Next Year in Jerusalem: To Mend the World, Over and Over
What do Yom Kippur and the Passover Seder have in common? You would think, absolutely nothing. The former is a solemn fast day, a day of reflection and repentance; a day to “retreat” into a physical and spiritual wilderness. The Passover Seder, and the entire Passover Festival, is a feast of freedom and plenty. One holy day devotes itself to personal renewal, while the other is devoted to national renewal. Yet, the Passover Seder and the N’ilah service of Yom Kippur end (in some communities) with the same words: “next year in Jerusalem.”
This week’s portion Acharei Mot includes the detailed description of the very first Yom Kippur ritual, conducted by the very first High Priest, Aaron, in the wilderness of Sinai. The ritual, described in great detail, has changed dramatically over the centuries, yet its essence remains. It is a day of atonement for our sins. The original Passover rituals described in the Book of Exodus have also changed dramatically. This particular Shabbat, we prepare for Passover. It is Shabbat HaGadol (the Great Shabbat), as the words of the prophet Malachi foretell the coming of Elijah, the harbinger of the Messiah and the ultimate coming of the Great Day of Redemption. This is one of our more powerful haftarot; a vision for a future where parents and children must be guided and inspired by one another.
The coincidence of our reading on Yom Kippur with our Passover preparation this year aligns these two holy days, bringing them into sharp focus and contrast with each other. But even without this fascinating intersection, Yom Kippur and Passover remain in strong counterpoint to one another. One could say that they serve as mirrors for each other; each serving as a reflection and a deflection of the other. Each anxiously anticipates redemption; each goes to dramatic and elaborate “extremes” to fulfill the ritual: fasting versus feasting; intense introspection and abstinence versus multisensory celebration. One is intensely individual in the context of the collective, while the other is set in the context of family while commanding that each and every one of us see him- or herself as having been released from bondage.
Our holy days are not chronological, they are a spiral, in that they echo and intimate one another. Did you know there is a custom to keep the lulav, the palm fronds from the festival of Sukkot, and turn it into the broom that sweeps our chameitz out of the corners of our home on the night before Passover, only to then burn them all together in a neat little “campfire” on the morning of Erev Pesach (the night of the seder)? That is what my family does! But I digress, or spiral into another direction. Passover is one of our three Pilgrimage Festivals, as is Sukkot: each depicts our ongoing and everlasting journey from the wilderness to the Promised Land. Yom Kippur is the bookend of the Aseret Y’mei T’shuvah, “Ten Days of Return,” that start with Rosh HaShanah. They, too, are connected to the themes of wilderness and redemption.
The very first Yom Kippur is described in this parashah solely from the point of view of the series of sacrifices of the High Priest (Leviticus 16:1–34). One can practically imagine this drama unfolding in deep canyons of the Sinai wilderness. The Children of Israel are encamped near a small oasis, sheltered by the surrounding mountainous cliffs. Aaron steps in front of the entire people and brings one sacrifice after another. In silence, he performs his sacred duty. Unlike the Egyptian priests who served the dead and remained out of sight; Aaron is front and center, yet totally humbled by the weight he carries on this day. He wears the simplest of dress. The climax of the ceremony is not the sacrifice of a bull or ram, but rather the release of a goat into the far reaches of the desert. Two goats are brought before the assembly, one is chosen to be sacrificed, the other to be released. The goat to be released, “shall carry on it all their [the people’s] iniquities to an inaccessible region” (Leviticus 16:22). With its climbing up to the peak above the canyon, the people watch in fear and trembling as the designated priest takes this designated goat toward Azazel, which became known in our folklore as the place of demons, or a kind of hell. (Azazel is a Hebrew word meaning “scary place.”) But read our medieval commentator Rashi, writing in the lush vineyards of Southern France, and he translates azazel as “high cliff”!
I had to go out to the Sinai wilderness to see for myself. Sitting in a deep canyon surrounded by cliffs, I could imagine the goat winding its way up, only to be let loose with our sins, while the Israelites watched, knowing that this goat, and their sins, might indeed find their way back. Later on, in the Temple rite, the goat was taken out to the Judean hills and thrown from a cliff to guarantee that our sins would be wiped out!
Read the biblical description carefully; it is almost like a mysterious dance. The High Priest is in complete concentration and introspection—no words seem to be uttered out loud. Even when the High Priest Aaron confesses the sins, it is unclear whether this is spoken aloud or done in silence. During the time of the Temples in Jerusalem, the confessions were indeed said aloud.
Our Reform liturgy does not include this reading on Yom Kippur itself. Our machzor editors put in a reading from Deuteronomy instead. We reaffirm the Covenant, rather than walk through this story of animal sacrifice. I completely justify our editors, and yet, we have lost something.
We have lost the wandering in the wilderness, that necessary liminal state that moves us from bondage to freedom; expiation to renewal, from maror, “bitterness,” to the four cups of wine fitting for the feast. Yom Kippur demands that we act this out through fasting and self-denial, our bodies are transported to the wilderness, as it were; there, we are thirsty and tired. The power of the liturgy, especially at N’ilah when we have reached the gates, carries us to an uplifting spiritual state, the shofar blasts, signaling the work we must do to bring redemption.
“Next year in Jerusalem” is that charge: fasting or feasting, our goal is to mend the world, over and over.