וְהָֽיְתָה לָכֶם לְחֻקַּת עוֹלָם בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי בֶּֽעָשׂוֹר לַחֹדֶשׁ תְּעַנּוּ אֶת־נַפְשֹֽׁתֵיכֶם וְכָל־מְלָאכָה לֹא תַֽעֲשׂוּ הָֽאֶזְרָח וְהַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתֽוֹכֲכֶֽם: כִּֽי־בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם מִכֹּל חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם…
V’ha’ytah la’khem l’khukat olam: ba’khodesh ha’shvi’i be’asor lakhodesh t’anu et nafshoteikhem, v’khol melakhah lo ta’asu, ha’ezrakh v’hageir hagar b’tokhakhem. Ki va’yom ha’zeh y’khapeir aleikhem l’taheir etkhem mikol hatoteikhem …
And this shall be for you a law for all time: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall practice self-denial, and you shall do no manner of work, neither the citizen nor the stranger who dwells among you. For on this day atonement shall be made for you, to cleanse you of all your sins … (Leviticus 16:29–30).
Chapter 16 of this week’s portion describes in detail how to enact Yom Kippur: dressed in plain white linen (as opposed to his regular very elaborate vestments), Aaron, הַכֹּהֵן הַגָּדוֹל ha’kohein ha’Gadol, the High Priest, enters the sanctuary alone and sacrifices a bull and a ram. Then he takes two goats and casts lots upon them. One goat is slaughtered and offered to God on behalf of the people’s sins. The other goat is chosen as the scapegoat. (This biblical goat is, in fact, the origin of the English term “scapegoat.” In Hebrew, the term is שְׂעִיר לַעֲזָאזֵל s’ir l’azazeil, a whole other fascinating story, for another time.) Aaron lays his hands on the scapegoat, confessing all the sins of the people and transferring them onto the goat. The goat is then sent away into the wilderness, carrying the people’s sins away with it. The people are now purified of their transgressions so that God can continue to dwell in their midst. At the end of the description, the Torah announces, “And this shall be for you a law for all time.”
What’s wrong with this picture?
Well, thousands of years later, we are still marking the 10th day of the seventh month, Yom Kippur, as a day when we practice self-denial and seek atonement for our sins. That much is consistent — miraculously so. But we practice none of the ritual described in the Torah: no High Priest, no animal sacrifice, no Holy of Holies, no scapegoat. All of these practices ceased after the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. Yom Kippur today resembles the Yom Kippur of the Torah in no way at all.
This makes Yom Kippur a signal example of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s description of Judaism as the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish People. Through numerous disruptive historical, geographical and cultural upheavals and transformations, we Jews have succeeded in retaining the inner meaning and purpose of the Day of Atonement. The outer form has evolved so dramatically that a contemporary Yom Kippur would be unrecognizable to our biblical forebears. Over time, prayers replaced animal sacrifices; communal confession replaced the work of the High Priest; fasting, which is not explicitly prescribed in the Torah, became the central accepted form of “self-denial”; synagogues replaced the mishkan and its Holy of Holies; the compelling ritual of the scapegoat has long since disappeared (we still read about it on Yom Kippur, but no longer enact it) and has been superseded by the rabbinic commandment that the ritual of Yom Kippur does not atone for wrongdoing unless one has already attempted to reconcile with the people one has wronged. And you might notice that rabbis weren’t even invented back then!
Our longevity as a people is not a result of our unwillingness to change. On the contrary, we are still here precisely because of our ability to evolve and adapt to changing circumstances, while still retaining the life-sustaining teachings of our ancient roots.
We draw this same lesson when we compare the Festival of Passover as it is described in Torah to Passover celebrations today. Readers of the Torah are always surprised to discover that there is no mention of a Passover Seder in the Torah, yet the Seder is the central feature of the Passover observances that we know. The external form continues to evolve so that it can carry the timeless truth ever forward — that oppression and subjugation must give way to freedom.
The central message of Yom Kippur also has not wavered, despite (or perhaps as a result of) the evolving outer form of the Holy Day: We must be accountable for our actions; we must make amends for our misdeeds; when we feel separated from God and from one another, forgiveness and reconciliation are always possible. I picture our ancestors following that scapegoat with their eyes as it wandered out of sight into the wilderness. I imagine the relief and release they felt as they knew they had been offered a chance to begin again. I think of the way my entire congregation chant the confession of sins, and then pour out our hearts singing and praying Avinu Malkeinu together, swaying as one, our hearts all aiming at that distant horizon, and I feel that same relief and release: We, too, can begin again.
What a marvelous paradox! The form must evolve so that Judaism can continue to reveal its timeless teachings to a changing world. Only in this way can the link to our Torah remain intact.