Dvar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar October 4, 2014
This drash starts in a bar. I know that’s a bit unconventional for Yom Kippur, but please bear with me. Last year, I met Tim, my spouse at a midtown bar for afterwork drinks with his colleagues. It was also a goodbye party for someone who was leaving. At some point, champagne was brought out, poured into flutes and distributed to all as part of his goodbye toast.
Of the 30 or so people there, who had their pick off the bar’s menu, no one had ordered champagne. Who would? Yet, because it was a toast, we all put down our beers, whiskey, cocktails to pick up flutes of fizzy wine. Toasting is an odd ritual when you think about it.
I had just come from the mikvah where I witnessed the conversion of a baby. As we stood around in the anteroom of the mikvah, the father asked about the immersion. Why do we do it? The rabbinic colleague who supervised the conversion answered that this is what Jews do, and mikvah is part how we do a conversion. I felt, and maybe you feel too, the inadequacy of this answer. So when I arrived at the bar rituals were on my mind.
The Torah portion that we are about to read describes the ritual of azazel. The scapegoat. It is described in great detail. What Aaron as high priest wears, and exactly what to do. The casting of lots to determine which fate goes to which goat. The idea that sending a goat off into the desert or pushing it off a cliff to affect atonement is a strange one. We also will later reenact the Avodah service from the Temple period describing in great detail the processes, sacrifices and rituals of Yom Kippur. These descriptions feel strange, they are strange. But let me read you a description of another ritual, from our own society. Pretend for a moment that you haven’t had the experience described:
It is traditional, among English-speakers, that at a birthday party, the song “Happy Birthday to You” be sung to the birthday person by the other guests celebrating the birthday. More specifically, the birthday person is traditionally presented with a birthday cake with lit candles, with the number of candles sometimes corresponding to the age of the person. After the song is sung (usually just once), party guests sometimes add wishes like “And many more!” expressing the hope that the birthday person will enjoy a long life. The birthday person may be asked to make a wish—which he or she does silently—and then is supposed to blow out the candles. Traditionally, blowing out of the candles is believed (or is considered a lighthearted superstition) to ensure that the wish will come true. Once the candles have been blown out, people may applaud, after which the cake may be served, often with the first piece being served to the person whose birthday it is.
What would you make of this if you hadn’t experienced it?
But we have, to the extent that the wikipedia passage as described above is incomplete. We know that one can substitute cupcakes for birthday cake but that singing “Happy Birthday” over pie or pudding isn’t acceptable.
We know that to celebrate thanksgiving properly you need to have most of the following dishes: Turkey, stuffing, sweet potato, cranberry and pumpkin pie. For the vegetarians amongst us, you’ll have to put up with tofurky and the ribbing that comes from the rest of the meat-eaters at your table.
Why do we feel at ease carrying a pumpkin down the street, but self conscious with lulav and etrog?
Why does a wedding dress seem normal but a kittel foreign?
Why is it so much easier to accept secular rituals when Jewish rituals feel so strange?
Part of the answer is that for secular rituals, everyone’s doing it. There is a collective understanding about the symbolism of these rituals but not for Jewish ones.
Yet, that doesn’t get at why we feel the way we do about these. (Why we chuckled when I read the Wikipedia description of singing Happy Birthday). Why we often feel self conscious doing overtly Jewish rituals in public while much stranger things happen daily on the streets of New York City. I find that I’m much more likely to wonder why we stand for kiddush than for a toast. We just don’t question the secular rituals as much as we do the Jewish ones.
We have absorbed some rituals into our identity more than others. As residents of America, we’ve come to own some of these practices. To not really question them.
What would it take for us to feel the same way about our Jewish heritage?
As it turns out, the Rav Avidimi bar Hama of the Talmud has a teaching that speaks directly to our relationship with Jewish practice. Commenting on an odd turn of phrase in the biblical description of revelation at Sinai he says: (BT Shabbat 88a):
מלמד שכפה הקדוש ברוך הוא עליהם את ההר כגיגית, ואמר להם: אם אתם מקבלים התורה – מוטב, ואם לאו – שם תהא קבורתכם
The verse implies that the Holy One overturned the mountain upon them, like an inverted cask, and said to them: if you accept the Torah, it is well; if not, your grave will be right here.
I think that Rav Avidimi is onto something here. How many of us sitting here are here, at least in part because we feel that we have to be? I think we can all relate to the feeling of the mountain hanging over our heads. After all, our ancestors invented Jewish guilt! According to this reading, the giving of the Torah itself was under duress.
We can already see from the lines that comes right afterwards that this is a controversial idea:
.אמר רב אחא בר יעקב: מכאן מודעא רבה לאורייתא
Said Rabbi Aha bar Yaakov: This is a strong protest against the Torah.
After all, if our ancestors only accepted it because they were forced to, how can we be compelled to follow its teachings? The text continues:
אמר רבא: אף על פי כן, הדור קבלוה בימי אחשורוש. דכתיב (אסתר ט) קימו וקבלו היהודים, קיימו מה שקיבלו כבר
Said Rava, Even so, the generation accepted it in the days of Ahashverosh as it is written “The Jews fulfilled and accepted…” They fulfilled what they had already accepted.”
Unable to let the prior teaching stand, Rava theorizes that the Torah was fully accepted at another period in Jewish history- in the time of Esther. Purim is not generally associated with the acceptance of the Torah. Yet it there where we read that the Jews קימו וקבלו- accepted laws upon themselves and their families. Rava reads this acceptance broadly, as acceptance of the entire Torah.
Interestingly enough, the Zohar specifically connects purim to today. It notices the similarity in the names of both days. Purim and Yom ki-purim. According to the Zohar, the Day of Judgement we are celebrating today is a day ki- purim, like purim.
One thing both of these days share is the casting of lots. We’ll see it shortly in our Torah reading, when they are used to select which is to be the scapegoat, and Haman casts a lot to decide which day will be the day that the Jews are to be massacred. Remember that the Book of Esther explains that Purim gets its name, על שם הפור – as a result of the lots cast by Haman.
Furthermore, Purim and Yom Kippur have in common that they are both days relating to our fate. Purim is about our fate as a nation- and we celebrate the fact that we were not demolished. Yom Kippur is about our personal fate and thus it is a day for somber reflection on the precarious nature of our lives and how we might make the most of them.
The Jewish society described in the book of Esther is like our own. Jews are a minority living in an affluent country. Mordechai’s instructions to Esther to hide her Jewish identity, Esther’s attempt not to stand out as Jewish is an impulse I can sometimes relate to. Yet it is in that generation after the threat of their destruction was averted that Rava says the Torah was accepted.
What would it take for us to get closer to the קימו וקבלו to the acceptance in the Book of Esther? What would it take for us to be so assured of our practices, observances and rituals to not doubt ourselves as much. Of course we should all ask questions, that’s how we grow, but how can we come to feel about the ritual practices of Judaism the way we do about our secular ones?
Sometimes we think of the power of ritual being in its exoticism. (as we might feel later when prostrating as part of the avodah service.) But maybe this year, we can make room to accept and fulfill Jewish rituals as a natural part of our lives.
Gmar Hatimah Tovah