On Yom Kippur we have the highest readership, as it were, of the entire year. The regulars are in shul, the mothers and babes are in shul, and of course the “I’ll make one effort per year” Jews are in shul. So why is this particular message the one that everyone needs to hear?
If you read Leviticus 16:1-34 wrongly, one would say that the message for Yom HaKippur is that a magical ceremony involving goats will give us an easy atonement: no muss, no fuss –a priest will send a goat over the cliff, and everything’s cool. We discussed the historical background of substitution rituals and goat sacrifice in Parashat Acharei Mot
But otherwise, what significance is there is hearing what the Yom Kippur ritual was when the Beit HaMikdash stood? Perhaps substitution as a concept is what we are supposed to understand. After all, what person wants to atone all year long for what he does? It’s easier to condense the act of atonement to a single day, and then take a whole year’s worth of baggage, dirty laundry, negative behavior and damage to others, and just throw it off a cliff. Easy-peasy. Except, in our heart-of-hearts, we know we aren’t done atoning. There is no easy way out.
Maybe the message is the messenger. One priest takes on all the sins, and deals with them once a year, for everyone. Still too easy.
But collectively, we have to create a priesthood and support it, and all of its infrastructure, in order to make this work. Ahh. To do that, we would have to work together as a people. And that, ultimately, is what we as a people don’t do very well. If we did, the goat wouldn’t have that much to carry.
Today, of course, we don’t have the single high priest and a goat. We have a multitude of opinions as to what constitutes moral behavior. And we have a multitude of sins, both collective and individual. And we have no single way of handling them. If the message is unity, we aren’t really listening. Unity requires a collective recognition of ourselves as a unique people, with a unique mission. We aren’t like all the nations of the earth. We aren’t supposed to assimilate into the morass, and ask to be judged by everyone else’s standards.
If we are all going to stand together in one location, just once a year, maybe that itself is what we need to learn. It’s not that we should evaluate ourselves by the standards of other nations: all the other nations should judge themselves by our standards. Collectively, we need to live up to that. And if we’re not, we need to ask why we aren’t doing so, and effectively plan what we can do to change.