As some of you might know, as a child I lived in six different communities. My father at the time served many different synagogues as a congregational Rabbi during my childhood before he became a full time academic. The places I lived were as far flung as Oklahoma City, Oklahoma and Norfolk, Virginia to more established Jewish communities in Baltimore, Maryland and Far Rockaway, New York.
In each new place, my parents tried their best to maintain some sense of continuity by arranging and decorating the home and the the rooms for myself and my younger brother, similarly. We never completely wiped the slate clean so to speak for each move, but tried to bring our lives, our traditions and certainly our stuff with us on our travels. One constant was no matter where my father was leading services, he would conduct the Yom Kippur tefillah the same way. I always marveled at his seriousness and how he would truly embody the solemnity of the day. One of my most favorite parts of the Yom Kippur liturgy to this day, is the Avodah service which we will recite shortly and that details the High Priest’s complicated ritual on Yom Kippur. In my father’s shuls, the Chazzan would recite the nusach in an undertone while my father would read aloud a dramatic English rendition of the service. I was always mesmerized by the detailed description of the ritual, of the High Priest, the Kohen Gadol, the Kadosh Kadoshim, the Holy of Holies, the scapegoats, the pieces of wool turning from red to white, the changing of garments and finally the ending, with the shining and triumphant face of the Kohen Gadol completing a very long day of hard work. The story of the Avodah for me has always held a little bit of mystery and magic and longing for the possibility of experiencing the Avodah again in my lifetime. It always had me wishing for the ability to go back to that time and specifically back to that place, the Holy Temple, the Beit HaMikdash.
It seems that all during Yom Kippur, the liturgy and the Torah reading point us to that particular place, the Beit HaMikdash, the Temple. We not only have the separate Avodah service but also the Keriyah, the Torah reading itself that we just completed which lays out that very service as it was first done during the Israelites’ second year in the desert. The Torah’s depiction then serves as the template for the service in the Temple itself. While most certainly this longing for the return to the Beit HaMikdash is present in our tefilah throughout the year, it is more pointed during today’s prayers. We lament even more fully for the absence of this place and our alienation from it.
While our sages certainly put a strong emphasis on that glorious place, there are hints in our tradition, that recognize the reality of a Judaism without that particular place. The Tanakh text itself provides a vision beyond any physical building for worship including the Beit HaKnesset, the synagogue. In the absence of the physical place, there would emerge something more personal, portable and transformative.
The first hints to this future reality come to us from the words of King Solomon, Shlomo HaMelekh in the first Book of Kings, when he dedicates the first Beit HaMikdash. Interestingly, the crux of his speech does not highlight necessarily the magnificent edifice he has just completed or delve into the complex sacrificial ritual but rather speaks of prayer and atonement. At the beginning of the speech, Shlomo declares the provenance for the Temple—that his father, King David, was promised the kingship line and that his son, namely him, Shlomo, was promised to finally build the Temple for Gd in Jerusalem.There would finally be a proper place for the Ark of the Covenant in the Kadosh Kedoshim, the Holy of Holies and there would finally be a unified singular gathering spot for the Jewish people.
While first extolling the virtues of this new magnificent structure, Shlomo then turns to Gd’s possibly (maybe even inevitaby) expelling the Jewish people from their home and away from the Temple itself because of their sins. Shlomo describes this future within an eye towards sin, prayer and forgiveness.
In the first book of Kings, Chapter 8, verses 46-50 it states:
מו כי יחטאו-לך כי אין אדם אשר לא-יחטא ואנפת בם ונתתם לפני אויב ושבום שביהם אל-ארץ האויב רחוקה או קרובה: מז והשיבו אל-לבם בארץ אשר נשבו-שם ושבו | והתחננו אליך בארץ שביהם לאמר חטאנו והעוינו רשענו: מח ושבו אליך בכל-לבבם ובכל-נפשם בארץ איביהם אשר-שבו אתם והתפללו אליך דרך ארצם אשר-נתתה לאבותם העיר אשר בחרת והבית אשר-בנית [בניתי] לשמך:
1 Kings 8:46-48 (JPS translation)
46″When they sin against You — for there is no man who does not sin — and You are angry with them and deliver them to the enemy, and their captors carry them off to an enemy land, near or far; 47 and then they take it to heart in the land to which they have been carried off, and they repent and make supplication to You in the land of their captors, saying: We have sinned, we have acted perversely, we have acted wickedly,’48 and they turn back to You with all their heart and soul, in the land of the enemies who have carried them off, and they pray to You in the direction of their land which You gave to their fathers, of the city which You have chosen, and of the House which I have built to Your name — ..
