Yom Kippur, as the Torah describes it, is a “restore device to original factory settings” button. It reformats the relationship between God and Israel, wipes our souls clean, and enables us to begin the new year bug free.
Unfortunately for us, the factory reset button is really hard to find, and requires a special kind of tool to reach.
It must be nice to live with the certainty of knowing exactly where we stand with our Creator, to know that, once a year, all of the bugs in the system are eliminated.
Our reality is of a world in which God is hidden. In our day, we live with tremendous uncertainty. It seems like we never know where we stand.
The Bible begins with God actively involved in history. In the beginning, we find God creating the universe, walking about in the Garden of Eden, speaking to Patriarchs and Matriarchs, defeating Pharaoh and leading the Israelites into freedom. Then God gradually steps back. By the time we reach the Book of Esther, God is not even mentioned, and the fate of the Jewish people lies entirely in the hands of human heroes, villains, and fools. Sound familiar?
Towards the end of the biblical era, and certainly into the Rabbinic period, our ancestors’ experience of God becomes much like our own in the present. We, and they, pray to a God whose Presence is hidden in our world. We follow a covenant that establishes our relationship with a God who never communicates directly with us. We never receive clear affirmation that we are doing the right thing. Our relationship with the Divine is intangible.
In contrast, the biblical narrative that serves as the basis for Yom Kippur presents a relationship to God that is extremely tangible. The Torah portion we read on Yom Kippur describes it in great detail how the High Priest’s ritual maintains a healthy relationship between the Jewish people and God.
Over the course of the year, the sanctuary becomes polluted through sin, preventing God’s Presence from dwelling among the nation. Only the High Priest has the ability to clear the sanctuary of its spiritual contamination. The ritual involves: sacrificing goats, bulls, and incense; making formal confessions; wearing special clothes; sending a goat off into the wilderness; and entering the Holy of Holies. When the High Priest does everything correctly, God washes the stain of impurity away from the sanctuary. The Israelites are now pure before Adonai, so God’s Presence can return into their midst. The relationship returns to its perfect state as if nothing has happened. Factory reset.
From the Torah’s perspective, this is no metaphor. It is real. The stain of sin is tangible. The ritual literally scrubs it away. It really works.
How comforting it must have been to know where one stands in the universe, to know with certainty that we have done everything that God expects of us!
Yom Kippur is the one day of the year on which I feel reasonably confident that I have done everything I am supposed to do. Pray – check. No food – check. No drink – check. There is nothing in either my or God’s to-do list that I have forgotten.
Every other day of the year, I truly do not know where I stand. It always feels as if there is so much more to do. It seems like nothing is certain and there are no definitive answers to the questions that really matter.
Have I taken the right path? Did I marry the right person or choose the right career? Have I paid enough attention to the people I love? Have I given my children enough to succeed in life? Have I donated enough to tzedakah? Have I worked hard enough to improve the character flaws that I see in myself? Have I been kind enough to other people?
Have I done what God expects of me? Has my teshuvah been accepted? Has God forgiven me? For that matter, does God exist, and if so, does God even care?
Today, we have no ritual to reset everything. The “restore system to original factory settings” button is hidden where we cannot find it. We are never fully certain about where we stand.
This creates tremendous spiritual and moral anxiety – and there are psychological implications to this. We feel that we have never done enough. We beat ourselves up over our flaws. We are tormented with guilt. And no matter how hard we try, we can never truly know if we have fixed things.
The idea of atonement, the wiping clean of our souls, allows us to move on. But if the question of God’s forgiveness is always a mystery, how can we ever move on?
This is not a new dilemma. It became an issue already during the time of the Second Temple. In the Yom Kippur ritual, the High Priest would draw lots to determine the fates of two male goats that were brought before him. One was selected to be sent off into the wilderness as the scapegoat, to carry away the sins of the people. He would tie a red string to the horns of the fated animal.
The Talmud (BT Yoma 67a) explains that there was a matching red string that was tied to the entrance of the sanctuary. There was a kind of wireless signal between the two strings. If the sins of the people were forgiven by God, both strings would turn white, and everyone would rejoice. If the strings remained red, the people would be sad and ashamed, because they knew that God had not forgiven them.
Some time later, the Talmud reports, the string was transferred to the inner part of the sanctuary, where the public could not see it. Nevertheless, people continued to peep through.
