The opening verses of our Torah reading this week, Acharei Mot, make up the same text we read on the morning of Yom Kippur. Why would our ancient rabbis elevate this particular text in such a dramatic way?
First, this is a story of atonement: the High Priest enters the most inner space in the Tabernacle and seeks forgiveness for the entire people.
But the beauty of the story is how that forgiveness is attained. The story is actually about ritual as a tool for change, healing and renewal.
One of the more mysterious rituals of the ancient Yom Kippur service of atonement is the sending of the goat, burdened with the transgressions of Israel, to “Azazel” – a barren, lifeless world. In the ancient collection of rabbinic texts known as the mishna, the rabbis envision and recreate this Biblical ritual:
First, the priests and the people made a ramp for the person leading the goat so he would be able to travel safely. They then set up ten booths on route to the wilderness. Prominent members of the community would accompany the person leading the goat from booth to booth and at every booth they gave the person food and water until the very last station, the peak of the cliff, when those accompanying would stand at a distance and watch what the leader was doing. He carefully threaded the goat to a rock on the cliff and threw it backwards, and the goat rolled down.
The process of leading the goat with such care teaches us how seriously and how sensitively our ancient rabbis took this ritual. That goat carried with it the sins of the community; it needed to be guided out with great care to affect true healing. The only way to do that was through careful and caring ritual action.
Many generations later, ritual remains religiously and spiritually significant. We continue to fill our lives with imagery and sounds and smells, helping us become aware of God’s presence. These rituals are empty, however, if not embedded in a loving, caring spirit of generosity towards one another. These are the qualities that endow ritual with their apparent magic to help uplift our spirits and restore our sense of hope and purpose whenever we need them the most.