Yom Kippur D’var Torah

Dive into the Yom Kippur Torah portion with this D’var Torah by Megan Lieff.

It is holy to put on cleaner garments. It is holy to cleanse for the benefit of others. It is holy to take risks doing difficult or dangerous work for the benefit of your community. And it is also holy to try to mitigate, when possible, the effect this risk can have on others. I am finding new comfort in the idea that our ancestors evolved specific rituals about cleansing and community safety; and then clung to the story of these rituals, literally for millenia, long after they decided it was time to actually stop practicing them. Though I rarely feel so holy when I am adjusting the nose piece on my mask or refining my ability to estimate six-feet, there is a pang of recognition reading through this portion. These are the lessons I’ve been pulling both from reading over the many rules for how G!d commanded Aaron to perform Yom Kippur rituals, and also now, more than half a year into life under Covid, and in the midst of a public reckoning around racial justice and police violence.

While I don’t think there is anything inherently spiritual about the application of hand sanitizer, there is an utter holiness in a collective effort to keep a community safe, cared for, and healthy—be that through PPE or protest. Collective efforts to make mask-wearing understood and accessible, to make quarantine affordable for us all; efforts to get folks to defund their local police; the long standing battles in our country to get universal healthcare, reparations, and a public reckoning around how very deeply Black Lives Matter. These are all, in a sense, work towards public health. Not in the way that invokes bureaucracies and governmental intervention, but in its true, most basic sense: the work of doing what’s right, because it matters for everyone’s ability to live.

I’m struck by how this portion shows so clearly, that atonement, teshuva, must be both individual and collective. In order to guide the whole community in atonement, Aaron had to atone for himself as well. Rashi (a medieval Biblical scholar who wrote commentary for the whole Tanakh and Talmud) notes that Aaron had to give a bull offering from his personal funds, and use it to atone for himself and his family; only then could he move on to the communal goat sacrifice. Here the community gives two goats, collectively, to the ritual through which they all atone. Aaron names all of the community’s sin when he places his hand on the goat; not just his own sins; not just his family’s. He names everyone’s sins for everyone. It doesn’t matter if any given person didn’t commit every single sin—the community as a whole is called to atone together.

Put another way—as non-zionist Jews, we are called to do teshuva around the oppression of Palestinians committed in the name of Jewish safety. White Jews are called to do teshuva around structural racism in our nation, in our personal lives, in our friends’ lives, at our workplace, in our shul. Cisgender and straight Jews are called to do teshuva for how queer and trans Jews are often made to feel unsafe and excluded in our communities. And so on. When Aaron placed his hand on the goat, he named every individual sin committed in his community. Had he felt he wasn’t personally involved in a particular transgression, that didn’t then make it not his business. I see in this parsha a glimmer of the idea that transformative justice takes deep personal commitment, but is inherently community work. For those of us who fast, we do so as individuals, but together. Aaron had to make a personal sacrifice, but it was part of the process that led to him leading a collective sacrifice.

As diaspora Jews who no longer bring personal or community sacrifices to a temple, how do we know if our teshuva or rituals are change-making or just rote? Our tradition tells us that true atonement is bound up with justice. The Haftorah section that accompanies this parsha (Isaiah 58) offers us insight -it specifically addresses the idea that if fasting rituals are performed as lip service—and not married with a genuine just action—they don’t count for atonement.

“Because on your fast day you see to your business and oppress all your laborers! Because you fast in strife and contention, and you strike with a wicked fist! Your fasting today is not such as to make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies? … No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin. Then shall your light burst through like the dawn and your healing spring up quickly; and … the glory of G!d shall gather you in.”

If we fail to intervene in the oppression of workers, if our communities don’t ensure everyone has food—and PPE—and equitable access to safe schools—then G!d says don’t bother to fast; it will not serve as atonement. It is not enough if you have food in your own home, education pods for your own children, healthcare for your own family. There can’t be sincere atonement without an action plan for justice.

And pursuing justice takes risks. In the actual text of Vayikra, I found hints of what it means to put community first. The opening line of this parsha is careful to note that G!d passed the ritual instructions to Aaron through Moses, shortly after the death of Aaron’s sons. The Rashi commentary asserts that this is because Aaron’s sons had died by behaving in a prohibited way in the Tent of Meeting (the holy gathering space of the Israelites in the desert). G!d is giving Aaron instructions about an activity that, if done incorrectly, might lead to his death. And G!d is contextualizing it with a reminder that Aaron’s own sons died this way. I’m reminded of how every day, activists risk their lives and safety fighting police violence. How, in the first wave of mass protests in June, we didn’t yet know how dangerous it was to gather that way. But folks protested anyway. The kind of skills it takes to prepare, and safely steward, a community through mass protest, aren’t simple. The medics, organizers, chanters, musicians, legal observers, protest leaders, sign makers, caretakers who held it down at home so loved ones could march— like Aaron, all of these folks perform highly detailed, complex work for the sake of an entire community.

The world has changed so much, in 5780. What habits will we have trouble letting go of, in the times after covid? What habits will we want to keep? Will we find a way to make those habits holy? I ask myself this question all the time. I am reminded of the stories folks my parents’ age have about their parents’ Great Depression Era habits. And of the invitation, I heard, so much, as we all went into quarantine—don’t hope for a return to the past. Fight for a better future. I wonder about ourselves—what habits will we grasp so tightly, in 5781, that we might endeavor to talk about them forever? What habits are worth cultivating, ritualizing, sharing with the next 3,000 years of future ancestors?

Sometimes I fear we will all want to sanitize every door handle we see for the next 60 years, or that every subway train and dinner party from here on out will smell like death. If it must be so, then may we use this fear of death to value life. My prayer for us in 5781 is that we take on the habits of justice with as much intensity and passion as we have learned to ritually cleanse. Whoever you are, whatever you learned this year, through your grief, and your rage, and your passionate love of justice and life—there is no way 5780 hasn’t changed you. The magic lives in what you do with that change.

Megan Lieff is proudly neurodivergent, “Ashkephardi” and queer. A
lover of all Jewish stories, she spends a lot of time thinking about
how our Jewish traditions can teach us about trauma recovery and
collective healing. Within Nishmat Shoom, she is most often found
channeling her gift for creating spreadsheets and schedules into her
work on the Logistics Khug. Megan is passionate about challenging
capitalism and dreams of a world where all of our skills are valued,
and we are valued for more than our skills. Follow her on Instagram: @femme_tron!