Yom Kippur (Lev. 16:1-34; Num. 29:7-11; Lev. 18)

I have grown to appreciate Yom Kippur over the years.  Part of that is due to eliminating caffeine-withdrawal headaches.  And fasting is much easier than, for example, in my first year in grad school, when I fantasized about what flavor ice cream I’d get at the new Baskin Robbins and what snacks would be good to stock up on for studying in the first year grad students’ room.  The Yom Kippur War was also that year; we got news bulletins during services.  While there is a lot about those years in the Boston area I’d rather forget (like most of grad school), I look back appreciatively on the first Orthodox Yom Kippur Hillel services I attended.  They were led by an organic chemistry grad student named Aryeh (I don’t recall if he was a rabbi yet) and an Israeli named Bezalel.  Bezalel’s voice may have been average, and his Middle Eastern style of chanting may not have won him a spot at your typical suburban synagogue, but he chanted not only accurately but with intense kavanah (mindfulness while praying), literally setting the right tone for the day: serious, but hopeful.  And of course nothing was cut out.  By the time we were reciting the Amidah for the fifth of five services, I felt as if I’d run a marathon: worn out, but in a good way.  Not that I’ve ever run a marathon myself, but you get the idea.

There is a lot of special vocal music for the High Holidays, with distinctive musical modes for the prayers and the morning Torah reading and, in more traditional shuls, a lot of medieval liturgical poems (piyutim).  The familiar chant of Kol Nidre will put people in a suitably solemn mood this evening, but it’s not a prayer at all; it’s a controversial legal statement absolving people of certain oaths for the coming year.  From the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia at http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/9443-kol-nidre: “ Introduced into the liturgy despite the opposition of rabbinic authorities, repeatedly attacked in the course of time by many halakists, and in the nineteenth century expunged from the prayer-book by many communities of western Europe, it has often been employed by Christians to support their assertion that the oath of a Jew can not be trusted.”  The tsuris (troubles) caused by Kol Nidre was the reason my history-conscious father refused to attend.  (I don’t know why he didn’t just wait outside until it was over, since it’s at the beginning of the service.  David, Sarah, Miriam – do any of you remember?)

Anyhow, the morning Torah readings include the Yom Kippur activities of the High Priest (Leviticus 16:1-34) and the obligatory sacrifices (Numbers 29:7-11).  The people were so joyful when the High Priest came out of the Holy of Holies and announced they’d been forgiven that the rest of the day became a time for finding mates and announcing engagements.  As I noted this summer (https://igplotzk.wordpress.com/2013/07/19/vaetchanan-deuteronomy-323-711-shabbat-nachamu-4/ ), Mishnah Taanit 4:8 states that on Tu B’Av and Yom Kippur “the daughters of Jerusalem go out dressed in white and dance in the vineyards. What they were saying: Young man, consider who you choose (to be your wife).”  Appropriately, the afternoon Torah reading, Leviticus 18:1-30, is about forbidden sexual relationships.  The morning haftarah, Isaiah 57:14-58:14, is complementary to the ritual-filled morning Torah reading.  Isaiah does not reject ritual, like fasting, per se, but ritual must not be an end in itself.  It must spur the right behavior, like feeding and clothing the needy.  The afternoon haftarah is the book of Jonah (and Micah 7:18-20, which we just read for Ha’azinu and Tashlich).  Is this a fairy tale? Slapstick?  A parable on responsibility and the efficacy of atonement, emphasizing the universality and compassion of the Lord?  Probably all three, but remember from school that, in multiple choice tests, the longest answer is usually right.

Wishing you g’mar chatimah tovah, * an easy and meaningful fast, and Shabbat shalom,

*Literally: A good final sealing (i.e., in the Book of Life)


Top Ten Ways Yom Kippur is like Purim 
by the weekly bang staff Posted: 07-22-2006(Viewed 1316 times)

10. Someone’s always passing out by the end of both
9. You wear a nice suit for both, except on Purim you call yourself Agent Smith from the Matrix
8. Flying chickens spinning around your head is considered completely normal
7. On Yom Kippur you don’t drink and after Purim you swear you’ll never drink again.
6. One has Kol Nidre, the other has someone dressed up as Dr. Dre
5. In both stories “Winning the lottery” is actually a death sentence.
4. Heck, the whale threw up Jonah.
3. The phrase the “The whole Megillah” was made for Yom Kippur Services!
2. Sneakers make any Rabbi look like he is in costume
1. Hanging Judgment finally makes sense


Top Ten Unexpected Events in Synagogue on Yom Kippur 
by The Weekly Bang Staff Posted: 07-22-2006(Viewed 1181 times)

