Rabbi’s Weekly Message

Rabbi’s Message, September 7, 2023

The Atonement Appetite


Credit: “The Yom Kippur Goats.” International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.

           To understand what Yom Kippur meant to our Biblical-era ancestors, we need to enter their mental world. In some important ways, their imagined reality was quite different from our own. Only then can we take the next step—the really important step-- which is to understand what has endured despite the changes, and how the old wine of their spiritual yearnings has been decanted into new bottles.
             For Israelites in the time of the Bible, life was an insoluble problem without the presence of God in their midst (As indeed, ought to be the case for us!) They had a vivid horror that their sins, if unatoned, would eventually make it impossible for God to remain. Their sin would have the effect of banishing God and dooming themselves.
            Living in a secular age, as we do, perhaps we could envision this in physical terms.  The great health advances of the 19th century often had to do with securing clean water. We built water treatment plants and sewers precisely because using our water supply as our sewage disposal system, in an era of urbanization, was a leading cause of epidemic disease.  For our ancestors, the fouling legacy of sin operated in much the same way.  If there was no way to conduct it safely out of the physical boundaries of the community, it would poison them.
            The need to keep God present in their community explains the Bible’s Yom Kippur ritual of the “scapegoat”. The English term is unhelpful, even misleading. We will understand the ritual better if we remember its Hebrew designation, se’ir la-‘azazel,  the “goat bound for the wasteland.”  This was a goat over whom the High Priest would confess his own sins, the sins of the leadership elite, and the sins of the entire nation.  Symbolically, the High Priest would transfer the sins to the goat, and the goat would be driven off to the wasteland, where no one lived. The sin would have been distanced from the community. Their own communal space was thus restored to fitness, a place where God might abide. That was the ritual component of the psychological work of Yom Kippur, the work of repentance.
            We fail to understand the inner reality of their lives if we imagine that, for our ancestors, the ritual was merely an external prop, and the work was only psychological. Both the emotional and the ceremonial components of Yom Kippur were indispensable.  Each one by itself was necessary but insufficient to accomplish the work of atonement.
            There is a tendency in our modern era to downplay the ritual and focus only on the psychological.  It would take us too far afield to analyze why that is the case…. But suffice it to say that whenever we downplay the importance of ritual and behavioral performance, some deep inner need to have what to do will guide us to create new behavioral channels.


Credit: Getty Images. Source: My Jewish Learning, “Where to do Tashlich in New York City during the Coronavirus Pandemic”

            The creation of the “Tashlikh” ritual speaks to this. We do not know the date of origin of the Tashlikh pilgrimage to the waterside, in which the worshiper would cast either breadcrumbs or soil, pebbles, etc. into the water and recite verses referring to Divine forgiveness. The first explicit reference to that custom is in the work of Rabbi Jacob Moellin, a 15th-century Ashkenazic author. But the custom may well have been older…. How much older, we do not know.
            My guess is that the custom is from the Medieval era because we see other examples of liturgical creativity among the Ashkenazic Jews of that time. As often happens, when there is a void to be filled, we see several practices develop along parallel lines, and then one may emerge as the more popular.  For example, the practice of having a mourner lead the Saturday night service surfaced at about the same time as the practice of assigning one recitation of the kaddish to a mourner…. But as we all know, the latter became universal in Judaism, whereas the former is somewhat arcane.
            In the case of Tashlikh, the other practice involving the waterside and Rosh Hashanah is certainly intriguing, and perhaps it, too, will be revived: “Rashi [an eleventh century Ashkenazic rabbi] describes what could be the direct predecessor of the Tashlikh ritual. He says that a few weeks before Rosh Hashanah, Jews would make baskets from palm leaves and fill them with soil. Then they would plant a bean in the soil. On the day before Rosh Hashanah, the plant would have sprouted and Jews would wave the basket around their head seven times and then throw the basket into a river, thus combining to some degree what we now know now as Tashlikh with Kapparot.” (Aaron Feigenbaum, “The Origins of Tashlikh” Jewish Home LA, September 19, 2014.)
            Even if these developments date to the Middle Ages, and not earlier, the void that they filled went back to the destruction of the Temple.  What would lead to the elevation of a practice of throwing an object into the water, whether it be a sprouted beanstalk, a pinch of breadcrumbs, or a fistful of soil, to become a part of the New Year ceremonial? I believe that the New Year timing of the new customs is highly suggestive.  For the rest of the year, one might substitute verbal prayers for the biblically ordained ritual of animal sacrifice and feel that one had thereby remained in an acceptable framework of worship. But the New Year and the Day of Atonement were the time of judgment, times of life and death importance. This is when the Jews of the Middle Ages felt that their lives were literally hanging in the balance of God’s judgment scales. It follows that the void created by the ending of the scapegoat ceremony was harder to bear than the absence of sacrifices in general.
            We know that the High Holidays occasioned other acts of extraordinary piety, other ways for Jews to go the extra mile. These medieval centuries were also the time when making a High-Holiday pilgrimage to the cemetery became popular.  The graves of righteous ancestors or an esteemed rabbi were places where a pious Jew imbued with the world-view popular in the Middle Ages could expect to have his own prayers amplified.  The dead, having finished their eleven months of spiritual purification in Gehinnom, were now surely in Heaven, where they could be effective intercessors.  “Sei a guter beter!” (Be a good intercessor) was the prayer that Jews would add to the funeral liturgy, in bidding farewell to their beloved dead.  Having a loving relative so near to God was surely a way of having “friends in high places.”    

      Illustration: Jewish men, women and children performing tashlikh at the Williamsburg Bridge, New York, 1909. Credit. Jewish Women’s Archive/ Bain News Service, N.Y.C. Source: Library of Congress
            If my surmise is correct, that the Tashlikh service filled the void caused by the ending of the Temple-era ceremony of driving a goat into the wasteland, we can learn two general lessons of importance for our lives. First, religion has to breathe.  We must allow it to adapt to new conditions, to respond to new challenges, to develop creative solutions to the problems of the day. Second, these adaptations need to engage us, both mind and body.  We are not disembodied thinking machines.  We are embodied spiritual creatures.  Our Judaism will continue to help us lead lives of spiritual grandeur only if we involve ourselves in it, body and soul.