To solve that problem, they sent the second red string out with the attendant who led the goat out into the wilderness. There, with nobody around to watch, he would tie it to a rock before hurling the goat off a cliff. He was the only one who knew what happened to the string.
Why did the location of the second string have to change? People really wanted to know what happened to the string. They wanted to know if the ritual worked. Red or white?
But did the strings really change color? It seems that those in charge, and we do not know who it was, wanted to protect the people from the knowledge that there were, in fact, no physical signs that atonement had taken place. The burden then shifts to the scapegoat attendant to report on the fate of the string. We can only imagine the pressure he must have been under to come back with a white report.
This was a paternalistic approach to the problem. We do not know who was making the decisions to move the red string, but it seems that “they” felt that the people needed to be protected from the despair of not knowing where they stood with God. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” the wizard shouts desperately to Dorothy and her companions.
At some point, however, the curtain falls and we all must deal with the uncertainty of our existence.
So does that mean that we ignore what the Torah says about Yom Kippur? Of course not. We do with it what we have done so well with all of our holidays. We transform it. It is the Don Draper strategy: “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.”
A story is told of a High Priest, a direct descendant of Aaron, who came out of the Temple one year to throngs of excited people surrounding him. But then the proto-Rabbis Shemaya and Avtalion appear, the two greatest scholars of the generation, who are said to be the descendants of pagans. When the people see them, they abandon the High Priest to follow the Sages. Shemaya and Avtalion eventually pay their respects, and the High Priest blesses them: “May these descendants of heathens, who do the work of Aaron, arrive in peace, but the descendant of Aaron who does not do the work of Aaron (i.e. the priest himself), he shall not come in peace!”
It is a nice story if you are a Rabbi, to have a High Priest acknowledge that it is the study of Torah which best transmits the legacy of Aaron, the original High Priest. More so even than the Temple ritual itself! (BT Yoma 71b) It establishes the primacy of Rabbinic Judaism over Temple Judaism.
Our own Yom Kippur services take the ancient ritual and reinterpret it. During the Avodah service, which occurs during musaf [in a little while], we reenact, in moving poetry, the Temple service, with the Cantor playing the role of High Priest. Every detail is captured. The most uplifting part comes at the end, in a song called Mar’eh HaKohen, the Appearance of the Priest. It describes how ecstatic, exalted, even glowing, was the High Priest when he emerged from the Holy of Holies. He is so overjoyed and relieved to have successfully performed all of the rituals and restored the relationship between God and the Jewish people that he throws a big party for his family, friends, and everyone he knows. It is simply glorious.
Another poem immediately follows: Ashrei Ayin – “Happy is the eye that saw all these,” it begins by listing the marvelous experience of witnessing Yom Kippur in the Temple. But then it sounds an ominous note: “For the ear to hear of it distresses our soul.” While it may have been incredible to have been part of the ancient drama, those days are over. The memory of that loss brings only anguish to our souls. Instead of partying with the High Priest, we have six more hours of fasting.
Then we turn to Eylah Ezkerah, the martyrology. We recall ancestors who were murdered for their faith, pious individuals who died for God and Judaism. It is almost an “in your face, God” kind of moment. “Where were You, when those who loved You were being slaughtered?” It starkly raises the uncertainty and injustice of our broken world.
Leviticus is now seen as a metaphor. Maimonides, in the 12th century, goes so far as to say that God does not even want animal sacrifice. The Torah merely grants it as a concession to human beings in the ancient world who did not know any other way.
In a world without a Temple, we have other ways to accomplish the same tasks. Our texts credit prayer, acts of lovingkindness, tzedakah, and teshuvah as equal, if not better, than animal sacrifices. It turns out, we have not lost our ability to restore our relationship with God after all. In fact, our relationship with God may be even stronger.
This is what we call, “putting the nail in the coffin.” When we start to memorialize the good old days, it means they are over and we are ready to move on. While the rabbis speak wistfully and longingly of the days of the Temple, they much prefer their model of Torah study and a portable, community-focused Judaism that can be practiced anywhere that Jews gather together.
So how do we accomplish today what the High Priest once accomplished in the Holy of Holies? We need a faith that enables us to live with certainty in an uncertain world. We need to find a way to perform, if not a full factory restore, then at least a “soft reset.”
Our Jewish tradition has been struggling to find a middle path between despair and extremism for more than two thousand years. Not surprisingly, several approaches.