10. After a successful prayer rabbi announces he has good news for his congregation: “He just saved a lot of money by switching to Geiko.”
9. Instead of Atonement, G-d offers consolation prize: free month Jdate membership.
8. Cantor warns congregation of the possibility of him including some “Explicit Lyrics” in this year’s Kol Nidre.
7. Birkat Kohanim replaced with Bikram Yoga
6. Pledge cards actually just old bangitout Tubav dating cards
5. Concluding powerful shofar sound played on 1985 Casio keyboard
4. Ladies auxiliary seen scalping half price tickets outside synagogue
3. Somber Yizkor service concludes with a moment of silence for Biggie Smalls
2. Rabbi’s speech actually different from last year’s
1. Your mother goes entire day without praying for you to get married already

Casting our sins into the e-wilderness [excerpt]

eScapegoat, a new web app from G-dcast, a fast-growing San Francisco-based Jewish educational media production company, is helping some of us overcome our sheepishness.

By Renee Ghert-Zand | Aug. 28, 2013 | 11:30 AM

tph e-scapegoat 1

Goats at the eScapegoat Launch Party at Moishe House in San Francisco. Photo by Courtesy of G-dcast

tph e-scapegoat 2

Screenshot of the eScapegoat app.Photo by Courtesy of G-dcast

tph e-scapegoat 3

A participant with the goat of honor at the eScapegoat Launch Party at Moishe House in San Francisco. Photo by Courtesy of G-dcast

SAN FRANCISCO – If you keep an eye out, you’ll notice a goat wandering around the Internet.

This being the Jewish season of repentance, it isn’t just any goat. It’s an electronic scapegoat onto which computer and smart phone users are unloading their sins in a virtual reenactment of the ancient Yom Kippur ritual described in Chapter 16 of Leviticus.

“I’m too often grateful to get to work and away from my spouse and kid,” confesses one person. “I sexted my ex,” admits someone else. Another individual divulges that they “once ate bacon before the rabbi came over.” One parent apparently only “go [es] cycling with my kids just to get a tan.”

While we may be reluctant to own up to our misdoings, it seems that eScapegoat, a new web app from G-dcast, a fast-growing San Francisco-based Jewish educational media production company, is helping some of us overcome our sheepishness. G-dcast makes self-reflection easy. If you can tweet, then you can atone.

All you need to do is go to escgoat.com and read short texts on the biblical scapegoat story and how it relates to today’s observance of Yom Kippur. Then you enter your maximum 120 character-long confession and post it anonymously. You just type and click your way through the initial stage of atonement. “It’s just like the bible, only nerdier,” the on-screen text tells us.

There is, however, one major difference between then and now. In biblical times, the sins cast onto the scapegoat only went as far as the animal made it in the desert before dying. With this cyberspace-dwelling cartoon goat, our sins could live on forever, having been broadcast out to the world through eScapegoat’s (lightly moderated)@SinfulGoat Twitter feed….

On the whole, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, scholar-in-residence at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El, is a fan of G-dcast’s creativity. But he, like Booth (Rabbi David Booth, senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto, California), has reservations about the virtual scapegoat.

“I’m uncomfortable with the Internet as a place for personal record keeping,” he says. “But then again, I am 70 years old, so the Internet doesn’t hold the same allure and infinite possibility for me that it might for younger people.”

…According to Maimonides and other authorities of Jewish Law, it is necessary to make a verbal confession. “But you are supposed to say it privately,” Booth explains. “You should say it out loud so God can hear it, but not your neighbor.”

He is concerned that when you confess to an infinite number of neighbors in cyberspace, your ego gets overly involved. “Your ego is what makes you want attention. It makes you want to make your confession cute so it will be noticed and re-tweeted.”

… “I’m for anything that connects you to tradition and prompts introspection in this season,” echoes Kustanowitz (Esther Kustanowitz, a writer and social media consultant to Jewish organizations). “I don’t think people are really saying, ‘I confessed to the eScapegoat and now I’m good for the year.’”



The New Confessional

Patrick goes into the confessional box after a long lapse from going to church.

Inside he finds a fully equipped bar, Guinness on tap and a row of decanters with fine Irish whiskey. On the wall is a dazzling array of cigars.

Then the priest comes in.

“Father, forgive me, for it’s been a long time since I’ve been to confession, but I must admit that the confessional box is much more inviting than it used to be.

The priest replies: “Get out, you moron, you’re on my side”.

http://www2.byui.edu/Presentations/transcripts/majorforums/2003_07_17_walker.htm [selections] “HUMOR IN THE BIBLE,” Brigham Young University-Idaho Forum July 17, 2003, by Dr. Steven C. Walker

…When it comes to biblical humor, we miss the point. In fact, we mostly miss the humor. …Humor informs biblical texts. To miss the humor of the Bible is to miss not only much of its fun, but much of its meaning.

