Central to the "Torah"—my father, Jacob Milgrom, z"l, taught me and countless others—was the revolution of priestly theology. In the priestly view, sin was not a separate demonic force; rather, sin was/is of human volition—human beings bring sin and goodness both into the world. It is helpful to think about our contemporary understanding of the polluting power of chemical fumes or toxins in the air. In the priestly view, when we sinned, the power of the wrongdoing traveled, as it were, on waves of polluting energy, leaving its mark on the Temple. The worse the sin, the farther into the sanctuary the polluting energy penetrated. Our chatat ("sin" or "purgation") offerings were part of a ritual that cleansed the Temple of the polluting effects of our sins. Some sins were so terrible that no purification, no expiation was possible. These sins penetrated all the way to the Holy of Holies. The biblical ritual of Yom Kippur was structured to cleanse the Holy of Holies—once a year—from the effects of this contaminating moral pollution. Were the Temple not cleansed of the effects of our wrongdoing, God's Presence would not be able to abide among us. (This priestly theology would not have understood the cry of our own age: where was God in the Holocaust? It would have been clear to them that human evil and indifference would have been responsible for driving God's Presence from the earth.)
The Temple of biblical Israel was destroyed, and then rebuilt and destroyed again, two thousand years ago. The Yom Kippur morning Torah reading of non-Reform congregations preserves the centrality of the Temple Yom Kippur atonement ritual by reading Leviticus 16. The spiritual and ritual practice of Yom Kippur, however, for Jews everywhere, is one of personal atonement and renewal. The Torah reading in Reform congregations on Yom Kippur morning is drawn from Parashat Nitzavim. Within this Yom Kippur reading is a small, simple, exquisite debate. Where is God to be found? Where is Divine Wisdom? How can I/we connect to sacred teaching? Is it unknowable? Is it beyond reach? Is it too complicated, and only meant for priests and scholars?
"Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, 'Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?' Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, 'Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?' No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it" (Deuteronomy 30:11–14).
In the Beit HaMikdash, the Temple in Jerusalem, only one person could enter the Holy of Holies on one day to utter one word. When my congregation rebuilt its sanctuary, we were invited to rethink the Aron HaKodesh, the "Holy Ark." Maura Smolover, glass and metal artist and sculptor, said, "Every ark looks essentially like a cupboard or a closet. You lean in and take out the Torah. Why not imagine it as a space you enter and experience?!"
Our new ark is defined by a celestial circle of light above and an earthly circle of stone below (quarried from Jerusalem hills, with fossils imbedded in ancient stone). Five Torah scrolls stand around the inside perimeter—with space in the center for people alone or together, for families, for couples, for b'nai mitzvah—every Shabbat. And, on the Shabbat of Shabbatot, as Yom Kippur draws to a close during N'ilah, nearly a thousand people make their way through the open doors of the ark and into this holy of holies, to voice the longings of their hearts, to cry and to laugh, to give thanks, to be present. And rising from the back are the words:
Lo bashamayim hi, "It is not in the heavens. . . . No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart."
Rabbi Shira Milgrom is a rabbi at Congregation Kol Ami and is part of a unique rabbinic partnership of two co-senior rabbis in White Plains, New York. She is the author of articles about Jewish spirituality, education, healing, and women in Judaism and is the editor of a unique siddur used now for two decades in settings across the continent. She is blessed to learn continually about loving from her husband, children, and grandchildren.
Yom Kippur is indeed not in the heavens, as Rabbi Milgrom points out. But it is also not solely within us as individuals because we experience it in the midst of a community. Although as individuals we stand alone in front of the ark, we come from, and return to, a congregation of worshippers. Yom Kippur helps us understand that our sins are not ours alone to bear—and that our successes are for the entire community to share and celebrate.
Our morning Torah portion emphasizes the communal nature of Yom Kippur. God addresses all of the Israelites: "You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God—you tribal heads, you elders, and you officials, all the men of Israel, you children, you women, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer" (Deuteronomy 29:9–10). Later, in a portion that is not read in Reform synagogues, there is a list of blessings that will come if the people obey God, and curses if they do not. These, too, are rendered in the plural, emphasizing that we rise or fall based in part upon the community we are in. We must answer not only to God, but also to each other.
While God's laws may at times feel beyond reach, they are close to us precisely because we are supported by others. Our ability to do t'shuvah ("repentance"), to turn and walk on a new path, is enhanced by those around us. Our experience of Yom Kippur is deeply personal, but at the same time, the holiday—like Judaism itself—is at its heart communal. Our Torah portion reminds us that we have the power to change, but only if we set to the task together—all of us.
Rabbi Erica Asch is the rabbi at Temple Beth El in Augusta, Maine.
Yom Kippur (Morning) Deuteronomy 29:9–14, 30:11–20 (Afternoon) Leviticus 19:1-4, 9-18, 32-37
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, (Morning) pp. 1,537–1,538, 1,541; (Afternoon) pp. 894–896, 899–900;
Revised Edition, (Morning) pp. 1,373, 1,376–1,377; (Afternoon) pp. 798–800; 803–804