Yeridat Hadorot means “the decline of the generations.” It is the idea that the further in time we get from the revelation at Mt. Sinai, the more we decline spiritually and in our proximity to God. The destruction of the Temple and the negation of the Temple Ritual nearly two thousand years ago, therefore, signify the growing chasm between us and God.
A Mishnah (Sotah 9:16) describes the deterioration of Judaism as various second century Sages pass from the world:
When R. Meir died, the composers of fables ceased. When Ben Azzai died, the assiduous students [of Torah] ceased… When Rabbi Akiva died, the glory of the Torah ceased… When Rabbi Ishmael ben Fabi died, the luster of the priesthood ceased. When Rabbi [Yehuda the Prince] died, humility and fear of sin ceased.
It goes on to describe how the situation falls apart after the Temple is destroyed in 70 CE.
From the day the Temple was destroyed, the Sages began to be like school teachers, school teachers like synagogue attendants, synagogue attendants like common people, and the common people became more and more debased; and there was none to ask, none to inquire.
“So upon whom is it for us to rely?” the Mishnah concludes, “Upon our Father who is in Heaven.”
The good old days are over, and our task is to maintain faith while things continue to deteriorate. Eventually, when things cannot get any worse, the Messiah will come to redeem the world, restore everything to its proper place, and bring certainty back into our relationship with God – the ultimate factory reset, and upgrade.
It is not a particularly happy message. Far more appealing is the narrative of “we stand on the shoulders of giants.” Our knowledge is constantly increasing. Our understanding of Torah continues to expand. We are always building on the successes of our predecessors and striving for more.
Although the process had already begun, the destruction of the Second Temple forced the Rabbis to deal with the reality of a hidden God. For Judaism to survive in a post Temple world, the conversation had to be changed.
The old narrative that relied upon the ritual of the High Priest was gone, and something new would have to replace it. We needed a way to wipe the slate clean and start over with the certainty that we had been forgiven. So if there is no longer a red string to turn white, no goat to throw off a cliff, and no High Priest to sacrifice a bull, who will take over the ritual?
Answer: we will.
This is what the Rabbis do. They add the element of personal teshuvah to Yom Kippur. Instead of relying upon a High Priest to perform the ritual for us, the burden falls to individual humans. The Mishnah teaches the following:
If one says: I shall sin and repent, sin and repent, no opportunity will be given to that person to repent. [If one says]: I shall sin and Yom Kippur will procure atonement for me, Yom Kippur procures for him no atonement.
It may seem obvious to us that we need to be sincere about repentance, but nowhere in the Torah’s description about the Temple rite does it say anything about hypocrisy. According to a plain reading of the Torah, atonement is automatic as long as the High Priest does his job correctly. The Rabbis, in changing the conversation, made this part up.
They continue their reinterpretation by taking away God’s ability to forgive fully half of our sins:
For transgressions between a person and the Almighty, Yom Kippur procures atonement, but for transgressions between one person and another, Yom Kippur does not procure any atonement until one has appeased one’s friend. (Yoma 8:9)
The Talmud expands on this idea, explaining that if one person angers another, it is not necessarily the case that he will be forgiven. I depend upon the person I have wronged for forgiveness. I am at her mercy. But with God, it is another story.
… with the Holy One, if a person commits a sin in secret, God is pacified by mere words… And not only that but God even accounts it to that person as a good deed… And not only that but Scripture considers it as if that person had sacrificed a bull. (BT Yoma 86b)
In other words, God is a sure thing. All we have to do is ask – with sincerity of course.
When we do manage to appease one another, then God steps in to finish the process by wiping our souls clean. That part is also automatic. The uncertain part is each other.
Notice that the ability to grant atonement has effectively been taken away from God and granted to human beings. It depends on us working with one another to repair our relationships. It depends on us asking each other for forgiveness, and forgiving when we are asked. God’s role is to affirm what we are able to accomplish with one another. The hard work of Yom Kippur is in our interpersonal relationships. The factory reset button is relocated into our own hearts.
So instead of trying to sneak a peak while an austere man robed in white performs the rituals, we all come together as a community of High Priests. Success depends on whether we manage to repair our relationships with each other.
At the end of the day, during the final service of Neilah, the atmosphere in the synagogue changes. Everything feels lighter. An aura of glorious radiance fills the room. Despite the chaos out there, we stand together in here, certain in this moment.
We have created that moment by coming together, and God responds by wiping our souls clean, affirming the hard work we have done. Factory reset accomplished.