Take, for example, Jonah. Every scene in this prophetic book invites a smile – the picture of the reluctant prophet, for instance, fresh from the belly of the whale: reeking of whale vomit, trailing seaweed and barnacles and old fishheads, bleached of all his color by gastric juices, robe shrunk up to his knees and elbows, way bad hair day, not only disheveled but seriously disgruntled, trudging ornery into Nineveh muttering his message of doom in a language the Ninevites can’t even understand.

Scenes like that dominate the book. The first chapter alone sets up enough ridiculous situations for a Marx Brothers movie. God orders: “Go east,” Jonah goes due west, as far as he can. God threatens Jonah with a “mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken” [1:4]; Jonah, unfazed as a five-year-old, remains “fast asleep.” God gets into a water fight with Jonah just so He can rescue him. And the means of that rescue? Angelic life preserver? Submarine? Trained porpoise? Nope: the distressingly uncomfortable and disgustingly smelly “belly of the fish” [1:17].

From its opening parody of the prophetic call to the final picture of those “much cattle” [4:1] penitently attired in sackcloth and ashes, Jonah is a funny book. And the funniness matters. The humor in Jonah is not incidental, not superficial decoration. The humor is not only fun, but functional. There is a moral to the Jonah joke.

…The first thing we see in Jonah is a parody of the prophetic call. Prophetic convention dictated a certain shy reluctance in responding to the Lord’s call: Even the great Moses tried to get out of being prophet on grounds of stuttering. But when the Lord calls Jonah, he refuses to answer at all.

There’s another indication that the humor of the book of Jonah is deliberate: it’s climactic; it gets funnier as it goes along. The concluding statement is almost a punch line: “And should not I” God wonders out loud to Jonah in that closing verse, “spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:11)

The numbers insult Jonah’s accountant mentality: The quality of mercy is not strained, let alone the quantity. That can’t-tell-left-from-right comment suggests Jonah, like thickheaded Ninevites, “may not know his gourd from a hole in the ground” (Whitney 1) Funnier still to me is that “much cattle.” I see God grinning like a Cheshire cat in that sidelong glance at livestock: “Jonah, I’d save the city for the sake of its camels and its cats, its rabbits and its rats, its cockroaches and its bats, let alone its people. Especially,” the text smiles between its understated lines, “when those camels are so humbly dressed in sackcloth.” (see 3:8)

God’s explaining the joke to Jonah is a little like David Letterman heightening the intensity of a story by patiently pointing out the punchline to Paul Shafer. There is strong implication here of divine joshing: “The reason you have no compassion, Jonah, is that you have no sense of humor.”

So the biggest joke in Jonah is the topsy-turvy moral of the story: Jonah, condemning God, seems to us to commend Him. Jonah’s upset God won’t kill the Ninevites, like He promised. God’s gentle response to Jonah’s anger has to have a smile in it: “Doest thou well to be angry?” [4:4] “Isn’t mercy more fun than justice?” Jonah insists on telling God how to be God, so God tells Jonah how to be human. God invites Jonah out of his narrow theological certainties into life, into that risky and uncertain human life where things get iffy and as a result potentially funny. The message of the book of Jonah, delivered with a divine smile, directly contrasts Jonah’s sullen message of doom: The God of Jonah urges us to expect the unexpected. Jonah reads that moral as “damned if you do and damned if you don’t.” We read it as God does: “Blessed even if you don’t; way blessed if you do.”

Life with the God of Jonah is not far from the proverbial view of heaven: “better than we could ever imagine, and full of wonderful surprises.” Those surprises may be chancy business, like casting lots on a deck pitching in a storm so wildly the dice don’t have to be thrown. That undependability is an understandable threat to Jonah. But to us it is also a promise of fuller possibilities…

The smiling God of Jonah is closer to us than we’d thought. Divine and human meet in scripture in humor. Being “vomited out” by a great fish [2:10] is for Jonah trauma tinged with insult -“here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.” But for God the vomiting is, like all of His acts in the book, an act of compassion. For the whale it’s gotta be a relief -Jonah may have been “the worst case of indigestion he ever had” (Miller 1) For us, standing precariously between divine love and mortal limitation, that juxtaposition of sublime possibilities with ridiculous actualities puts us in the place of lifelike humor.    (See also http://viatherabbi.blogspot.com/2007/08/why-read-book-of-jonah-on-yom-kippur.html IGP)

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