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.
Now, just as we are about to offer thanksgiving for this life-affirming, life-sustaining gift, our liturgy confronts us with another kind of sacrifice in the great medieval poem “Eleh Ezkarah,” “These are the Things I Remember.” But here, what is remembered is not the orderly and dignified Temple sacrifices offered to God by the High Priest, but a human sacrifice. The poem recalls in terrifying detail the martyrdom of ten of our greatest sages almost two thousand years ago during the reign of the Roman Emperor Hadrian.
“Eleh Ezkarah” is not, however, a simple history legend. There is a certain timelessness to its retelling. The details that tie its story to a certain time and a place are removed. The place of execution is not identified. The events are conflated. The emperor is named “Belial,” “The Evil One,” and the empire is called “Malchut,” “The Wicked Kingdom.” The poem glosses over many of the details of the slaughter so clearly recalled in the midrashim, legends, that form its sources.
In “Eleh Ezkarah” the martyrdom of our ten sages assumes a universal quality. They have become victims of a vicious regime whose leader bears a demonic name. To the poem’s anonymous author and to generations of Jews, the price paid by the ten sages to preserve the culture, wisdom and dignity of our people reflected their own struggles. The sage’s brave but bitter deaths, gave transcendent meaning to the daily challenges faced by generations of Jews. Like the sacrifices in the ancient Temple, our teachers’ self-sacrifice had a redemptive meaning. The recalling of their martyrdom, their deaths “al pi kiddush haShem” (for the sanctification of God’s Holy Name), had the power to guide us on the path to God’s gift of forgiveness and restoration.
But beyond our personal need for forgiveness, the recollection of both the worship in the Temple and the sacrifice of our sages reminds us of the price and the glory of being citizens of a dominion that is far beyond the all to often cold and ruthless earthly regimes that have and continue to oppress the bodies, minds and souls of countless human beings.
Although our sages died as Jews for their desire to preserve Judaism, we have always known that our struggle for religious and cultural freedom and self-determination is part of a greater human struggle. In prayers such as the Aleinu, we dream of a time when all humanity will be united under God’s Dominion. Our prophets envisioned a time when all would stream to Jerusalem to call on God in their own voices. Our martyrs rarely died alone. The same wicked regimes that attacked Jews, all too often directed their hate to other people and other groups with varying degrees of hostility.
It is mid-afternoon of Yom Kippur. The Mussaf service has come to an end. We have a short break. Perhaps we’ll take a walk or sit quietly in the sanctuary. It’s been a challenging day. In our prayers and meditations we have made a spiritual pilgrimage. We have twice witnessed the opening of heaven; the first time over Jerusalem’s Temple to receive the prayers of our people and the second time over an unknown arena to accept the souls of our martyrs. Once again we have faced the deep spiritual questions of the Day of Atonement and, perhaps, all the days of our lives; the tension between sin and forgiveness, the relationship between suffering and redemption, the need for hope to emerge out of tragedy. We may not, as yet, have found a full answer, but, with God’s grace, we have gained some insight, grown in wisdom and discovered new meaning in our personal struggles and triumphs.
Often life’s deepest spiritual questions do not ask for answers but demand responses. The quality of our response is proportional to the seriousness in which we consider the question. May we be blessed this Yom Kippur to have the courage to confront our spiritual challenges and gain the strength and insight we will need to enjoy a year of meaningful and rewarding life.