The Glorious Evolution of Yom Kippur

As the summer passes its midway point rabbis begin to think seriously about the coming Days of Awe. We know that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur provide us the largest congregations we are likely to see during the year.

It is a humbling and daunting task to attempt to craft messages that will resonate with those who come to worship.

Our hopes are high. We spend hours preparing what we hope might be life changing messages.

And yet, realistically, we know that the meaning the season of repentance will have for individual Jews depends more on what each of us is willing to do than on what even the most eloquent rabbi will say.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (and the entire month that precedes them) call on us to engage in serious reflection. If we take the season seriously it is an intense process of self-analysis and acknowledgment of our shortcomings and failures fueled by an earnest desire to change our actions for the better.

But it was not always that way.

In biblical times (Leviticus 23:24-25) Rosh Hashanah was simply a time to sound the shofar on the first day of the seventh month. Some scholars, notably the Norwegian Protestant theologian Sigmund Mowinckel (1884-1965), plausibly suggest that it was the beginning of a Festival of Enthronement. The Festival culminated on Sukkot with God triumphing over pretender gods and establishing the Divine reign for the coming year.

In the midst of this month long festival, Yom Kippur featured the ritual of the “scapegoat.” (Leviticus 16) The high priest selected two goats, one for a sacrifice on the altar and the other to symbolically carry the sins of the Children of Israel away into the wilderness.

As the Torah says: ‘And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the people of Israel … putting them on the head of the goat … and he shall send the goat off into the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:21-22)

Rabbinic literature attests that the person led the goat to a mountain peak and pushed the goat down. “Before it reached halfway down the hill it was dashed to pieces (B. Yoma 67a).”

Our modern sensibilities recoil at the notion that our wrongdoings can—even symbolically—transfer themselves onto an innocent goat whose death in the wilderness atones for our transgressions.

Today we are responsible for our own atonement.

We observe Yom Kippur by—if and only if our health permits—abstaining from food and drink. We then spend the day in serious contemplation of our wrongdoings and in prayer asking God to forgive our sins.

Our tradition (Mishnah Yoma 8:9) insists that before we can expect God to answer our prayers for forgiveness we must first go to those we have wronged in the past year and try to appease them.

My Hebrew teacher in Israel, the late Sarah Rothbard, whom I revered, said: “It is not just a credit to the Jewish people that we invented a day like Yom Kippur. It is a credit to all humanity.”

What a wonderful concept for all of us to embrace! We humans can examine our actions, repent our wrongdoings and change for the better!


The Best Possible Choice — Quick Comment: Parashat Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9- 30:19

One of the great innovations of Reform Judaism was changing the Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning when arguably more people will hear the Torah than any other.

The traditional portion is about the scapegoat from Leviticus, chapter 16. In that portion the priest symbolically transfers the sins of the people onto the head of an innocent goat that carries them away from the people out into the wilderness.

The portion our early Reformers substituted was a brilliant choice, a passage from Deuteronomy 29 and 30 that places responsibility for atonement and self-improvement squarely on our own shoulders. We cannot transfer our transgressions onto a goat.

The rabbis long struggled with the contradiction between the ideas of free will and of a God who knows everything that will happen.

The great medieval Sage Rambam (Moses Maimonides 1135-1204) wrote extensively on this question (Hilkhot Teshuvah, chapter IV). To summarize his view as succinctly as possible:

Everyone has free will to be righteous or wicked. But how can one always do as he or she wishes? Can we ever do anything with God’s permission?

Just as God wishes that fire and air ascend and water and earth descend, so God wishes humans to have freedom of will. Therefore, know that what you do is in your power, and you must give a reckoning

(If this seems confusing, the Rambam concludes):

Know that the human mind cannot apprehend or discover the real essence of the Creator.

 In the end the Rambam could only elaborate on the enigmatic Talmudic statement: ”All is foreseen yet free will is given.” (Pirke Avot 3:19)

For me that conclusion sums up why the Deuteronomy passage (culminating in 30:19) is perfect for Yom Kippur:

“See I have set before you this day life and death the blessing and the curse. Therefore choose life that you and your descendants may live.”

Our choices matter, and the Day of Atonement admonishes us to consider them as carefully as if our lives depend on them.