Yom Kippur Morning

by Reb Jamie Hyams, Student Rabbi, Congregation P’nai Tikvah, October 9, 2019


I have been blessed with my first 0ne-on-one bat mitzvah student, a lovely 11 year-old girl.  It has been a long time since I was 11, and I have no daughters so hanging out with an 11 year-old is a new experience for me.  Clara and her parents are Argentinian and she spent 4 years in Hong Kong, and then Ohio, and now in our community, so her perspective is fresh, enriching and causes me to think.  


Each week as we start of our time together, we recite the blessing over the study of Torah – la’asok b’divrei Torah.   The xerox copy she uses translates this blessing to “the study of Torah.”  But it is so much more.  Study in this case doesn’t imply a one directional learning where I talk, and she listens… or where the text is read, and we simply accept what is on the pages before us.   In modern Hebrew, the word “esek” means “business.”  (Esek and la’asok are from the same root).  In business dealings there is give and take, there is interaction, there is grappling.  The person selling something puts out a price… the buyer counters, the seller points out how valuable the item is and why it is worth the price… the buyer points out that he could buy it elsewhere….  eventually the two meet in the middle and come to agreement on a price based on a common understanding of a set of factors…  When Clara and I study together, we read the text, I ask her what she thinks, I listen to her response, I chime in, we look at what other commentators have to say… she asks why they think that way, I respond and she listens, and at the end of the day, we have interacted with each other, with the text, and with generations of others who have interacted with these texts before us.


One of the things that I am learning in rabbinical school and at P’nai Tikvah is to “question everything.”  My school, the Academy of Jewish Religion – California, is trans-denominational which means the students are from across the spectrum of Jewish practice. There are students with reform backgrounds, conservative, orthodox, secular, cultural, and “other.” When we come together to study, to interact, and to pray, it is always an enlightening experience. For example, some people include the matriarchs in their prayers, some not.  Some include a line with hopes for the rebuilding of the Temple, some not.  These subtle differences highlight the broad patchwork quilt of ideas and interpretations which are the underpinnings 0f the practices of the Jewish people.  


At P’nai Tikvah, we are a broad and inclusive community.  From the people in the pews to the clergy on the bima, we are a community comprised of people from across the political spectrum, across the spectrum of the gender and sexual orientation.  We come from different backgrounds within the Jewish community and from the outside.  But/and because we are so inclusive, and so many of us come from different places and different perspectives, sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know and we just assume that the way WE do things here is the same in all communities, when in fact, at P’nai Tikvah  we have made intentional choices that reflect our values and are expressed through our liturgy and practice.  Sitting in the pews, we don’t wear labels on our foreheads which reveal our backgrounds or the lens through which we view the world.  “Conservative Jew, grew up praying twice/week in the morning and went to shul on shabbat, views Jewish law is binding but should be adapted to meet the needs of the times and so drives to synagogue…”; or “Orthodox background, prayed 3 times/day as a child, views Jewish law as unchanging and so walks to synagogue”; or “Comes from a Reform background, sees organized prayer as a time to gather as a community but not a part of daily life, social justice is this persons’ way of expressing their Jewish identity…”; or “Former catholic who joined the community by choice later in life”; “Spiritually curious, searching for community, not sure if this is home”… all of these people are sitting here tonight and all are an important part of our community.   (Don’t forget props)


As I prepared for Yom Kippur, one of my friends who attends a Conservative synagogue in Portland asked me about the morning portions for Yom Kippur.  “Why do we read Leviticus 16:1–34 which describes Aaron the High Priest atoning for people and their sins, and Numbers 29:7–11 which speaks of the special sin offering made on Yom Kippur; and finally, Leviticus 18:1–30 in the afternoon which details the forbidden sexual relationships?”   Does this sound familiar?   Did we read that portion this morning?  Will we read these verses this afternoon?  No, we won’t.   On this Holy Day, all Jewish communities are NOT INTERACTING WITH THE SAME WORDS OF TORAH.  Different communities have made the choice to read different verses in their observance of Yom Kippur.  Why?   If we are not interacting with the same passages, are grappling with the same ideas?   Does the fact that we read different verses change the holiday in some way?  Is there an overarching idea that we are approaching from different angles?



Pop quiz….   What was the content of the portion we just read? (Let some of them paraphrase).


