How Does a Passover Seder Prepare Us for Yom Kippur?

Acharei Mot, Leviticus 16:1-18:30

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, PhD

Focal Point

  • Adonai spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron…. Tell your brother, Aaron, that [he shall] enter the Shrine with a bull of the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. (Leviticus 16:1-3)

  • And this shall be to you a law for all time: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall practice self-denial; and you shall do no manner of work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you. For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins. (Leviticus 16:29-30)

  • None of you shall come near anyone of his own flesh to uncover nakedness: I am the Holy One. (Leviticus 18:6)

D'var Torah

Every year at the time that we celebrate Passover, Jews read this week's Torah portion, Acharei Mot. On this holiday of natural regeneration and spiritual renewal, our Torah portion begins with words of mourning as we read about Yom Kippur. As the natural world of springtime invites delight, we are warned of sexual liaisons that can have disastrous consequences. And we are instructed in the details of a ritual that has not been practiced for thousands of years. So what is the connection between Acharei Mot and the Passover ritual that coincides with the reading of this portion?

Acharei Mot begins by describing in exquisite detail the priestly ritual of purification and expiation. Aaron, the High Priest, is instructed "to offer his own bull of sin offering, to make expiation for himself and for his household" (Leviticus 16:6). In his commentary on this verse, Rashi points out that the High Priest must procure a bull for sacrifice with his own funds rather than use the funds of the community. Although he will serve as the representative of the community by carrying out this rite, Aaron must be personally invested in the sacrificial ritual, bringing one animal of his own and one animal that is offered on behalf of the community. Aaron must make his own journey toward ridding himself of shame before he can petition God to remove the sins of the community.

The priest serves not only as a k'li kodesh, holy vessel, and not only as a shl'iach tzibur, representative of the community, but also as a Jew among Jews, a single individual whose works have wider but not necessarily greater influence. Our portion continues to explore this tension between individual deeds and communal dynamic: "When he has finished purging the Shrine, the Tent of Meeting, and the altar, the live goat shall be brought forward. 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…" (Leviticus 16:20-22). How are we to understand this ancient ritual of the Azazel-goat, the goat that is set free to atone for the misdeeds of the community?

Our Sages were fond of pointing to the connections between texts that follow one another and delighted ins'muchin, understanding one text in the light of another. So how does the Passover seder illuminate the Yom Kippur ritual described in this portion? Jewish demographers tell us that the Passover seder is the most widely observed of contemporary Jewish rituals and celebrations. Perhaps the accessibility of the seder ritual and the universality of its message can provide us with some tools to unpack this ancient rite.

Our preparation for Passover challenges us to cleanse our homes and our hearts, claiming sacred time and place for our communal celebration. The High Priest's Yom Kippur ritual of sanctification mirrors this preparation, insuring the sanctity of the holy places. Once ready, both the seder participant and the High Priest enter into the drama of the ritual. All who celebrate the seder are charged to see ourselves "as if we ourselves came out of Egypt." The High Priest, too, enters into the sacred story by presenting his own sacrifice. We approach the ritual alone, but in the course of fulfilling the demands of the ritual act, community is created. Each individual, as well as the space each of us inhabits, is transformed.

The Passover "sacrifice," the pesach, a symbol of God's power and the ultimate freedom of the Jewish people, invites us to consider both the Yom Kippur sacrifice (a bull and a goat) and the Azazel-goat in a new light. The Azazel-goat, which is sent out into the wilderness, never returns. The seder celebration concludes with the singing of Had Gadya, "An Only Kid." This counting song relates a fanciful version of a chain of disasters that begins with the unlikely ingestion of a young goat by a cat and concludes with the Holy One vanquishing the Angel of Death. The single goat wandering into the dunes with its invisible burdens is transformed into a father's gift to his child, a gift that serves to remind us of God's redemptive power as the Preserver of Life.

The message of Passover may be that seder, order, is a path to life not only as the natural world bursts into bloom around us but also when the year turns, and we, too, turn. The deliberate preparations for our collective Passover journey mirror the process of readying ourselves for the holiness of Yom Kippur. Just as each one of us is challenged to enter the seder story, so must the High Priest experience his own soul searching in preparation for Yom Kippur. The mysterious Azazel-goat is seen in the light of the kid whose disappearance into the jaws of a cat brings forth the Omnipotent One, the One whom we will call Our Father Our King. The family holiday that celebrates both the rebirth of the natural world and the birth of the Jewish people may indeed offer some clues for understanding the mystery of the ancient Yom Kippur ritual.

By the Way

  • And what of our goat destined to Azazel? Does he die on the way, or is he merely released to the endless wilderness? While all the other animals are sacrificed, this goat carries our sins to a mysterious destiny with an even more mysterious end. Is this because our collective sins cannot be "killed"? They may be cast off, released to the wilds, sent away to secret destinations. Is this because as human beings we may encounter these sins again? (Naama Kelman, "Journey into the Wilderness," Beginning Anew: A Woman's Companion to the High Holy Days, edited by Gail Twersky Reimer and Judith A. Kates, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995, p. 237)
  • Our Sages in the Mishnah, Yoma ("The Day"-the talmudic tractate devoted to the laws and customs of Yom Kippur) understood this "atonement" to imply verbal confession of sins:

    This implies oral confession. How did he [the High Priest] make confession? "O God, I have committed iniquity. I have transgressed. I have sinned against Thee, I and my household. I beseech Thee by Thy name, make Thou atonement for the iniquities, for the transgressions, and for the sins wherein I have committed iniquity and transgressed and sinned against Thee, I and my household…"

    (Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Vayikra: Leviticus, New York: World Zionist Organization, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora, 1985, p.149)

Your Guide

What comparisons might you draw between the order of the seder and the order of the prayers that are repeated in the synagogue on Yom Kippur?

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, PhDspent nearly two decades working with synagogue leaders to keep congregations healthy and vibrant through the Union for Reform Judaism. The founding director of the Los Angeles Jewish Feminist Center and the first rabbinic director of Ma'yan: The Jewish Women's Program of the JCC of Manhattan, Elwell served as editor of Lesbian Rabbis: The First Generation (2001), The Open Door: A Passover Haggadah (2002), poetry editor of the award winning The Torah: A Women's Commentary (2008), and as editor of Chapters of the Heart (2013). She continues her rabbinate through study, teaching, writing, and as a Spiritual Director.

Reference Materials

Acharei Mot, Leviticus 16:1–18:30
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 858–888; Revised Edition, pp. 769–794; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 679–700

Originally published: