When I was asked or offered to write on the parasha for Yom Kippur I was conscious that in so doing I had to take into account that by and large Reform and Liberal Judaism not just in this country but throughout the world had chosen not to read the traditional passages selected by orthodoxy.
Traditional Judaism has as its principal Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning the passage from Leviticus Chapter 16 dealing with the scapegoat, while for the afternoon it chooses Chapter 18 which deals with the forbidden marriages.
Perhaps it is easy to understand both these choices: A religious life predicated on sacrifice is readily drawn to focusing on the role of the priests: Not just the priests but on the Kohen Gadol himself. And, as for Leviticus 18 for the afternoon reading admonishing the community and warning against forbidden unions can somehow go together.
Having grown up in the movement I learned at a tender age that Yom Kippur was much more than a day for admonishing. The very theatre of the day can and should give force to so much more: From the very start with the scrolls being taken out and held before the congregation and the simultaneous singing of Kol Nidre sets this as the Day of God.
The passages we read in the Machzor, add to that: Be it the AVINU MALKEINU or the AL CHET and that whole section of VIDUI, all form part of the panoply of penitence that is or should be Yom Kippur.
And clearly our movement in its wider sense also saw the role of the Torah portions as adding to that. In this country the Reform machzor takes for the morning service the story of the sin of the golden calf. To me that choice was not so much about the story as the aftermath: That once it had happened and that in the shock and horror of it God’s wish to punish the entire community is challenged by Moses. The relenting is met both by words which are part of the service following Kol Nidre (Vayomer Adonai – Salachti Kid’varecha – God said – I have forgiven as you have said or better, asked) and by the Adonai Adonai – the attributes of God – attributes which are surely not just God’s alone but should form the highest goals by which we should live – patience, forgiveness and consideration of others.
The Liberal machzor chooses for its morning Torah reading the passages which are part of Nitzavim: And again they are words not just for the addressees, the generation about to enter the Promised Land: There is in the passage clearly a message to us all as we enter the “Promised Land” of the New Year to make choices for good and not for evil. What has always resonated for me with this sedra is its opening: How each and every stratum of society is addressed, putting Yom Kippur not just in the territory of the priests and their control of the sacrifices but placing the onus upon every member of the community.
And that has its own resonance in the selection taken for the Afternoon Service: For almost universally our movement has chosen to read Leviticus Chapter 19, the Holiness Code. I recall Albert Friedlander z.l. telling us that the German Christian theologian Rudolf Otto referred to that chapter as God’s little bible. It contains the very essence of life for us all – as human beings, in our treatment of others, even in business and in law. It is the very summary of why we are there in synagogue on Yom Kippur!
May we and our families and communities both pray and fast well – and may the words we read inspire us towards a Shana Tova U’metuka.
Rabbi Charles Wallach
Ordained LBC 1975
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.