Thanks to Hollywood’s incessant teasing of our own romantic fantasies, we often develop a mental and emotional image of who will be the right one for me. As a result we find ourselves relating to what we hoped or imagined someone to be, as opposed to who they actually are. In such an instance we are hardly relating at all. Rather we are simply serving our own needs and desires by playing out some predetermined role, thereby ensuring a hollow, lifeless relationship.
Spirituality as a Relationship
The Yom Kippur Torah reading begins by recounting the deaths of two sons of Aharon: Nadav and Avihu. Elsewhere the Torah relates that these men died because in their unbridled desire to draw closer to God they employed an unprescribed procedure in the Temple service.
So what! So they didn’t do things exactly as they were told, so they innovated a little bit; is that so terrible? Isn’t it true that the only reason they deviated was because they thought this would enhance their spiritual lives and deepen their relationship with God?
Tell me if these words sound familiar:
“Frankly I consider myself to be a spiritual person… I really don’t need to observe all these commandments and rituals to be a good Jew or to feel close to God. I relate to God in a way that I feel comfortable with, and I’m sure that’s okay with Him.”
Remember, if you relate to someone in terms of who you want them to be instead of who they are or by means that feel “right” to you but are inappropriate for them, then in truth you have no relationship at all (regardless of how good it may feel). In the dimension of spirituality, of relating to God, the same holds true.
More to Sacrifices Than Meets the Eye
During the era when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, the central focus of Jewish life was an elaborate system of communal and personal sacrifices and offerings. How is this possible? Aren’t priestly orders and sacrificial rites the domain of primitive peoples bearing an elementary view of the world and how to relate to it?
Surely the Jewish people, a people endowed with insights a millennia ahead of their time, a people who repeatedly espoused ideas and values that were at odds with the prevailing mood, should have easily seen beyond these crude, barbaric practices. And what’s more, how do we deal with rational, sophisticated modern Jews who to this day mourn the loss of the Temple and its sacrificial service?
Are sacrifices a disturbing historical anomaly better glossed over than scrutinized—a sort of intellectual scandal in an otherwise brilliant career—or is there some way that we can begin to make sense of that which indeed occupies perhaps a fifth of all the teachings in the Torah?
To Draw Close
In Hebrew the term for sacrifice—korban—literally means to draw close. The Jewish people always understood that God lacks nothing and therefore has no needs. Sacrifices are not for God, nor are they meant to appease Him or cajole Him to act in one way or another. The primary function of the sacrifice is to affect us in such a way as to enable us to enhance our relationship with God.
We have already pointed out that for genuine closeness to develop in a relationship you must understand and be sensitive to the one you are relating to. The flip side is that you must also possess a sufficient measure of self-awareness so that in fact it is you—and not some socially imposed portrait of yourself—who is involved in the relationship. And true, while we can never fully know ourselves, still, the greater our level of self-knowledge the deeper and richer will be our contribution to the relationship. The sacrifice then, in fact the entire Temple service, was a stage teeming with images that served to edify our knowledge of ourselves and how to draw closer to God.
Here are two examples from the Yom Kippur Torah reading regarding various aspects of the Temple service and how they served as educational tools to elevate our character and refine our spirits so that we could draw ever closer to the transcendental source of all existence.
1) Verses 16:7-10. “Then he shall take the two he-goats…”
Listen carefully to the detail of observance at work in this “sacrifice.”
Two identical goats—identical in size, appearance and value. Both are standing in a similar manner at the threshold of the sanctuary. Both have a perfectly balanced opportunity to be used purposefully in the Temple or to be cast away and destroyed.
Is there a more poignant message for Yom Kippur? We have free will, freedom to choose our path, our actions and our destiny. We are stubborn goats, yes, but stubborn goats with a choice. Do we use our iron will to maintain our integrity and commitment to morality and God, or do we use that same will to shield ourselves from infusing our lives with a Godly dimension?
We are besieged by a host of forces, psychological and others, that lay claim to our free-willed ability to make life’s most monumental choices. On Yom Kippur the eyes of the Jew are riveted on an image that proclaims our freedom. In life we must know that the power and responsibility to choose lies firmly in our hands.
2) Verse 16:14. “Then he will take from blood of the bullock… and in front of the covering he shall sprinkle seven times from the blood of his finger.”
The ceremony of sprinkling the blood seven times in a downward motion also included an eighth sprinkling in an upward fashion. The world was created in seven days and thus the number seven represents the physical world and life as it is lived on a daily basis. The number eight goes one step beyond and represents that which is transcendent. This is why the bris mila, the covenant between man (this world) and God (transcendence), takes place on the eighth day.
I know of someone who went to India to study in an ashram for a number of years. On a return visit to Chicago he was riding a train when he became aware of something that shook him to his very core. He realized that he looked down on the people around him—ants, he thought to himself, mere unenlightened ants. He realized, “after all the lofty experiences, and after all I’ve learned and imbibed, if this is how I look at human beings then what have I really gained?”
The kohen—the priest—would first execute one sprinkle upward followed by seven downward. Our first inclinations must be directed toward that which transcends the superficial mundanity of this world. But beware. If our spiritual lives and experiences are not translated into how we live on a daily basis—in the here and now—then it is spirituality corrupted. Yes, Yom Kippur is a day imbued with lofty potential, but it is a potential that must express itself in the weeks and months that ensue.
This article is an excerpt from “Rosh Hashanah Yom Kippur Survival Kit”. This book masterfully blends wisdom, humor and down-to-earth spirituality. It’s like having a knowledgeable friend sitting right next to you in the synagogue.