Monday, September 9, 2013

Eleh Ezkarah -- Sacrifice and Martyrdom

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is never an easy day. Fasting, however, is not the real problem. Rather, the day's challenge comes from its demand that we confront deep spiritual, theological, and philosophical issues we would often wish to avoid. We are asked to consider, for example: the tension between sin and forgiveness, the relationship between suffering and redemption, and the emergence of hope out of tragedy. The prayers and readings of Yom Kippur demand that we meditate on these themes as personal challenges, but present them to us in grand images on a mythic scale. The entire day is challenging but, the most challenging hour on Yom Kippur is the one dedicated to the Mussaf service.

It is early afternoon on the Day of Atonement and Mussaf is half over. The hazzan has just completed reading the lengthy poetic retelling of the worship service in the Beit HaMiqdash, the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. In our sacred imagination we left our synagogue and joined our ancestors in that most holy place as we participated spiritually in the worship service conducted by the Cohen Gadol, the High Priest, that carried our prayers for forgiveness and our hopes for a year of blessing to God.

We trembled with awe as the High Priest sent the scapegoat out into the wilderness symbolically carrying away our sins. Reverently we bowed low as the High Priest proclaimed the Holy Name of God as he beseeched the Eternal three times for forgiveness. The ancient sacrifices no longer seemed strange and off putting because we were in another place in another time.

Then our liturgy drew us back into our time and space. It jolted us, once again to face the great spiritual mystery that lies at the heart of the Yom Kippur experience: the tension between our propensity to sin and God's ceaseless offer of forgiveness, our experience of exile and God's promise of redemption. Although our transgressions destroyed the Holy Temple and brought its rituals to an end, the path to open our souls to God's gift of forgiveness and restoration remains unimpeded, particularly on Yom Kippur, the day set aside for prayer and reflection.

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