At the very outset, on the very opening day of the Beit HaMikdash, Shlomo envisions at new holy place, a new Makom Kadosh- and that very place is the heart of the human being. They, the Jewish people, will take it to their hearts, והשיבו אל ליבם and pray to Gd for forgiveness by saying those words which should be to all of us today, a very familiar refrain :
חטאנו, והעוינו, רשענו
We have sinned, we have acted perversely, we have acted wickedly
In the absence of a Holy physical place, Shlomo gives us a picture of a different Holy place—the place of our heart, of our inner being and personality. In the absence of Temple ritual, our ritual becomes as we describe our Tefillah today, an obligation of the heart. In the absence of a physical spiritual home, we are charged to put in order our own spiritual homes, to correct our own personal behaviors. We are commanded to acknowledge, before Gd, towards others and ourselves, to stop our destructive behaviors and to formulate a plan for a better path ahead. Once our houses are in order, only then can we begin to talk to Gd.
We know, however the sad reality, that for most of Jewish history, we have not had a Temple in Jerusalem. However, this did not prevent our sages from dreaming of Temple rebuilt. At the same time, however, they realized the the Holy Place, the Makom Kadosh, had to be someplace else for Judaism and the Jewish people to survive.
A beautiful story is related at the end of the Talmudic tractate, Masekhet Makot- (24ab)
וכבר היה ר”ג ורבי אלעזר בן עזריה ורבי יהושע ורבי עקיבא מהלכין בדרך ושמעו קול המונה של רומי מפלטה [ברחוק] מאה ועשרים מיל והתחילו בוכין ורבי עקיבא משחק And once, Rabban Gamaliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, Rabbi Joshua, and Rabbi Akiva, were traveling together in Jerusalem near the ruins of the Second Temple. They hear the sounds of the Roman legion from about 120 miles away. In the presence of the place of destruction and the noise from the Romans, most of the group proceeds to cry. But Rabbi Akiva, laughs. I always imagine that at this moment, Rabbi Akiva’s friends look at him and think, “truly, what is the matter with this guy?!!—and they ask him why are you laughing?” Rabbi Akiva responds and asks them why they are crying. The friends lament while looking at the Beit HaMikdash, a place so infused with holiness, that is now overrun with wild animals. A place that was the epicenter of Jewish life and Judaism itself, is now completely devastated. In spite of and perhaps because of, these dire circumstances, Rabbi Akiva is able to see a silver lining. He sees the destruction as not necessarily an end but rather a necessary piece of a greater prophesy. Rabbi Akiva defends his optimism by quoting a line from the prophet Isaiah (8:2) where Gd says, “..and I will take unto Me faithful witnesses to record, Uriah the Priest and Zechariah.” The Gemara continues- “Now what was the connection between Uriah and Zechariah? About Uriah, who was High Priest during the First Temple, it is written in the book of Michah (3:12)
“Therefore shall Zion for your sake be plowed…” , a verse that predicts the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem and subsequent exile of the Jewish people. . Regarding Zechariah, it is written (8:4), “There shall yet old men and old women sit in the broad places of Jerusalem.”- a verse that predicts redemption and complete peace in Jerusalem. Rabbi Akiva, then explains, ‘Until the prophecy of Uriah was fulfilled, I was afraid that the prophesy of Zechariah would likewise be unfulfilled.’
In Rabbi Akiva’s understanding, for the complete redemption to occur, it must be proceeded by a horrible destruction. That destruction has clearly happened thereby allowing Gd to redeem the Jewish people and Jerusalem. His friends then respond with the familiar refrain-
עקיבא ניחמתנו עקיבא ניחמתנו: Akiva, you have consoled us. Akiva, you have consoled us.
Rabbi Akiva, standing at the same place, the same Makom where Shlomo HaMelekh held his grand opening Temple ceremony, also sees beyond the actual place itself, beyond the physical Beit HaMikdash. While technically his biblical proofs may not necessarily line up chronologically, that isn’t really the point. It was not necessarily Rabbi Akiva’s specific Biblical citations that comfort his friends, but rather the manner in which he did so. By engaging these Rabbis in essentially torah study, the day to day work that they had been doing already, he was able to show them that even without a Temple, the Jewish people and Judaism would go on. From moving from the Temple to the Beit Midrash, the House of Study—to engage the mind and heart in Torah in any place where people can gather to study Torah—Jewish life and Judaism itself would go on in the hearts and minds of the Jewish people.
Now, the Makom Kadosh- the Holy Place- has moved from the Temple, to the study hall, the Beit Midrash, to the synagogue, the Beit Knesset, to finally residing in each and every one of us.
In light of this new understanding, what then is the meaning of sin? What then is the role, the purpose, of atonement? What is the meaning of our Avodah? How do we now perform the Holy service to Gd? What does it mean to enter our own, Holy of Holies, Kadosh Kedoshim?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his commentary on the Rosh HaShana machzor, understands sin as something that alienates you from your home, from you place and essentially from yourself. This exile coupled with one not being contained is the result of sin. He states: (p.590.Koren/Sacks RH Makhzor)
….A sin is an act that is not in the right place (Makom). The verb h-t-a, “sin,” comes from a verb “to miss the mark.” The word avera, like its English translation, “transgression,” means an act that oversteps the boundary….”
