The image of these Holy Days wafts toward us, again and again, in many different guises. When I think of these Yamim Nora’im, one of the strongest images I have is of our cantor, starting at the back of the room and marching up to the Ark, taking upon herself the burden for wafting our prayers to heaven with her own voice. As she marches up with a look of rapture on her face, a look of joy and solemnity, I sometimes wonder if she is actually going to stop when she gets to the Ark. She looks like she’s about to crawl in, but thus far, she has retrained herself.
At other moments I think about the procession of the Kohen Gadol, the high priest in ancient days in Jerusalem: how he would wander through the neighborhoods of the holy city until he finally arrived at Mt. Zion, how he would ascend the steps leading to the Temple – Shir Ha-Ma’alot – the Song of Ascent. Those psalms are choreographed in the number of verses to correspond to the number of stairs leading up through the southern part of the Temple Mount into the Temple courtyard. From there he would proceed from the courtyard of the women to the courtyard of the priests. And from the courtyard of the priests he would enter into the courtyard, and finally into the Holy of Holies, the Kodesh Kodashim, where he would stand alone to commune with God.
During these holy days, I think again of the cycle of our reading of the Torah: how we begin, in just a few weeks, with the creation of the universe and then the beginnings of our people, our enslavement in Egypt, our miraculous liberation, our marching through the wilderness until we get just to the border of the land of Israel, at which time we start over again, never quite arriving at our final destination.
And at this time of year I think of our lives: how each of us is a pilgrim on a journey, each of us on the way. we never really know our destination, and we never really arrive either. We just keep going on the journey. This season is life in miniature; life concentrated. From the time of the beginning of the month of Elul, until tomorrow evening when we blow the Shofar for the last time, we reenact those pilgrimage journeys: The journey of the high priest into the Holy of Holies; the journey of our people from Mitzrayim to the very borders of the land of Israel; the journey of our life from our birth to this day.
Think of this season for a moment: our ascending intimacy, our crescendo of closeness with the Divine. Elul launches this period; we are told that the month of Elul is an abbreviation for the words Ani le-dodi ve-dodi li (from Shir ha-Shirim – I am my beloved, and my beloved is mine). Like the rapture we witness on our cantor’s face as she proceeds through the congregation towards the beloved Sefer Torah – the fount of our existence, the nourishing spring of our people – we too glow with love in the month of Elul, hoping that yet again we will be our beloved’s. So this season begins languidly: You don’t want to start a romance too quickly; you don’t want to frighten off your beloved! Those still looking for a lover, take note.
Our life doesn’t change very much during the month of Elul, except that we sound a Shofar at the end of morning worship each day, reminding ourselves to pay attention; to wake up a little bit, to rouse our souls just a little more, to focus on our lives and our unattained aspirations.
With the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah, and its late night service of Selichot, we serve our Lover a candlelit dinner: intimate, quiet, when the world has gone away. There we present the highlights of the holy day liturgy. Those of you who attend the Selichot services know that you got the best hits of the Yamim Nora’im, all crammed into a very short service. With the advent of Selichot, we accelerate the pace of our journey as we begin to say special penitential prayers every morning at services, continuing to blow the Shofar, but knowing that very, very soon something big is about to culminate. The period of Selichot, is comparable to when the Kohen Gadol reaches Mt. Zion. He is about to enter the doors, he is about to advance into the outer courtyard of the Temple, but he is not quite there yet. It remains a time of anticipation and of hope. And frankly, a time of some anxiety, as the people Israel hope that the High Priest doesn’t betray his mission.
And then, Rosh HaShanah! The day arrives an occasion on which God’s presence is perceived to be that much closer. We are finally within the walls of the courtyard; we are standing in the outer courtyard, the gate is behind us, and we signify our progress with a subtle shift in the liturgy. Every day when we recite the Amidah we call God Ha-El Ha-Kadosh – the Holy El (God). But from this day on, from Rosh HaShanah through the end of the season, we label God Ha-Melekh HaKadosh – the Holy Majesty. Some people who don’t understand our tradition think that term signifies that God is further away from us; elevated and separated the way Monarchs generally are. But queens and shahs and czars don’t hold a candle to our Majesty! Jewish tradition teaches us that “El” is actually the term we use for God when God is most abstract, most removed from the daily fluctuations of our lives. But the Talmud says that there is no such thing as a sovereign without a people, so when we label God “Melekh,” it is because God is in our midst, because God’s presence is felt to be that much more palpable and present this time of year.
During Rosh HaShanah God is not contemplated as some philosophical abstraction. God is no rarified doctrine of theology to which one assents or not. No! from Rosh Ha-Shanah on, God is our sustaining partner in the living of our lives, in the shaping of our communities, and for that very reason God is Melekh, the way David was Melekh. King David danced in our midst, and so (so to speak) does God! We now stand in the Courtyard with our divine Majesty, savoring this greater intimacy. But there remains some distance. On Rosh Ha-Shanah, there are no Selichot (penitential prayers), no Vidui (confession), there is no beating of the chest. We haven’t risked true intimacy yet. We haven’t gotten that personal. That is why the process of t’shuvah that occurs during Rosh Ha-Shanah is called hirhur t’shuvah – merely the thoughts of t’shuvah. There is no formal requirement; there is nothing one has to do or recite. Rosh HaShanah barely mentions repentance at all.
