Rituals for the Days of Awe

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The ritual of atonement in Leviticus 16 is powerful and bizarre: Aaron takes two goat kids, sacrifices one of them on the altar and sets the other aside. After the sacrifices (including the goat), he goes alone into the Holy of Holies to make atonement for the people, and then he comes out and lays his hands on the goat’s head, and confesses over the goat all the sins of the people of Israel. And then a fellow chosen for the task leads the goat away into the wilderness and lets him go, and then has a good wash (including his clothes) and comes back without the goat.

I love that part, by the way. I love that the ritual isn’t complete until the guy comes back without the goat. I like to imagine that the streets are lined with people looking out for the guy to come back without the goat.

Anyway, that’s the Leviticus ritual of atonement, which we don’t do, and I think are specifically forbidden from attempting to emulate as Rabbinic or Siddur Jews, rather than Temple Israelites. The ritual that arose to replace it is tashlich, where we go to a river and symbolically cast our sins into running water. This metaphor is concretized by shaking out your clothes over the water or, in my end of the tradition, flinging breadcrumbs to the ducks and fish. It’s a lovely ritual; I always enjoy it. Y’all know how Your Humble Blogger loves some ritually concretized metaphor.

It occurred to me today, though, that the metaphor we are concretizing, like the goat business, is in making our sins go away. They’re still there, just not close enough for us to see. They still exist as bread crumbs, even if the fish eat them, just as the goat carries the sins away but presumably wanders around the wilderness with them.

I was wondering how different it would be, and what difference it would make in our sense of our shortcomings and our relationship to them, if we symbolically cast them into a fire. This could be casting something—breadcrumbs again? paper? dust?—into an actual fire, or it could be some sort of specially made candle or lamp oil that would be consumed in the service, or possibly bit by bit over the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And then our sins would be gone—not just out of sight, but destroyed. Would growing up with that tradition make a difference in how we thought of the Days of Awe?

Or what about this: what if we grew up with the tradition that everybody, as a ritual thing, mended a garment on the day after Rosh Hashanah?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

1 thought on “Rituals for the Days of Awe

  1. Michael

    I love this.

    I need to read more about the shaking out your pockets idea. It seems like there’s something to explore about the notion that we are carrying even when we do not mean to, and therefore violating the Shabbat even when we do not mean to, and casting off even this unintentional and unavoidable sin not as a statement of attaining a higher level of spiritual correctness but as a recognition of our imperfection and persistence in the face of imperfection.


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