The Mishnah, the oral law, (Megillah 4:5) dictates Leviticus 16 as the Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning. In it we find a description of the Yom Kippur ritual as practiced in the portable Tabernacle, and later, in the Temple. The so-called “scapegoat ritual” expresses our deep desire to remove sin from the community, driving it away, so that we can begin afresh, cleansed of iniquity. While the ritual is ancient, it is a memory, as it has not been practiced since the destruction of the Temple. But the desire it expresses still resides within us, and the memory reminds us.   Orthodox, Conservative, and Reconstructionist congregations read this Torah reading for Yom Kippur Morning down to the present day.”


The Reform movement has chosen to read other verses for Yom Kippur.  At P’nai Tikvah, we have chosen to follow the Reform movement and to read _______________.   Paraphrasing from My Jewish Learning, “As part of its theology, the Reform movement rejects the notion that the Temple will be rebuilt, and the sacrifices reinstated… The traditional Yom Kippur morning Torah portion is about sacrifices.  The Reform Torah reading focuses on the freedom human beings have to make moral choices. “


How does this difference in emphasis shape us going forward?  Let’s turn back in our prayer book to page 119.  If we sum up each of the 5 aliyot/sections into to one sentence each, what would each be?


  1. 8 lines of English – The people standing here today – the old, the young, those in power, the children and the seekers – everyone is included in the people of Israel


  1. next 6 lines of English – That you will be God’s people as promised, and the covenant is with both present AND future generations.


  1. next 8 lines (4 on this page, and 4 on the next) – What you are being told to do is not so difficult – no one needs special training or special strength – it is within your capabilities.


  1. next 3 paragraphs – I am giving you a choice – go this way and you will flourish. Go the other way, and you will wither.


  1. Today, your choice is revealed – it is seen… CHOOSE LIFE – it is a good path, promised to our ancestors.


To paraphrase – this way of life of our ancestors, that you are being offered for you and your descendants today, that you can choose, is doable and good things will come.  It isn’t that hard, but you have to choose it.


Rabbi David ADD FULL NAME AND DESCRIPTION comments that “these passages emphasize the unity of our people across the generations and all walks of life, and the proposition that our Creator has endowed us with the capacity to know the difference between good and evil and the ability to choose between them. And we are urged to choose life.”


The reading we have chosen for today is about CHOICE, about the active role of the individual; about personal involvement and empowerment to participate in the covenant and in atoning for our sins. In the sections my friend’s congregations read, individuals play a passive role in atoning for the sins of the people. Rather, it is the high priest who is responsible for atoning for the sins for the people.


There are a lot of other differences in the readings which I won’t detail, but there are also many similarities “All our synagogues — Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Orthodox — read the same Haftarah on Yom Kippur morning, from Isaiah (57:14 – 58:14). It reminds us that ritual alone will not redeem us. God also demands that we pursue social justice. Our fast should awaken compassion for the oppressed. If our worship, our prayers and our fasting are to mean anything, then we must feed the hungry, free the oppressed and break every yoke. It is a counterpoint to the ritual described in Leviticus and an explication of the kinds of choices Deuteronomy reminds us we have (Rabbi David).


We read the same haftarah Yom Kippur afternoon, from the book of Jonah. — Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist. Its message is clear: God is quick to forgive those who truly repent, resolve to mend their ways, and then do so. If God will forgive the people of Ninevah, should the Source of Life not also forgive the children of Israel? Double check both haftarot… do we really read these?


At the end of Yom Kippur, regardless of whether some went to the reform shul, some to the orthodox, and some to P’nai Tikvah, when friends, family gather as one community to break the fast, we will have a lot to talk about. What impressions are we left with from these readings?  How do they shape our thinking going forward?  Are we spurred to action?  How do passages about forbidden relationships encourage us to love and accept each other?  How do we feel about picking and choosing the portions to adapt to modern sensibilities?  How do we feel about being guided by texts whose messages are thousands of years old?  Are they applicable today? 


We are in the final hours of a sacred cycle – every year our people STOPS, LOOKS, AND LISTENS… we engage in a process to set ourselves on a path that will lead us to a good year.  Some of us approach it as individuals with choice and choose holiday Torah reading accordingly.   Other approach it exactly has have generations past.   And yet, even with the different readings, the different messages, the different unseen labels we don’t wear on our foreheads, we DO all come together as Jews, to right our lives, to atone for our missteps, to make things right and move forward as one Jewish people.