But the day of real intimacy is soon upon us, and that day is Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur, we are told, is the Shabbat Shabbaton – the Sabbath of Sabbaths. On that day we are at last inside the inner courtyard, the courtyard of the priests. We are standing with our brother Kohanim, ready to serve, dressed in white, like the very angels we are at this moment. And standing here, we move to real t’shuvah, to real intimacy, to profound repentance. So our liturgy blossoms in a Ashamnu, in Vidui, in thinking about the ways that we as individuals and as a community have yet again fallen short; yet again betrayed our highest callings.
Of our tradition I have little criticism. Of Torah, I have nothing negative to say. Of us, unfortunately, there remains an enormous gap between the very highest values of Jewish tradition – the mitzvot that God has laid out for us, and the way we squander our times and live our lives. We fall short. And so we move, the rabbis tell us, from the main spirit of Rosh Ha-Shanah and Elul, which is pachad, fear, to yirah, which is reverence and awe. And the rabbis tell us that contained within yirah, contained within reverence, are the sprinklings of ahavah; the dew of love. Think how you felt in the presence of a grandparent that you revered; in the presence of your mother or your father whom you adored. You might have been nervous when you were summoned to speak with them, but that nervousness contained great devotion. That is the spirit of Yom Kippur. We have been summoned by Avinu Sheh-ba-shamayim, our heavenly parent. God is with us. We are in God’s presence, and there is the yirah that has within it the sprinklings of love. On that day, especially, we are in the Holy of Holies. And on rare intervals, it gets even better – it is not only the Sabbath of Sabbaths – Yom Kippur itself. Sometimes we experience a Yom Kippur on Shabbat – a Sabbath of Sabbaths of Sabbaths! On Yom Kippur on Shabbat we don’t recite Avinu Malkenu. Why not? What is the one place where a child does not cry out for mama? That one place is in its mama’s arms. The one place you don’t call out “father”, abba, is when your daddy is holding you. And so on a Yom Kippur on Shabbat, finally nestled in God’s embrace, we don’t need to call out “Avinu Malkenu” because we are held, we are hugged, we are loved. On the Shabbat Shabbaton of the Sabbath, the Sabbath of the Sabbath of the Sabbath – we feel that embrace. We move from yirah – from reverence – to ahava, to love.
On such a Yom Kippur day we are at our most intimate with the divine. In Kabbalah, in Jewish mystical tradition, we are taught to think about God’s manifestations as Sefirot, as 10 different ways that God relates to the world. And they are pictured as a tree of life, but cascading downward. So each one of the sefirot highlights a different aspect through which God relates to the world, through Din/Judgment, through Hesed/Love, through Tiferet/glory, Hod and Hadar, different ways of saying beauty, Yesod/foundation, and Malchut/presence. In each of these different guises, God pours out shefa/abundance into the world.
According to the Kabbalistic tradition, God’s evaluating does not pertain above the seven lowest Sefirot. The upper three Sefirot are above judgment. God’s true nature is not as a judge, just as the way there times as parents where we pretend to be angry and stern, when in fact we are trying very hard not to smile. So God occasionally has to pretend to judge and evaluate, so our tradition tells us. But at God’s highest nature, God offers nothing but acceptance; nothing but being in God’s presence. So too when we are most ourselves, then we also rise above the pettiness of judgment; the need to criticize each other; the need to feel embarrassed by how we might come across in public; the need to make a big splashy impression. This is our smallness; this is our lowest being. But our highest being, our truest being, our most God-like being, is beautiful and accepting, ennobling and welcoming.
On a day that is the Sabbath of Sabbaths of Sabbaths, we are invited to our greatness. We are invited to be luminous, shimmering, beautiful angels; to attend not to the needs of our bodies, but the needs of our hearts; the need to sing and to dance and to hug and to love. That is what Yom Kippur is all about. God has been marching towards us from Elul through Selichot, closer at Rosh HaShanah, closer still – a hair’s breadth away at Yom Kippur, and on a Yom Kippur Shabbat we embrace a passionate love-fest – us and the Holy One. We show God our best selves; our most embracing; our most loving; our most resilient.
The great Russian/Jewish author S. Ansky wrote a drama called The Dybbuk – a fabulous play about what it means to be truly human. He once noted in The Dybbuk that on Rosh Ha-Shanah you have the convocation of the holiest person of the community, on the holiest day of the year, into the holiest place in the world. When the holiest person, and the holiest place, and the holiest time – when they come together, then anything is possible. Ansky writes:
Every spot whereon a person may stand and lift eyes to Heaven becomes a holy of holies. Every one, whom God has created in God’s own image and in God’s likeliness, is a high priest. Every day of a person’s life is a day of atonement, and every word that a person utters with a whole heart, is the name of God.
On this Sabbath of Sabbaths of Sabbaths, I greet you, one Kohen Gadol to another, I pray that where your feet stand is the holy of holies, and that every word that comes from your mouth is God’s name.