Yom Kippur – Dancing Cheek to Cheek By Rabbi Baruch
If Rosh Hashanah is about awareness of God, a proclamation of divine
sovereignty and transcendence, then Yom Kippur is about getting close to God.
The ritual is a “dance” to help establish the connection, reveal our personality
and demonstrate by our behavior that we want such a relationship to exist.
Our tradition teaches that the final set of the Covenantal Tablets, the luhot
haberit, were brought to the people on Yom Kippur. The ritual of Yom Kippur as
described in the Torah can be seen as an elaborate ceremony designed to recreate
that experience of Sinai, when the divine Presence was felt among the people.
Prior to ascending the mountain, Moshe removed his shoes and purified himself
to be prepared to come closer to the Presence. The people also engaged in
elaborate purification rituals. To re-enact such an experience through ritual
required the purification of the sanctuary and those who serve in it. The word
for such ritual purification is toharah and we will find it repeated many times
in the Yom Kippur liturgy.
Just as the core of the Sinai event was limited to Moshe, the ritual
reenactment limits entry to the inner sanctuary, the kadosh kodoshim, to the
kohen gadol, the chief priest, and permits such entry only on Yom Kippur.
The Torah tells us that when the Sinai event took place, there was thunder
and lightening and the mountain was full of fire. The people were frightened.
Closeness to God and closeness to another person creates vulnerability. The
Presence of God is desired, yet awesome. All the prophets that speak about such
an encounter are afraid. In his award winning book, The God of Old, James Kugel
of Harvard discusses ritual as a way of taming the encounter with a being that
transcends our human experiences and control.
In its ritual reenactment for Yom Kippur, the purification was intended to
protect that holy space and those priestly attendants when the Presence of God
would be perceived in the mikdash, the sacred sanctuary. The word for such
protection is kapparah, a term that will also recur many times in our liturgy.
Originally, kapparah meant to place a protective covering over something. Later
it came to be understood as the covering of sin to enable a person to go forward
in the process of teshuvah/ repentance and turning to God.
While this Biblical ritual seems arcane, ancient and alien to us, it helps if
we try to understand it as a type of courtship with rules about how the two
lovers might get close. There is a “dance” that we go through as we see or hear
about someone, Google the person, check them on J-match or j-date, or talk to a
friend to find out a bit more about him or her. Eventually we call or e-mail,
set up a coffee date – a limited encounter to protect ourselves. Slowly we
reveal something of our personal life and gradually deepen the relationship. If
we are fortunate we will, in the words of Irving Berlin, dance “cheek to
Perhaps Yom Kippur might be seen as a variation on the play, “I Love You.
You’re Perfect. Now Change.” The haftarah from Isaiah will try to tell us how to
change in our relationship as we try to move to greater and greater intimacy. As
we read the Torah, think about the people who are important to you and reflect
on your relationship with God, for all of Yom Kippur is about trying to get
Baruch Frydman-Kohl, a member of the UJC Rabbinic Cabinet, is Max
and Anne Tanenbaum Senior Rabbi of Beth Tzedec Congregation, Toronto,
UJC Rabbinic Cabinet Chair: Rabbi Bennett F.
Miller, D.Min. Vice Chair: Rabbi Ronald Schwarzberg President: Rabbi
Harold J. Berman Vice President, Jewish Renaissance and Renewal: Dr. Eric
Levine Mekor Chaim Editor: Lisa Kleinman Coordinator: Rafi Cohen