By Rabbi Lisa Grant
How many here got to witness the solar eclipse in August? Wasn’t it amazing?! Was anyone in the “zone of totality”? Here’s what I heard from a couple of people who were. At 100%, it got completely dark and the temperature dropped more than 10 degrees. At 99%, it only went into twilight and got cooler, but not such a dramatic drop. How incredible that only 1% of the sun’s power still can keep the world in light. Where I was at 66%, I couldn’t discern any difference in light and could only experience it with the help of the magic NASA approved glasses.
For me, witnessing the eclipse with a group of students and colleagues who stopped everything to experience the wonder of the world together was a moment of holiness. In the midst of a retreat, we gathered beside a lake, with everyone lying down on the grass, gazing up as the moon crossed the sun’s path. The eclipse itself was an awesome, but natural phenomenon. We made it holy as we expressed our gratitude and delight together.
I imagine for some here today, the word “holy” seems like such a distant, maybe exotic, and otherworldly kind of idea. In the confessional spirit of the day, I want to tell you that I love this holiday. It brings me deep joy – not the happy clappy kind of joy, but a rich joy of connecting to my deepest self through prayer, fasting, and being in community. It contains all of the key elements of holiness that I feel provide me with inspiration, direction and faith. And that’s why I want to talk about holiness, on this day, that is described as the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. So I invite you to lean in a bit and explore with me how we might understand holiness in our time: How we feel it, how we live it, here in this room and much more importantly, once we go back out into the world after this day of prayer and reflection?
Kadosh, the Hebrew word for holy, connotes “separateness”, a way of distinguishing the ordinary from the extraordinary. It refers to a level of being beyond our material existence. Today, is a day apart from any other. In a paradoxical sense, as we separate ourselves from the ordinary, from the grittiness and frenzied buzz of the material world, we draw closer to each other, and maybe even to God. Bringing God into the picture may make this problematic for some. But, here’s the trick – while many of us may have a really hard time believing in a divine being separate from ourselves, I imagine that most of us would have an easy time affirming that justice, mercy, and goodness are divine qualities that we can all cultivate. We are holy when we embody those qualities in everything we do. As Rabbi Sheila Weinberg, one of my beloved teachers says, this idea is simple, but far from easy.
We know so well that there is so much that is unholy in our world right now. Even a partial list of nature’s chaos over the last few months is staggering: Desperate famine in Africa, two powerful earthquakes in Mexico, and of course massive devastation from multiple hurricanes slamming into Houston, Florida, Puerto Rico and across the Caribbean. And then we have the litany of human inflicted disaster - Horrific terrorist attacks in more countries that I can count. Ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar. North Korea launching missiles to taunt the world and our president escalating the rhetoric in response to a terrifying degree. The shocking, but sadly not surprising unleashing of white supremacy and anti-Semitism that has long been bubbling at the surface in our country. Unfathomable and insidious threats to health care, the rights of immigrants, gay, lesbian and transgender folks, undocumented residents – basically anyone who’s not white and heterosexual is being judged as not American enough to be trustworthy or worthy at all.
If you are thinking apocalyptic thoughts, you aren’t alone. The world just seems amiss, maybe like it did in the ancient world when people experienced an eclipse. Over two thousand years ago both Babylonian and Greek scholars were calculating the frequency of this astronomical phenomenon with remarkable accuracy. Despite their scientific abilities, both cultures still believed that an eclipse was an evil omen, a sign of God’s anger that would bring about the death of a king. They devised elaborate rituals to appoint a replacement king, hoping that the stand-in would suffer the punishment and the real king would be spared. Once the eclipse was over, the substitute king was killed. That probably made filling in for the king not such a popular job….
Hearing about this strange practice from so long ago may make the rituals described in our Torah portion today a little less strange. This year, we are reading from chapter 16 in the book of Leviticus, the portion read on Yom Kippur in many, many congregations around the world. It’s not the typical selection that we read here at Kolot, but it seems fitting for this moment in a world that seems so complicated, so divided, and threatening.
The chapter describes the Yom Kippur rituals of purification, sacrifice, and expiation of sin that the High Priest conducts on behalf of the entire community. It opens by describing how the High Priest and only the High Priest is to plead our case before God when he enters into the “Shrine behind the curtain,” the place in the Temple that we call the “Holy of Holies”. The holiness of the place is quite clear in the original Hebrew:
וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, דַּבֵּר אֶל-אַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ, וְאַל-יָבֹא בְכָל-עֵת אֶל-הַקֹּדֶשׁ, מִבֵּית לַפָּרֹכֶת-
Adonai said to Moses, speak to your brother Aaron and tell him not to go at any time to the Kodesh, the holy that is behind the curtain in front of the ark.
The next verse describes the correct time Aaron is to enter and what he is to bring: ג בְּזֹאת יָבֹא אַהֲרֹן, אֶל-הַקֹּדֶש: With this, Aaron should come to the Kodesh…
And verse following, describes the holiness of Aaron’s clothing, how he is to dress to present himself before God.
