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October 6, 2015 | 23rd Tishrei 5776

The center of the world

Galilee Diary 199
September 19, 2004
Marc Rosenstein

Among the holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are unique in their focus on the inner life of the individual. The pilgrimage festivals are rich in links to nature and to the land to Israel, full of colorful symbols and practices. Purim and Chanukah deal with historical events in the life of the nation. Shabbat is a major building block of community. The high holy days, on the other hand, are days of introspection, of personal spiritual activity, emphasizing each person’s own relationship to God. We gather as a community, and many of the prayers are phrased in national terms, but the liturgy – and the spirit of the days – have evolved to yield an experience that is very personal, inward, introspective. And because of this personal emphasis, these days seem perhaps the least “national,” the least bound to any particular location. Wherever we are, we can perform the three key acts of the season: pray, repent, give tzedakah.

Interestingly, though, the traditional liturgy for Yom Kippur is extremely place-centered. Leviticus 16 details the procedures for observance of Yom Kippur in the Tent of Meeting (the portable Temple in the desert), and places a strong emphasis on the special holiness of the location. Later, the Mishnah (Tractate Yomah) applies this chapter to the reality of life in Israel, when the Temple was standing in Jerusalem, and the Yom Kippur ritual centered around the entry of the high priest into the Holy of Holies, the central shrine in the Temple – a once-a-year event of great power. This ritual emphasized the concept that the Holy of Holies was indeed the very center of the world, the axis mundi, a unique point at which heaven and earth meet. There are echoes, remnants of this belief in later practice – like the tradition of facing Jerusalem when praying; however, this centrality is no longer very significant in our consciousness, and we tend to assume that we have high speed wireless access to God wherever we may be in the world.

I think that the tradition of reading, on Yom Kippur, the Mishnaic account of the service of the high priest was intended to keep us spatially oriented, to keep the universal messages of the high holy days grounded in the particularistic message of our rootedness in the land of Israel. That connection to the land becomes even stronger when we look at some of the details:

In Leviticus 16 we learn that the priest is to set aside two goats – one as a burnt offering, and one as the “goat for Azazel.” And in verse 21: “Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat; and it shall be sent off to the wilderness through a designated man… and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.” In the Mishnah, (Yomah chap. 6) the procedure is given in more detail: the “designated man” leads the goat about eight miles out of town, into the Judean desert, to a certain cliff. There is a well-marked route, with ten rest stops, and an entourage to accompany the goat and its chaperone from stop to stop. Then, the two of them walk the last stage alone, and the man pushes the goat off the cliff to oblivion.

The ritual may seem too concrete and thus perhaps too primitive for us. We see our repentance as spiritual, personal, not needing such gross symbolic actions. Yet it is easy to understand why the ritual was so powerful. What I find particularly interesting in it is the route: it is only eight miles from the absolute center of the world to the absolute end of the world – from Somewhere to Nowhere – from the Holy of Holies to the damned, doomed territory of Azazel – from the center of town to the depth of the wilderness. Jerusalem sits on the boundary between Mediterranean climate and desert, between temperate and arid. Perhaps that is part of its secret, its magic, its power in our religious consciousness. It tells us something about ourselves, living on a knife-edge, balanced between possibilities, asking ourselves: where will we be next Yom Kippur?

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