YK Day It’s All About Relationship!

It’s YK morning. The good news - You’ve survived Rosh HaShanah! The not so good news – there are still 234 pages of the Machzor  and more than 7 hours of praying left before that cup of tea and another piece of honey cake at the end of the fast! Certainly for Ashkenazim, Yom Kippur can be a day of harsh solemnity. (For Sephardim, who are perhaps more optimistic in outlook, the solemn mood lifts already by the middle of the day, as they hopefully anticipate that by Ne’ilah  God will forgive our sins and gift us a clean slate with which to begin the New Year.)

And what of previous generations? How did our foremothers and forefathers approach this Sabbath of Sabbaths, this Day of Atonement, this Day of Afflicting our Souls?

In Second Temple times, Yom Kippur was a day of great festivity.

Here’s an eye witness account of the Entrance of the High Priest into the Temple sanctuary on Yom Kippur, as described by Marcus, Roman consul and Justice of the Jews, who held office in Jerusalem during the days of the Second Temple:*

‘And this I have seen with my own eyes: first to go before the High Priest would be all those who were of the seed of the kings of Israel… A herald would go before them, crying, ‘’Give honour to the House of David.’’ After them came the House of Levi, and a herald crying, ‘’Give honour to the House of Levi.’’ There were thirty-six thousand of them, and all the prefects wore clothing of blue silk; and the priests, of whom there were twenty-four thousand, wore clothing of white silk.

After them came the singers, and after them, the instrumentalists, then the trumpeters, then the guards of the gate, then the incense-makers, then the curtain-makers, then the watchmen and the treasurers… then all the workingmen who worked in the Sanctuary, then the seventy of the Sanhedrin, then a hundred priests with silver rods in their hands to clear the way. Then came the High Priest, and after him all the elders of the priesthood, two by two. And the heads of the academies stood at vantage points and cried, ‘’Lord High Priest, may you come in peace! Pray to our Maker to grant us long life that we may engage in His Torah,’’… And the noise was so great because of the great number of the people crying Amen, that the birds flying overhead fell to the earth.’*

This was a glittering spectacle; a noisy and ecstatic celebration to beat even the heyday of SWESRS High Holy Day services at Waltham Assembly Rooms! A day of great gathering, unifying the People in a common purpose.

Beyond the pomp and procession, the public spectacle and the sheer thrill of the great numbers, at the heart of the day’s public celebrations, a very private, quiet ritual was enacted. This was the ritual enacted by the High Priest in the Holy of Holies, the Inner Sanctuary of the Temple, where no human being entered on any other day of the year.

Here the High Priest performed the rituals of the incense, which filled the Holy of Holies with a cloud of smoke, and sprinkled the blood of the sacrifices on the curtain of the Ark for purification. Above the Ark, on either side, the two keruvim. The keruvim - not cherubs of the rosy, chubby variety that we see in Christian art, but formidable creatures with human-, animal-, and bird-like features, spread out their wings over the cover of the ark. Most importantly, as instructed in Exodus 25 in the details setting out the building of the desert Tabernacle, the Mishkan, the keruvim faced each other. And between their faces – a space. It was from between the two keruvim, from the space between,that God spoke to Moses in the wilderness wanderings. It is here, in the space between two beings face to face, in the place of relationship, that Holiness resides.

The Torah’s message is simple and clear. The keruvim are a model for ourselves. It is when we face each other, when we are in relationship with each other, that Holiness expresses itself through relationship, from the space between. When two human beings encounter each other, face to face, this is relationship, this is the place where sacredness resides, where the Presence of God is experienced.

The High Priest’s personal encounter in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur mirrors the encounter of Moses with God on Mount Sinai that we will read from our first scroll this morning. After the sin of the Golden Calf and the smashing of the first set of stone tablets, written, according to our tradition, by God’s own finger; after God’s fiery anger and desire to destroy the Jewish people for all time, Moses returns up the mountain and is  alone again, face to face with God. Together, in the quiet of the cloud at the top of the mountain, they will write a second set of tablets, this time with God dictating and Moses writing, in partnership with each other. In the first two paragraphs we will read this morning, there are 10 verbs of saying, and 6 verbs of knowing. Speaking and listening, engaging in conversation, leads to knowing each other, and brings understanding.

In our Yom Kippur Torah text, out of this understanding comes the possibility of forgiveness. In the verses that follow, God teaches Moses the formula that will move God to forgive us for all time, the shlosh eserei midot, known as the 13 attributes of mercy, which will remind God of God’s own qualities: mercy, favour, long-suffering in anger, loyalty, faithfulness, bearing iniquity, rebellion and sin. This is the formula that we repeat again and again throughout our liturgy this Day of Atonement, reminding God of God’s capacity to forgive.

If only we could do more quiet and measured speaking and listening, engaging in conversation, in our own lives! How this could transform our relationships with those closest to us, with our families and friends, in our workplace, in this community, in our Parliament and in our country! And indeed, in our world.

It is when we encounter each other face to face that we build true relationship. It is when we encounter each other face to face that we build strong, purposeful and sacred community. In the words of Dr. Ron Wolfson, author of ‘Relational Judaism’ and its follow-on ‘The Relational Judaism Handbook’,

It’s All About Relationships!

It is through listening to each other face to face at the community meetings in January and May that the direction of our community has been guided, with a clear position being expressed by the majority of members at those meetings, to stay here in Oaks Lane for now.

It is through listening to each other face to face that we build purposeful and meaningful relationships that will sustain the renewal and regeneration of our community. This is why, at our next Community Meeting scheduled for Sunday, November 3rd, we will be launching the SWESRS Listening Project, which aims to hold one-to-ones or small group conversations with every single one of our thousand plus members over the course of the next 3 years. The SWESRS Listening Project will provide a framework for us as a community to speak, to listen and to know each other, empowering us to respond to the needs of the community at all ages of our demographic, and shaping our values as a community and our direction going forward.

We are looking for volunteers to train as facilitators for the SWESRS Listening Project – an exciting opportunity to facilitate the one-to-ones and small-group conversations that have the power to transform our community. Speak to me if you feel inspired to step up and volunteer for this role.

Please come on November 3rd to be part of the conversation.

In the remaining hours of this Yom Kippur, a day which has the power to transform and to heal, it is for us to make peace with the hurts we have suffered from our fellows, even from God, and to determine to be more open, more present, more patient, more kind and more forgiving in all our relationships: with our fellow human beings, and with God. Amidst the prayers, or in the gaps between the prayers, in the melody of the music, in the breath of the wind blowing through the leaves outside, around our dinner tables this evening, or through the many paths of service in this community and beyond, may we encounter each other face to face, and be blessed with experiencing the Sacred Presence of Holiness which resides in the space between.

*Solomon ibn Vega, Shevet Yehuda (c.1550), cited in Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Days of Awe. New York: Schocken, 1995, 255-258.