regarding the basic conditions required for atonement.
Some teachers, including Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi, taught that the rituals of Yom Kippur, or even the day itself, atoned for at least some transgressions, with or without repentance. Others, including Rabbi Ishmael, taught that rituals were ineffectual in the absence of repentance. There are also questions about individual versus communal atonement.
The 20th Century Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan understood the Avodah service as a reminder to cleanse our social and religious institutions of contamination caused by sin: whole-hearted recognition of individual responsibility for the quality of our communal institutions would restore the Divine Presence into our community life, in this view.
Contemporary Rabbi Diane Cohen likens the Avodah service to “taking all the baggage we carry with us, as individuals and as a community – the hurts, the losses, the uncertainty, fears and angers and frustrations—and somehow sending it off into the wilderness. Sort of like heading to Los Angeles and checking our bags to, say, Houston. And not bothering to ask the airline to trace them.” (Yom Kippur Readings, Dov Peretz Elkins, ed. Jewish Lights, 2005)
Other contemporaries consider the Avodah service to be as directly efficacious as was the Temple service in atoning for sins. However, as noted above, there was never agreement over how the ancient rites accomplished atonement in the first place.
Dimensions of Ancient Encounters
From the perspective that sees atonement as possible in the absence of complete individual repentance, the day of Yom Kippur and the machzor’s words of confession have power all their own. We will be recalling the high priests confessions for self and household, for “the children of Aaron, your holy people” — which, in the absence of a priestly class, we might understand as all those responsible for religious leadership — and for the entire House of Israel.
“Our challenge,” according to a kavanah on page 606, “is to explore through words the dimensions of our people’s ancient encounters with God” allowing “very ordinary words” to “carry us back to our people’s most extraordinary experience of forgiveness.”
Without confusing a sit-com kitchen with the Holy of Holies or Edith Bunker with God, it might be helpful to consider that Gloria’s burden was relieved when she was heard and gathered into a loving embrace within a space created for her to do that. Similarly, in this perspective, we are unburdening ourselves into unconditional forgiveness within a space created for us here by this service designed, like the ancient rites they recall, to remove the burden of sins, wrongs and transgressions.
From the perspective that requires personal repentance prior to atonement, it is possible that much of what goes on up here or is read from the machzor is less germane than our own articulation of whatever might be left to say. We might not be able to set things right with others just now. But there is much in the literature of atonement to indicate that taking the first internal steps toward teshuvah – return or reconciliation – helps create the conditions needed for atonement. There may be work yet to do in the outside world, but we can start now by beginning to articulate here whatever is left to be said. From this perspective, then, “We’re just talking until you’re ready.”
Regardless of theological perspective, we can begin with the words in the middle of page 606:
Help us, O God, to lift ourselves upon these very ordinary words that they may carry us back to our people’s most extraordinary experience of forgiveness, that we here today may draw near to You once more in awe and intimacy and great forgiveness.
For the blessings (beginning on p.611 in the Aigen Machzor), please
1) Join me in reciting the entire passages or
2) Just join on the “Baruch shem”/Blessed be the Name” line,
which was the ancient congregation’s response, or
3) use the entire reading to say whatever else needs saying.
Prostration: Falling vs. Moving Toward
There is a tradition for the leader and congregation to fall to their knees on the word khorim/kneel and to bring their faces to floor on the word mishtachavim/bow down. Notice that this recitation, unlike the text of the Aleinu, also includes the words “v’noflim al p’neichem”/fall on their faces. The paragraph through “l’olam va’d” or “forever and ever” is completed in this position by those who are able and choose to follow this tradition.
I learned in preparing this year is that some communities distribute paper or cloth to separate one’s head from the floor – for reasons relating to putting one’s head on stone outside the Temple. But I recommend using your prostration handout or something similar as a kind of focus point.
Muslims, who prostrate many times each day in their five daily prayers, say that one should clear a prayer space and focus on the spot where one’s head will later rest. In my very limited experience with this practice, intentionally moving toward a particular spot is a different prayer movement from simply dropping to the ground. Much depends on how you envision this “drawing near to God in awe and intimacy and forgiveness.” Dropping to the floor may be more in line with an image that works for you. If so, the paper can just separate your head from the floor.
The Three Confessions
READING 1, From Machzor page 613
Since the Temple was destroyed, no High Priest comes to serve our people. Yet the holy work continues though his position is no more. Each one of us as a Jew, a member of a priestly nation, is consecrated to Godly service. We confess our own sins and those of our households. All of us can help to bring our families and closest ones near to or estrange them from God. Though mortal and fallible, we mediate a grace and glory beyond our understanding.
READING 2, from Jewish Light’s Yom Kippur Readings, p.238. Shlomo Carlebach taught:
When children call their parents in the middle of the night, they just cry. They don’t even call, “Mother, Father….” They just cry.
How does it feel when a baby cries at night? It’s a taste of how God felt when the high priest was calling God’s name on Yom Kippur.
READING 3, from Jewish Light’s Yom Kippur Readings, excerpted from pages 233-234. Barry Holtz teaches:
We living after Aaron’s time and after the Temple’s destruction, have no drama [in the Avodah service]. We do, however, have the repository of language. For us the repetition of words and the challenge of prayer is the only route toward atonement. For us, then, Yom Kippur may be even more awesome, more frightening than for our ancient forbears. They could rely on Aaron and later on the priests. They had the power of the deed. We are left with the shadow of the deeds – the offering called language.
And when the high priest had entered in peace and left in peace, he offered prayers for the welfare of the people in the new year and in particular for the people of the Sharon, who lived in an especially vulnerable spot. In that spirit, I close with this:
May this year that is coming be one of abundance, building, compromise, dialogue, respect and understanding, a year in which all realize their interdependence and work together for the common good.
And concerning the inhabitants of Washington, DC: May it be Your will, Adonai, our God and God of our ancestors, that they find common ground on which to safely build in the days to come, so that the fault-lines of race and class do not become their demise.
And let us say: Amen.
(see also: High Priest’s Prayer for Those on Fault-Lines)