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I grew up playing games. You name it, we played it. "Monopoly," "Life," "Stratego," and checkers quickly evolved into poker, ping pong, pool, darts, bridge (at 12 or 13, I would guess). And sports came with it to: baseball, hockey, soccer, and a lot of tennis.
As these games began to define our identity, success in them took on exaggerated importance. And through-the-looking-glass self, the games also offered tremendous opportunities to learn what it was like to be the other. We well understood that tomorrow we could be the guy whose serve departed him just at the crucial moment or who lost two weeks' allowance and newspaper route money in five minutes of poker.
Out of this empathy we developed an unwritten rule: if someone was struggling, we helped that person out a bit. Cheering from the sideline for the guy struggling with his serve; throwing a few chips towards the guy who lost his allowance. The converse was also true, when someone was successful, even a little cocky, most of the rest of the group looked to knock him down a peg. Call it the constant redistribution of emotional support.
So what does this have to do with today's reading? There are certainly parallels with the prelude, that Aaron's sons, upon getting cocky, were knocked down. There's also the obvious parallel of empathy between the goat that will be saved and the goat that will be sacrificed. Recall also Ken Harrow's d'var on the second day of Rosh Hashanah about the trade-offs between Ishmael and Isaac and between the ram and Isaac. One must be sacrificed for the other to succeed.
But I also note a second parallel here. The implication of our behavior was that if someone was challenging you, they thought you were doing pretty well. Challenge was a sign of respect. And so as I challenge the Torah reading for today, recognize that it is with profound respect for the text. At the very least, representing the collected wisdom of thousands of years, it can easily take my best shot, and likely turn it back against me.
The standard interpretation of Leviticus 16:1–34 focuses on the functions of the two goats for atonement, and how one will be sacrificed and the other, the scapegoat, is set free. It is as much through continued life as through sacrifice that we are atoned. But the goat part is allocated two aliyot out of six. The rest concerns the recipe for ritual, with stanzas like these:
A linen tunic he shall wear, with linen breeches—they will be upon his flesh. And he shall gird himself with linen sash, and a linen turban he shall don. These will be holy garments. (16:4)
And he shall take his censer, filled with burning coals, lit from the altar fire before the HOLY ONE. And he shall take two handfuls of an aromatic incense, finely ground, and bring it inside of the alter curtain, and offer up the incense on the fire, in the presence of the HOLY ONE. And when the cloud of incense covers up the alter-cover, which lies atop the Ark of the Covenant, he shall not die. (16:12)
And he shall take some of the ox's blood, and sprinkle with his fingers on the surface of the altar cover, on the east side. Before the altar-cover let him sprinkle with blood upon his fingers seven times. (16:14)
...and Aaron shall come into the Tent of Meeting and remove the linen garments he has worn in his approach into the sanctuary, and he shall leave them there. And he shall bathe his flesh with water in the holy place, and wash his garments, and go forth and up his offering and those of the people. (16:20–24)
Good. I'm glad we got all that straight.
These types of prescribed rituals are consistent with Leviticus 11 (kashrut) Leviticus 12 (regulations concerning the new mother) and Leviticus 13–14 (purification of skin diseases).
Leviticus. I don't get it! The didactic prescribed ritual, with the threat of the Almighty behind it. I figure most of us tune that out, as we have tuned animal sacrifice out of our religion.
And here the alternative reading in Kol Haneshemah is not much better (Deuteronomy 29:12–14): If you say "It is better I should go according to the prompting of my heart for better or worse, whatever the result"—then the ALMIGHTY ONE shall not forgive. But rather, then God's anger will be kindled, and all the punishments recorded in this scroll shall fall upon them, and their names will be erased from heaven's book.
I am not inclined to respond dutifully to this type of prescribed behavior. I see it and I want to challenge it and the authority behind it. I guess that makes me some type of heretic.
Perhaps I am saved by the haftarah:
Behold, while you are fasting, you engage in business, and your workers you continue to oppress!
Behold, you fast in strife and quarrelling, and with a meanly clenched fist you strike. Today you do not fast in such a way as to make your voice heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I delight in? A fast merely to deprive one's body. is not the fast that I desire the unlocking of chains of wickedness, the loosening of exploitation. (Isaiah 57:14–58:14)
Here Isaiah seems to lift us beyond merely superficially responding to the rules, to respond from the soul, heralding a seminal moment in the formation of the Reform and Reconstructionist movements.
