This morning’s Torah portion consists of the instructions for the service of atonement that would performed by the High Priest in the tabernacle on Yom Kippur. The Rosh Hashanah portions are narratives from Genesis, stories of the morality and values from our Matriarchs and Patriarchs. The shift to the ritual descriptions of Yom Kippur, especially for rituals we no longer follow, brings into sharp focus the relationship between ritual and ethics. Both are equally important, but neither means anything Jewish unless they are used together. Our Haftarah similarly draws this into focus, as the voice of Isaiah is used to describe God’s disappointment in empty rituals.
All year we are hopefully doing our best to be good people. We try to do right, and when we mess up we apologize. We try to learn from our mistakes and move forward with our lives. We try to find time in our busy personal schedules to give back to our communities, to volunteer our time or donate our money to tzedakah. We try to be reflective and sincere with our words. But we cannot do these things all the time, and the High Holy Day season is a particularly convenient time to focus on these things. The New Year is when we take the time for serious self-reflection, to wipe our slates clean and return to our best intentions, to recalibrate our lives and values, to apologize to those we’ve done wrong, including ourselves, to give to charities, to set resolutions to do better in the year to come.
Not everyone feels the need to come to services, but for those here, clearly you find some value in it. For those friends who cannot or choose not to be here, ritual probably is more significant than they maybe know for themselves as well. Lawrence Hoffman writes in The Art of Public Prayer, “Ritual is how we play out prearranged scripts of behavior to shape specific durations of time,” and that can play out in many different ways. It might be coming to services and praying. It might mean fasting. It might just mean joining with your whole community for a meal, even if you weren’t fasting. It might mean recreating your own Tashlich ritual, or writing New Year’s resolutions, at Rosh Hashanah or on January 1st. Though our personal rituals may differ, we all need them. They help us mark time, and infuse particularity and meaning into certain days or specific events of our lives.
On Yom Kippur, we cleanse our souls. We purify our hearts. This is ritual and ethical. They are inextricably linked on this day. Teshuvah and Tzedakah are necessary not only for Jewish values, but for all people who value honesty and kindness towards others. To do these things better, we need to take the time to cleanse our souls and purify our hearts. We need to clear the air for all the wrong we’ve done in the past year so that we can move forward. We need to feel at peace with ourselves so that we can find the energy to try harder in the year to come. When children are told that they are bad or stupid, they start acting like it. Likewise with adults. If we believe we have become too corrupt, we will stop even trying to act benevolently. If we believe we can cleanse our souls, be absolved of past evils, and move on, we will continue through the year in gratitude for forgiveness and with efforts to spread goodness.
On Yom Kippur in days of old, the atonement came for all the people when the High Priest sacrificed animals on their behalf. He had to make expiations for his own sins first, and for those of his household and family, then once he was cleansed he could make the sacrifices on behalf of all the people. Today, we don’t have a High Priest or animal sacrifices. I can’t make expiation for you. You have to do the work yourselves, to apologize to those you’ve wronged, to ask for forgiveness from your friends and family, from the Divine, and from yourself. You fast so that you might feel the affliction of those you have hurt or whose oppression you may have contributed to, even if you didn’t realize it. You fast so that you know to take this day seriously. You pray, whether here in services or in moments of quietude with between your own soul and your vision of the Higher Power, so that you can better communicate with that which makes you a better person. We need these rituals to give meaning to our efforts to repair the world, and we need to be earnest about repairing the world to give meaning to our rituals. They are inseparable.
I’ve spoken quite a bit this holiday season about wanting to carry the spirit of Teshuvah, Tzedakah, and Tefillah with us through the whole next year. Take a moment now to feel the hunger of your fast, to understand the meaning of the sacrifices we still make on this day. Now that you are fully in touch with that feeling of hunger and sacrifice, and its connection to Tikkun Olam and sincerity, I hope you carry that with you through the year. Every time you are hungry, take a moment to appreciate how near to food you really are, and take the next opportunity to volunteer at a soup kitchen or donate to Mazon: The Jewish Response to Hunger, or at least volunteer to help make challah for the next Shabbat. Giving back to the community starts at home, and your friends get hungry, too. Every time you feel the Yom Kippur-esque feelings of contrition, be sure to voice them, ask for forgiveness on the spot. Don’t wait for Yom Kippur to come around again, but start right away to fix what you have broken. Every time you feel worried about what may be wrong in the world, do something to make it better. You won’t be able to end all the world’s problems, but you can always do something to improve it. Think of The Starfish Story, and just starting throwing them back in one at a time.
And when we get to the High Holy Day season of 5777, may we find our rituals meaningful, our hearts and actions purer, and our world a little more peaceful. Amen.