I’m preparing a teaching session for the Ohr Kodesh Tikkun Leil Shavuot about the Avodah service, and looked back on some thoughts I shared at the Fabrangen Yom Kippur service in 2013. Here they are:
Remarks before the Avodah service
Fabrangen Havurah, Washington DC 2013 Rachel Braun
A general introduction: Hello, my name is Rachel, and now is the time for the Avodah service. It begins on page 606. In studying the Avodah service this year, I realized how deeply moved I am by it. So I want to share some ideas about it and then, some of the music.
The Avodah text is a piyyut, a classic Hebrew poem of late Antiquity that might have been borne of a competitiveness among payyetanim to produce a piyyut yet more obscure, more ornate, and more Midrashically esoteric. Our piyyut, here, is one of many Avodah piyyutim that have been composed over centuries. I did not realize there were so many, but given the poetic imperative, it makes sense. This summer, I read this book, Avodah: Ancient Poems for Yom Kippur, by Swartz and Yahalom, published by Penn State Press. It is a scholarly tome that introduces Avodah literature and then translates and annotates 8 Avodah poems from the 4th through 7th centuries. This effort is not ancient, however: now I’m holding up a book called Avodah, by Rabbi Menachem Creditor, which is a poem , presented over 24 illustrated pages, published in 2012. So the genre of Avodah poetry prevails.
The service begins with a summary of our history, from Creation to the Temple period. Follow along on pages 606 through 610 (Aigen Mahzor), and you see it covers these events: Creation, Eden, Cain’s murder of Abel, Noah, Tower of Babel, Abraham, Egypt, Sinai, Golden Calf, establishment of the priesthood among the Levites, and finally the service of the High Priest in the Temple at Yom Kippur, which we call Avodah.
Next, the text re-enacts the service of the High Priest and his three confessions. The first one is his personal confession, for himself and his household, on pages 611 to 612. He confesses over the head of a bull, and using first person, uses the formula we have borrowed throughout the High Holiday liturgy: Hatati, Aviti, Pashati: I have sinned, I have done wrong, I have transgressed. The people are in attendance, and they respond “barukh shem k’vod malchuto le’olam va’ed (“Blessed be the Name of God’s sovereign Presence forever and ever”), while the Priest utters the name of God.
On page 614, the second confession begins. It is in this part of the ritual that two goats are presented, and one goat is selected, by lot, for Azazel and another for sacrifice. The goat for Azazel will be taken to the wilderness by an ‘ish iti’ – a designated person, or perhaps, to cheat using a Hebrew homonym, ‘a man for his time’. The service around the goat was the choice for the YK morning Torah reading. This second confession uses the same musical motifs and vocab “ve’hah, hayah omer – ana hashem hatati aviti, pashati” (and thus did he say : O God, I have sinned, I have done wrong, I have transgressed). This time he extends his confession to include “bnai aharon”, all of the priestly entourage. The Israelites are still in attendance, and repeat the “barukh shem” passage as before.
Next comes the third confessional, beginning on page 617. The material is similar, and this time, the High Priest makes his confession on behalf of all the Israelites. The three verbs for sinning switch to plural conjugation – the people have sinned, the people have done wrong, the people have transgressed. – hat’u, avu, pash’u. The High Priest utters the Ineffable Name as the people again sing “Barukh Shem Kavod….” The goat that had been designated “for the Eternal” is slaughtered after he makes his confession.
That’s a general introduction to the Avodah service: contents and style.
Connections to our lives today: Here’s some of what I learned, and thought and wondered about when I considered the liturgy:
The poem begins with the history of Creation and ends with the High Priest performing the Avodah ritual. How extraordinary for the Priest to imagine that his work was so important, that all of the history of Creation led to that very moment. Do we ever have that feeling about the discharge of our own responsibilities — that what we are doing, right now, matters so much that history was primed to produce it? Take a moment now to identify what aspect of your life is something that the history of humanity has been preparing for.
