From Temple Sacrifices to High Holiday Rituals

Ki Tavo, Deuteronomy 26:1–29:8

D'Var Torah By: Cantor Evan Kent

This week’s portion, Ki Tavo, is read on the Saturday morning before Selichot, the late-night service that ushers in the High Holidays. The Yamim Noraim (the Days of Awe) are ushered in by the music and majesty of the Selichot service, but for me they begin earlier with the chanting of this Torah portion. Even though this parashah makes no mention of the High Holidays, it includes an ancient text and ritual that will be echoed later, as the rhythm and intensity of the High Holidays strengthens and deepens. Less than two weeks after we read these words, we will encounter the climax of the Yom Kippur day service in what is known as Seder HaAvodah.

The parashah begins with instructions for bringing the first fruits to the Temple and the priests during the holiday of Shavuot. Each person puts some of the first fruits in a basket, brings it to the priest, and then recite these words:

“My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried out to God, and God heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. God freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm, and awesome power, and by signs and portents. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, God have given me.” (Deuteronomy 26:5-10).

The verses of this ancient ritual succinctly encapsulate the history of the Jewish people from a wandering tribe to entering the Land of Israel, to offering these gifts of first fruits to the priests at ancient temple in Jerusalem. It is a ritual embracing both history and gratitude, and as the words are recited, there is an awareness how the actions of the past have brought them to the present day.

Mishnah Bikkurim (Chapters 1-3) detail this ritual and all the celebration:   

Those who lived near [Jerusalem] would bring fresh figs and grapes, while those who lived far away would bring dried figs and raisins. An ox would go in front of them, his horns bedecked with gold and with an olive-crown on its head. The flute would play before them until they draw close to Jerusalem. When they would draw close to Jerusalem, they would send messengers in advance, and they would adorn their bikkurim. The governors and chiefs and treasurers [of the Temple] would go out to greet them, and according to the rank of the entrants, they would go forth. All the skilled artisans of Jerusalem would stand up before them and greet them saying, “Our brothers, men of such and such a place, we welcome you in peace.

This ceremony was filled with music and costume, decoration and celebration, and the sacred words were recited by all who came to the Temple. And although this ritual takes place on Shavuot, we read it directly before we begin the holiest time of the year.

In the traditional Yom Kippur day liturgy, the climax of the entire day is Seder HaAvodah – a ritual recounting of the High Priest in the ancient Temple entering the Holy of Holies and asking for forgiveness for himself and the entire people. It is a long liturgical passage with descriptions of sacrifice and atonement. Like the verses that open this week’s parashah, Seder HaAvodah begins with a summary of the history of the Jewish people beginning with creation. But whereas the ritual for first fruits is recited by all the people, only the High Priest—the Kohen Gadol—recites the words and enacts the sacrificial rites in this ancient Yom Kippur ritual. Yet these two rituals are connected through their attention to detail, the communal nature of the rituals, and the sense of collective memory these rituals inspire.

These rituals, especially Seder HaAvodah, are troublesome for Reform Jews. The ancient Temple is destroyed, the priestly class no longer exists, and we have no desire to bring back sacrificial offerings. So how can we reclaim these two ancient rituals?

An answer to this question can be found in a contemporary setting of Sefer HaAvodah by the Israeli singer-songwriter Yishai Ribo. His setting utilizes much of the traditional text, but rather then emphasizing the sacrificial aspects of the ritual, he explores the inner life of the High Priest. Ribo’s setting is gentle, contemplative, and lyrical. Ribo’s music and the accompanying video act as a form of midrashMidrashמִדְרָשׁRabbinic interpretation of a passage from the Bible. Midrash falls into two categories: midrash halachah is concerned with religious practice and law, and midrash aggadah is concerned with interpreting biblical narratives and stories, for the Seder HaAvodah and in turn the Bringing of the First Fruits ritual that we read in this week’s Torah portion. Ribo begins his “Seder HaAvodah” with these words:

He entered the place he had entered before and stood in the place he had stood, washed his hands and feet, immersed, came up and dried himself.

He came from the place he came and went where he went, stripped off his weekday clothes and donned white garments.

And thus, he would say: “O God, ! grant atonement for the sins, transgressions, and iniquities which I sinned before you –  and my household.

The text for Ribo’s song and video is derived almost entirely from the traditional High Holiday prayerbook, but he presents the music so artfully and at times so simply that we forget the eminence and fame of the High Priest; instead we are transported to a world where he is just a man with a job – albeit a most sacred vocation – on the holiest day of the year. The words of his song present a man who undertakes his role of High Priest with seriousness, but at the end of Yom Kippur, returns home like all the other worshippers.

And that is the lesson I take away from the words of the bikkurim offering we read on this Saturday preceding Selichot and the text of Seder HaAvodah we will read shortly thereafter: Whether we are farmers sharing the first fruits or a High Priest asking for repentance for the entire community of Israel, we share a  human need to express gratitude and ask for forgiveness.  These rituals act as liturgical bookends: We move from gratitude and celebration with Rosh HaShanah to the yearning for forgiveness on Yom Kippur. Reading the words of Ki Tavo, each of us has an opportunity to become those grateful pilgrims, and when we hear the text of Seder HaAvodah, we each become that High Priest.