But hear the voice. The fast "I delight in." The "fast I desire." This is still the voice of a supreme being, sometimes wrathful (line 16 of the English), omnipotent to deliver the greatest of bounties ("Your light shall burst forth like dawn") to those who live by the ALMIGHTY decree. Again, there's still the sense that we should do it because the All-Powerful said so and will reward us. The "it" changes from merely obedience to from the heart, but there's still a strong external voice.
Ok, if I don't like Leviticus, or the haftarah, what do I like?
The narrative in Genesis. The story of Cain and Abel makes many of the same points that Isaiah makes. Cain makes an offering, but Abel gives the choicest (Genesis 4:3–5). Cain's is not accepted, but what did he care, asks God, "Why are you so distressed?... Surely if you do right, there is uplift." Doing right should be its own reward, and if he made his sacrifice, he'll be fine. And then Cain kills Abel. And the punishment? "You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on earth," reinforcing this by not allowing anyone to take Cain's life.
So the story makes the same point as Isaiah: that sacrifice and prayer should be from the heart. But here through the narrative the punishment is of Cain's own making. First, he loathes his brother to the point of killing him. And then the story does the work. God's pronouncement is merely a recognition of the logical consequences of Cain's actions—someone who has disconnected himself, who does not give of the heart, who then kills his brother and pronounces his disconnect—"am I my brother's keeper?"—is destined to wander the earth as a stranger. Could it be any other way? How would you greet a person who killed his own brother and claimed no connection to him or others?
Ok, so if Genesis makes the point of giving from the heart, why Leviticus? Why the need to write down the rules and be so didactic? Let's turn to the precursors of the ritual. Leviticus 16 starts off with "The Almighty spoke to Moses after the death of two of Aaron's sons." This is hardly the "vayachei"—after a while—of Rosh Hashannah. This beginning links directly to Leviticus 10 where Aaron's sons were killed. Ok, what happened there? Aaron's sons tried to improvise their own, unsanctioned sacrifice, and they were burned to death. A conventional interpretation would be that therefore one must conduct the sacrifices (and now prayer) just as prescribed or that one must not be too eager to assume power. But that doesn't explain why Aaron is atoning for himself and his household in Leviticus 16. What in particular does he need to atone for? Delving deeper into the precursor to verse 10 sheds some light. Verse 9 is the first celebration of sacrifice. In it Aaron and Moses conduct a sacrifice, slaughtering a calf for purification. Throughout, Aaron's sons are present and helping (Lev. 9:9, "Aaron's sons brought the blood to him"; see also verses 12 and 18). But then in verse 23, Moses and Aaron go into the Tent of Meeting without Aaron's sons. There's no reason given for entering the tent, it's all conjecture [see Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1–16, Anchor Bible, Doubleday, 1991, p. 588]. That's all the opening I needed. Why enter the tent? Why without Aaron's sons? Let me engage in a little historical fiction here:
Scene: Inside the Tent of Meeting
Aaron: Moses, we need to give them something extra, to engage the people and catch their attention, remind them of God. [After all, this was Aaron's motivation with the golden calf].
Moses: We don't need to do that, God has shown himself enough.
Aaron: Yes, but perhaps just to support what God does on his own. [After all, Rashi confirms the interpretation that "although the fire was descended upon the mizbe'ach from heaven, it was still incumbent upon the Kohanim to light a fire on it" (page 101 of Rashi agrees with Eruvin 63a regarding chapter 10).] What's the harm?
Moses: Ok, fine, set something up.
Aaron: Rigs up an especially combustible concoction, and moments later, "Fire came forth from before the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces" (Lev. 9:24).
Ok, no harm done. But then the next thing that happens is that Nadab and Abihu tried to get into the act, perhaps not knowing what Aaron and Moses had rigged up, or perhaps wishing to reveal it. And they were consumed by fire, a fire that came from the adytum [inner shrine], not as usual from heaven (Milgrom, p. 590).
Given this reading, think about Aaron's transgressions.
If you think this use of science is beyond him, think about Leviticus 11 through 16 which is about the science of diet (kashrut), healing, and sacrifice.
Unlike Cain, Aaron did not commit a murder, nor did he directly violate any of the ten commandments. Nadab and Abihu certainly must bear some of the responsibility for their own deaths, by perhaps being too ambitious, or eager to reveal the secrets of Moses and Aaron. And yet Aaron's actions were deeply false and isolating, as were Cain's. And Aaron knows it. He's paralyzed by guilt—Moses tells Mishael and Elzaphan (sons of Aaron's uncle) how to dispose of the bodies (10:4–7), by the way, very discretely (take them out of camp, do not bare your heads). Aaron must be told to not drink any more wine (10:9), and Aaron explains to Moses that his remaining sons didn't eat because "and such things have befallen me! Had I eaten purification offering today, would the Lord have approved?" The answer could be strikingly what God said to Cain: "Why are you so distressed?... Surely if you do right, there is uplift." And yet here the sin is more subtle. Horror results from Aaron's lack of faith, without a direct homicidal action like Cain's. The meaning is clear, there is a price to pay for digressions from a true path.
In his grief and remorse, Aaron has lost his soul, much the way I described Abraham losing his soul based on his grief and remorse for sending out Ishmael (I argued it is for this reason that he agrees to kill Isaac instead of protesting).
And thus the ritual. We all engage in deceptions such as Aaron's, and we need ritual to get is back on track. Aaron, in spite of the great sins, deserves to be part of the community. But what should he do? He needs clear instructions in his grief and remorse. And thus come the instructions in Leviticus 16. Note that much of this instruction is intended for someone who has committed a profound misdeed. Aaron is doing extra purification, as though he is in mourning. Taking off the soiled cloths, washing twice, etc. cleansing himself (Milgrom p. 1017), confessing for himself (Lev. 16:18–24, Milgrom, p. 1024).
Where do I go from here?
Have we not, all of us, committed the sins of Aaron? And therefore we must repent as he does.
Al chet sh'chatate lefanecha for not trusting others:
I think of times when I opened my mouth to tell Nicole or one of the girls to do something which they were about to do anyway. Like Aaron, did I need to interject, or would we have accomplished what we needed to anyway?
Al chet sh'chatate lefanecha for hiding myself from others:
I think of times when I am writing a paper and the analyses aren't working the way I thought they would or I may have made an error, and I don't share what I've done or where I am at. Maybe it would help the collective enterprise to share my process.
Al chet sh'chatate lefanecha for using my knowledge to deceive:
It is tempting when I am reading another's work and I disagree with the fundamental premise and I use my knowledge of statistics and methods to attack, even if I am not certain or sincere in the attack.
Al chet sh'chatate lefanecha for not fulfilling the gracious offers extended to us by members of this synagogue.
Al chet sh'chatate lefanecha for distracting some of our energy for the Havdalah grant as I pursued the evaluation. (we hope it will be done soon).
Al chet sh'chatate lefanecha for not being aware of some occasions important to many members of our synagogue, and therefore participating halfheartedly or not at all.
Al chet sh'chatate lefanecha for being false:
False in the way I seem to be paying attention to those around me when in fact I am preoccupied. False in not making my motives clear. False in some ways deep in my heart that I cannot even articulate.
It is almost too much to bear. I feel profoundly alone, just as Aaron must have felt as he entered the holy place and performed the ritual in Leviticus 16.
And now turn to the ritual of this holiday. Not only have we replaced animal sacrifice with prayer, but we have replaced the confession of the individual with the group confession. I gain strength not as I say Al chet sh'chatate but as we say Al chet sh'chatanu. When we say this I hear that you too have committed these sins. We are fallible together. When we chanted Kol Nidre the first time, I thought of the vows I had broken. When we chanted the second time I heard that you have committed such sins too, and knowing my own, am eager to forgive. And when we chanted it the third time I realized that you too may forgive me. And we can go on, perhaps even in a better place than before (from Michael: the talmudic statement that the one who has sinned and then repented (the ba'al teshuvah) can stand in places where the righteous person does not dare to tread).
And so it always gives me a chill when in the Alenu, we first bow and then together lift up our bodies and voices and I sneak a peek at all the faces and voices of Congregation Kehillat Israel that have penetrated my soul and helped to lift me up at this time of year. Thank you, each and every one of you.
Amen; l'shana tovah.
—Akiva Aaron Frank
Reading: Leviticus 16:1–34.
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