The three confessions are sung in increasingly louder volume, just like Kol Nidre. So the confession on behalf of the people is the one that is sung in the loudest, most urgent tone. That’s a good thought for us – it would be human tendency for us to sing the loudest for our own wellbeing, as in the High Priest’s first confessional, and perhaps run out of steam by the time we paid attention to the community’s needs, his THIRD confession. Take a moment now to think about how you can be louder about your community’s needs and quieter about your own.
The High Priest has this important role, but nobody voted for him. In fact, he could be quite the ignoramus. The Mishna in Yoma discusses just what the sages of his time did to support the High Priest. If the high priest was wise, the elders trained him all night in the laws of his Avodah service, but if he was an ignoramus, they told him parables about kings and prophets. In either case, the elders still respected his role. Take a moment to think about whether YOU are able to recognize the spiritual gifts of many varieties of minds.
A statistician considers Avodah: My final observation about the Avodah service is the part that grabs me the most. I am always intrigued by the use of lots to determine the outcomes for the two goats. I think that’s because I’ve been trained as a statistician, and now I teach AP Statistics. One goat will be slaughtered and one will be sent into the wilderness (and in later rabbinic imagination, pushed off the cliff), and those outcomes are determined randomly, by chance.
Earlier this summer, I pulled out my folder of service notes from two decades of leading Fabrangen Hi Ho services. I was looking for something I had done once in a Musaf service, long ago. The page of my service notes was printed on the back of some notes from a statistics class I was teaching at the time. On it was written the following definition:
Random Process: We call a phenomenon ‘random’ if individual outcomes are uncertain, but there is nonetheless, a regular distribution of outcomes within the population.
That kind of describes the experience of the goats. You draw lots for two goats. You know that one will be sacrificed for the sins of the people, and one will be sent into the wilderness. But in advance, you couldn’t predict the outcome for any one particular goat. That fits my definition of random process.
Here’s another example about the distribution of outcomes in a population and the uncertainty of individual outcomes: You live in a community of Jews, with some assembled somewhere together for Yom Kippur, and some not. We know, from our reading of Unetanah Tokef, that we will have different outcomes this year, among us. Some will live, some will die. Some will be healthy, some ill. Some will be enriched, some will bear a burden. We figure that in the population of Jews, those will be the outcomes. But in advance, you couldn’t predict the outcome for any one of us.
Whether God knows the outcome for any one Jew is a big controversy in our engagement with High Holiday liturgy. That’s one reason why unetana tokef, for example, is so difficult to engage with. Suffice to say that for me, randomness seems to explain a lot both in my professional life and in my theology.
So now I want to think about the random outcomes of the Avodah ritual from the goats’ perspective.
One goat is going to pay a heavy price – it will be sacrificed, and its blood flung on the altar. Sometimes we feel that way and we see it in human outcomes around the world. Through no fault of our own, we ‘pick up the tab’ for other people’s mistakes, for their negligence, laziness, ill-intent, and warmongering. A soldier might have this experience.
The second goat is also burdened with the legacy of the people’s sins, laid on its shoulders by the High Priest. When we are like that that goat, we need to make our way in a sometimes unfamiliar, hostile wilderness, and we’re stuck with the consequences of other people’s mistakes, along with our own. Sometimes those mistakes represent legacy from history that we did not animate, but we nevertheless inherited. Some of those mistakes came from others close to us, and they need us now to be strong and share the burden. Some of those mistakes came to us because of our own mishaps and deeds, and even though Aaron or we confess them, those mistakes are learned from, but not erased.
Think, now, about an outcome you’ve experienced that came to you through no fault of your own, and has seemingly been randomly dropped on your shoulder. Perhaps it is a personal struggle with disease; perhaps it is the murky mess of some family matter; perhaps it is national political decision-making that has unhappily filtered down to your life. Take a moment to ponder: how will you wander through the wilderness with this random burden, fair or not, placed on you?
Now let’s sing selections of the Avodah service.