Aaron shall place his hands upon the head of the live goat and make confession for all the transgressions of the children of Israel.
Our Torah portion goes into detail about the Yom Kippur priestly practice. Aaron, the high priest, has to prepare himself and perform all the details impeccably. He risks death in order to do this. He wears special garments, has a ritual bath. He then atones for himself and his own household. Only after that can he enter the holy of holies and offer a sacrifice to atone for the Israelites and sprinkle blood on the altar seven times as an act of purification.
Our tradition tells us that in post-biblical time, in our time, prayer takes the place of the sacrifices, of korbanot, of ways of drawing near to God. We no longer have a high priest to perform sacrifices of atonement and rituals of purification on our behalf. The closest we have is the shaliach tziboor – the prayer leader. Whether that person is a rabbi, hazzan or lay leader, the shaliach tziboor is supposed to pray “on behalf” of the congregation, to lift their prayers. In fact the Shulkhan Arukh and other rabbinic writings list requirements for the shaliach tziboor; for instance that person should be pious, knowledgeable, have a pleasant voice and be well liked.
There is a lot we can learn from rabbinic discourse as well as from our Torah portion on the subject of spiritual leadership, of what it means to be a shaliach tziboor. In order to help others, like the high priest, like the shaliach tziboor, we must first make sure that we have taken care of our own souls, and our own intimate relationships before we can serve the community well. If the promise for the Jewish people is to be mamlechet kohanim – a kingdom of priests – we are all called to imitate priestly qualities but in an inclusive, more democratic way. We all have to become the shaliach tziboor.
How do we do this? We begin by doing what we are doing today – by doing teshuvah, by owning up to our errors and dysfunctional tendencies, and by taking responsibility for our part in a dispute or conflict. We are called to mend our ways and be impeccable – and I don’t mean perfect, because that’s not possible – but to be awake, present, focused, ethical and just, as we recalibrate ourselves.
To draw from our wisdom texts, we are to cultivate a pleasant voice. That does not mean that we have to be professional singers, or even sing on key; it means that our voices should communicate pleasantly, with love, compassion and respect. As for being well-liked, I don’t think that is about being popular or charismatic, but more about being a mensch, being a trustworthy and decent person, and keeping our hearts open, and doing so especially in the face of conflict, and in interacting with people we find challenging.
In one of our Elul workshops for instance we talked about finding things to appreciate in the people whom we find difficult. Doing this does not erase or bypass the challenges in our relationships, but what it does do, is help us to not turn people into unidimensional figures.
Because we are more than our errors, we are more than our flaws, more than our irritations and hang-ups. If not, teshuvah is not even worth thinking about. And like I said last week (probably more than once), teshuvah is not just a solo practice; we do teshuvah in order to love well – to have compassion for ourselves and others, and to love beyond our besties, to love beyond our community, to love beyond the personal. To love God.
Like the high priest who purifies the Israelites by sprinkling sacrificial blood seven times, we purify ourselves with gratitude, as gratitude exercises the heart; it expands the heart. And if we want to draw from the 7, gratitude practice is a 7 day a week enterprise. If we exercise gratitude on a regular basis, we are able to zoom out and see more broadly, which helps us to reframe and recontextualize our struggles, and see how much we have in common with people we may find challenging. Through gratitude we may even understand their point of view a bit better.
In taking on the responsibility of the high priest, by being part of mamlechet kohanim, a kingdom of priests, each of us contributes to the wellbeing of the community. We lead from the bimah, from where the Davening Team is situated, to my right, from where you offer readings and kavanot at the microphone also to my right, and from your seats through active participation. Frankly, we are all leading by showing up here today. We lead by supporting one another, wherever we are, however we can, inside the sanctuary and in our daily comings and goings. We do this by being awake to the truth of “what is” before us and by keeping our hearts open so that we can find a way to build bridges of connection and understanding, and by appreciating what each one of us has to offer.
G’mar chatima tova – may we all be sealed for a good and fulfilling life in the coming year.