Sin, therefore disrupts your Makom Kadosh. Transgressions are those actions that make your house a mess with stuff spilling out all over lawn. With your house in disarray, you cannot move to holiness and you most certainly cannot talk to Gd. So what then is the purpose of atonement? By doing atonement, you have a chance to clean house. By engaging in self reflection through Tefillah, you have the ability to get your house in order.
James Kugel, in his book “On Being a Jew”, has a wonderful anecdote that marries these ideas of cleaning your house, containing yourself and tefillah and repentance. The book is structured as short conversations on various Jewish issues between a fictional Jew and his friend and echoes that of the Kuzari, the great medieval work by the poet Yehudah Ha-Levi, which records the imaginary conversations between a learned Jew and the King of the Kazars. In Kugel’s book, the exchanges are between a young banker Judd Lewis and Albert Abbadi, an older bank manager.
The young banker Lewis asks the older gentleman Abbadi on the true nature of Jewish prayer.
Mr. Abbadi explains as follows: (p.109-111)
‘Let me see how I can explain it to you…It has to do with two Jews, Klein and Gross. Gross is very fat-or rather, he overlaps his outline, like a child’s drawing…It is in this manner that Gross is fat, he overlaps , and as a consequence he is always getting in the way of himself. Even if he tries to whirl around very quickly and see what is behind him, all he will actually see is that part of himself that overlaps whirling around to meet him. Klein, on the other hand, is small. Not physically small, but discrete, held perfectly inside his own outline. And so he can see and walk about in a different way..
Mr. Abbadi continued-
‘Gross is the way we are. I do not know why it is so, perhaps it is connected to evolution, but it is the way we are. And it is a fine way to be, swashbuckling at times, save that it is quite unreal, this overlapping, and so hinders us from what is real…You wish to rush up to that which is kadosh, holy and pick it up and examine it. But this has never been done. Gross and kadosh cannot meet…What does it mean to Klein?…to fit within your borders and be small.
‘In the days of the Temple, one who wished to approach kadosh (holiness) had to be pure, and there were special purification procedures to be followed…And now that there is no Temple?
‘But I have told you about the Mishkan, have I not? And I told you how we immerse ourselves in Torah, and I have told you that our prayers are like the offerings that were made of old on the very altar. Do you see?’
Tefillah –prayer- and Teshuvah –repentance- are the tools that we have to bring us inside our lines, to help us clean house, to make our Makom, our personal place Holy so that we can then engage fully with the source of Holiness, with Gd.
What personal stuff do we need specifically clean up to achieve Holiness? If you consult the confessional, the Vidduy, that we are saying repeatedly over this Holy Day, it is striking that the vast majority of sins we confess are those bein adam l’chaveiro- those sins of bad acts that human beings do to one another. But, additionally, so much of list contains not necessarily actions towards other human beings but rather transgressions of bad behavior traits, those things that speak to one’s inner life and true essence- one’s place, one’s Makom. Once we correct ourselves with our behavior, and ONLY when those corrections are made, can we engage Gd and Holiness.
In addition to our Tefillah and Vidduy, we have another tool in our Yom Kippur toolbox to help us purify our personal Makom. Yizkor on Yom Kippur has a specific purpose that is slightly different than the Yizkor we say on other chaggim. Rabbi Sacks (Yom Kippur Makhzor, Koren, 757-759) points out that on Yom Kippur our prayers are not only for the living and their sins but also for the dead and their sins. Hence the other name for the holiday is in the plural, Yom Ha-Kippurim, the day of atonements. Rabbi Sacks goes on to note that with Yizkor , we employ our memory of o those loved ones from our past to shape our hope for the future. When we remember those who influenced our lives, we are using those connections to help make our future better. We can use the lessons of our ancestors to help us get our house in order so that we can come close to Holiness and make our futures better.
So, to paraphrase a song from the late, great Johnny Cash, I have indeed been everywhere, man. My husband has also been everywhere and between the two of us we have lived in 9 different Jewish communities. If you include our travels we have covered a good chunk of Mr. Cash’s list including: Chicago, Minnesota, Buffalo, Toronto, Tulsa, Ottawa, Oklahoma, Panama and Baltimore. (It is no accident that Noam and I have lived here for over 21 years and currently have absolutely no plans to move). However, no matter where any of us may go, we are all caretakers of our own Holy place, Makom Kadosh. We all have the ability, whether we are ‘cleaning challenged’ or a full blown neat-freaks like myself, to bring ourselves into our lines, to increase our capacity to improve ourselves, become Holy and reach Gd. Our tradition is forever hopeful and optimistic that each of us can do this work, can do this clean up. We can all access our personal Holy Place, our Makom Kodesh and make ourselves, those we care about and ideally the world around us, a better place.
May we all be zocheh, may we all merit a redemption of our personal Makom Kadosh that will hopefully lead to a complete redemption and the rebuilding of the Temple, speedily in our days.
G’mar chatimah tovah!