כְּתֹנֶת-בַּד קֹדֶשׁ יִלְבָּשׁ, he shall be dressed in a tunic of holy cloth
Holy space, holy time, holy being.
Holy, Holy, Holy.
In ancient times, I imagine witnessing the rituals surrounding the High Priest’s entrance into the Holy of Holies, was as dramatic and terrifying as witnessing a solar eclipse. It was filled with mystery, awe and the fear of not doing it right. Everyone believed that the fate of the community was at stake. This is powerfully underscored by the opening lines of the Torah reading that take us back to the tragic death of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, who were consumed by God’s strange fire when they offered a sacrifice in the wrong way at the wrong time.
Holiness at this particular moment of Yom Kippur is all about doing the right thing in the right place at the right time with the right intention. It is intended to be a peak experience of catharsis and transcendence. It is a holiness imbued with spectacle, high drama, meant to keep us at the edge of our seats. It is a kind of holiness intended to unite us in common cause.
But it also might be a kind of holiness that makes you uncomfortable and feels too far out of reach. It’s so foreign, so separate from everyday reality, so formulaic in its precision – To be sure, sacrificing bulls, splashing copious amounts of blood on the altar, and sending a scapegoat out into the wilderness are not the right technologies for drawing close to God in our day. And you may wonder how reading about the rituals can do anything about the many things that seem so unholy in our world.
Ritual alone can’t do anything to fix the world, but it can certainly do a lot to fix and inspire us. When done well, ritual elevates us, remind us of the potential for beauty, joy, goodness, and unity in the world. It also should serve to remind us of both the inner and outer work we need to do to care for each other and our broken world.
We no longer have priests who can atone on our behalf. Rabbis and Cantors are not substitutes for the priest. Those of us leading the service in different ways play an important role in creating the potential to transform this space and time into something holy. Outside, it is just Saturday. In here, it is Shabbat Shabbaton – the Sabbath of Sabbaths, holy time and space that we make by being together. But, each of us has to be a willing participant to experience the holy. We have to go all in so to speak. On some level we have to believe the words of the U’netaneh Tokef - that much is beyond our control, but that we can lessen the severity of the decree through seeking forgiveness, cracking open our hearts to sense the divine potential, and pursuing justice. When we recite the vidui, the collective confession of our sins, somehow we have to acknowledge the brokenness within us and the work of purification and atonement we need to do in here before we can go back out there.
Our liturgy on this day of separation intertwines ritual and moral action again and again. The message is powerfully asserted in the Haftarah we read where the prophet Isaiah condemns the people for ritual divorced from action: Fasting and prayer alone never bring about atonement for our sins. Rather, he claims a fast worthy of God is one that will “break the bonds of injustice, let the oppressed go free, one where we “share our bread with the hungry and take the homeless poor into our homes.”
The rituals and liturgy of Yom Kippur are intended to take us through a symbolic enactment of death and rebirth. Some of us dress in white and refrain from wearing leather – evoking Aaron’s holy garments as a reminder of that. Fully being present to each other and to God’s presence among us is a holiness that separates and elevates us beyond the material and beyond the mundane. But, when the day is over, we take our ritually cleansed selves back into our normal and imperfect lives and our imperfect world. That’s where the work really begins.
In the annual cycle of Torah readings, the passages about expiation and purification that we read today are followed immediately by what biblical scholars call the “Holiness Code,” a series of commandments that stipulate how we are to care for others in our everyday lives as a reflection of the godliness within us. We are repeatedly instructed to care for those less fortunate: Leave the corners of your field unharvested for the poor (19.9-10); don’t put a stumbling block before the blind (19:14); don’t degrade your daughter by turning her into a prostitute (19:29); stand up for and show deference to the aged (19:32); don’t wrong the stranger who lives among you (19:33), love your neighbor as yourself (19:19). Adonai says: “You (all of You) shall be Holy, because I, Adonai, your God am Holy.” The message is clear: the more we care for others, the more we bring God into the world, and the holier the world becomes.
The holiness of separation that we create through the rituals of Yom Kippur invite us to engage in deep self-reflection. And, we are continuously reminded even as we pray together, that the rituals are meaningless if they don’t change us somehow. Ritual practice and moral behavior are essential and mutually reinforcing aspects of holiness. We need them both, and we need to cultivate them both. They don’t just happen. On Yom Kippur, we separate ourselves from the world so that we can focus on the inner work of teshuvah, or repentance. We acknowledge that we have missed the mark in so many ways. We commit ourselves to do better. And, in asking God and those we have wronged to forgive us, in effect we forgive ourselves for our mistakes, missteps and shortcomings. Doing that inner work prepares us for the outer work we need to do when we come back to our lives, renewed, refreshed, ready to begin again, ready to do our part to help right a world that seems so out of whack.
The rituals of Yom Kippur are there to help us cultivate the wherewithal to work from the inside out – strengthening our souls to act morally in the world, more mindful, more joyful, kinder, closer to our deepest intentions, our purest selves. That’s a formula for holiness in the here and now that truly can make a difference for ourselves, our communities and our world.