D’var Torah: Pondering the traditional reading

Rabbi Alan M. Klein


First, a clarification: I’m writing about the traditional reading of the Yom Kippur Torah portion. For reasons I thoroughly understand your congregation may substitute a more “relevant” reading, however, I do feel the traditional reading has much to teach us. On the other hand, it’s a challenge for people not accustomed to reading Torah.

The portion is set as an instruction from the Almighty to Moses for transmission to Aaron. It gives detailed instructions for the Yom Kippur sacrifice. We don’t do this anymore, but the portion concludes with some general instructions for Yom Kippur which do guide our observances. It contains the admonition to “afflict your souls,” which we interpret as fasting.

Another translation for this is, “Practice self-denial.” We could stretch this to mean to put ourselves in previous times and figure out what it was like to live in previous ages. We could try to figure out what was going on between Moses and Aaron. Aaron got the leading role after the death of his sons. He was carefully instructed what to do. Did he find some consolation in this? Who actually saw him perform these rites? How did the rest of the people find out about what he did? How did it happen that his heirs the priests would continue this ritual year in and year our?

We sometimes wonder what it was like for women during these rites. We really don’t know very much about the experiences of most Israelites during these rites. We can only imagine. They were away from home for the holiday. Maybe someone could “discover” a Jewish “Canterbury Tales.” Questions abound. Who actually went? The well-off? Everyone? The very religious? Depending on your answer, the story could be very different. Did whole families go? Did young people go, and how did they act? There are all sort of possibilities.

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How did people connect these rites to their own moral lives? That’s a question that still occupies us today. We often argue about whether going to services actually makes you a more moral person. And how did people connect with what was going on in the Temple? Were there speeches and if so, how did people hear them? It’s hard to imagine Yom Kippur without speeches. How were large numbers people included in the proceedings? Did each tribe or each farm present it own gift or sacrifice. There are answers elsewhere in the Torah and our tradition, but questions remain.

There are even questions about how we got this text. Think about it. On a literal level, we have God telling Moses how to instruct Aaron how to offer sacrifices in a Temple not yet built in a land the people hadn’t yet entered.

Again, there are explanations for this in our tradition, but the questions remain. Some scholars even say that the text was written much later.

We do have Yom Kippur and Jews who cherish it. That’s for sure. We can passively participate or we can wonder how we got here at services on Yom Kippur morning. Whether your synagogues read this portion or not, we can use it to learn how Yom Kippur came to be what it is today.

D’var Torah

Rabbi Alan M. Klein is a retired U.S. Air Force chaplain and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association