18th Elul - offering ourselves
We gather next month to engage in (and endure - start weaning yourselves from the coffee now…) the holiness of Yom Kippur, the most joyous day in the Jewish calendar. Joyous? Yes, indeed, for it is on this day that we are all brought once again to a state of spiritual purity within our holy community. Through our prayers and hopes for forgiveness, our own forgiving of others, and our support of each other, we renew ourselves as we step into the new year.
In ancient times, as you know, this was accompanied by an elaborate ritual of animal sacrifices – bulls and rams – done by the high priest. I am a diehard fan of this ritual, not that I think we should rebuild the Temple and start animal sacrifice. There is however, something unifying about the power of precariousness that functions in this rite. The priest, adn to a degree the rabbi who stands before the people also stands for them, and aside for them as he tentatively or confidently walks into the place resonant with the Presence and holds his life as hostage for his accuracy. Remember that he was kept awake for three days (not writing sermons at the last minute!) and so he must have been in quite an altered and hopefully ecstatic frame of mind.
Here is what the Zohar has to say about him, as he enters the Holy of Holies with a bowl brimming with blood to purify the altar and the people:
Zohar, Vayikra, Section 3, Page 102a
‘On this day the priest is crowned with superior crowns and stands between heavenly and earthly beings and makes atonement for himself and his house and the priests and the sanctuary and all Israel. We have learnt that at the moment when he enters with the blood of the bullock he concentrates his thoughts on the highest principle of faith and sprinkles [the sacrificial blood] with his finger… He began to count one, the first “one” by itself, one being the sum of all, the glory of all, the goal of all, the beginning of all. Then “one and one”, joined together in love and friendship inseparable.
The first ‘one’ is for the supernal unknowable and judgemental aspect of G!d. The second ‘one’ is for the attribute of compassion. So by counting and sprinkling, he unites the harsher and less accessible part of G!d with the universal, tender, accepting part of G!d. These simple acts, done even by our toddlers, to count, to flick, to explore the texture of liquid, lead to a much grander unity. At that moment, the world returns to the glory of pre-creation, with the added beauty of creation as a crown upon all.
Today we no longer use blood to help to affect this union – we rely on the depths of our hearts and the fervency of our prayer. It is the crown, the beauty of creation that all of us experience, and not the blood, that entwine the two parts of the Divine together. Nature is stamped onto our hearts at this season as we renew our wonder in the Creator and Her works.
Now, our very existence becomes essential for our own continuity – we no longer have the high priest as go-between, to collect and sprinkle the blood of atonement - at-one-ment: the unification of the aspects of justice and compassion. We have only our longing, our need to be free of the mistakes of the past, and to join together in the creation of the future. So we stand as the priest did, our hands not as clean as we might like them to be, and use the strength of our desire for change, for life, to effect a transformation and a unification. We do it in a group, so all become included, and thus all unified in the act of blessing, of bringing Divine compassion into being. Since we are all connected by the act, the liturgy, the scattering of crumbs and the invocation of our dead, The rite transcends the physical location and the moment of gathering, to encompass all of us who come in white garments, whether actual or figurative, to offer our selves as the unifiers of Truth.
Rabbi Elisheva Salamo Geneva RRC 1997