Yom Kippur 5777/2016: Marei Kohen & The Tipping Point

Niggun for “Marei Khohen

[Note: The link takes you to a recording and the lyrics.]

This niggun, this melody, is for the piyyut Marei Kohen, describing the appearance of the High Priest emerging from the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, which we will sing again as part of the Avodah service. The location of this piyyut is at the end of the Avodah service, which is the tipping point of Yom Kippur, the point at which today is transformed from day of solemnity and trepidation into a day of joy and celebration. This tipping point reveals the true nature of Yom Kippur, which is often misunderstood.

When I was a child, I had a certain perspective on what Yom Kippur was all about. I remember the day feeling long, sitting in services for a long time, or playing outside during the day. What I don’t recall clearly at a young age why anyone explaining to me why we went to Yom Kippur services. I remember one particular year when I was in middle school helping to prepare for the break fast, and my mom went off to the Yizkor service, which she did every year since her father passed away when she was fourteen years old. [Our synagogue did Yizkor right before Neilah to ensure a Neilah crowd.] This was the first reason that I recall anyone stating out loud about going to a Yom Kippur service – to remember the dead. Naturally, from then onward, I associated this day with sadness and death.

I could not have been more wrong. That is not what this day is about. The festival of Rosh Hashanah is a day of introspection, trembling before God who sits in judgment on our every deed. That day is the beginning of the Ten Days of Awe, of cheshbon ha-nefesh, soul accounting. It is on Rosh Hashanah that we begin to ask ourselves the hard questions that we need to ask of ourselves at least once a year:

    • Where have I fallen short in the past year?
    • What could I have done better?
    • How will I do better in the coming year?

If we have been digging deeply into these questions over the past several days, and come away with a vision of who we can become in the coming year, of ways in which we can begin to re-make ourselves, to improve our behaviors and actions in the world, that is all well and good.

And one could encounter during this process moments of despair, of throwing one’s proverbial hands into the air, and simply giving up on trying to do any better, as if to say, “This is who I am, and I am not going to change.” Or worse – if someone would come to the notion that they simply do not deserve another year of life. That would be tragic. We all deserve one more year, one more chance, one more opportunity to change, to grow, to become the people that we have the capacity to become.

This is why we have Yom Kippur.

The Apter Rebbe, the grandfather of Abraham Joshua Heschel, described our two major fast days in the following way. On Tisha B’Av, with all of the heartache, tragedy and destruction in our collective past, who could eat on such a day! But on Yom Kippur, a day on which we come before God, articulating our misdeeds together as a community, and confident in God’s love and forgiveness, on such a joyous day, who needs to eat!

Yom Kippur day is a day of optimism. A day to turn away from despair. On this day, we come together to lift each other up. To remind each other that we are all in this long project of life together. This is why we rise and confess our shortcomings together. The nature of Yom Kippur is to move from the trepidation and fear of Rosh Hashanah into the joy and loving compassion of Yom Kippur and into the pure joy of Sukkot. On this day, we finish looking back over the past year, and we forgive ourselves for our shortcomings. We don’t forget them. That would be foolish. But we accept ourselves as flawed, imperfect, as works in progress, and forgive ourselves for the past year. And we hang on to those memories so that we can learn from the past year, to transform those misses into lessons that we can learn from, so that we can move forward in wholeness and acceptance. We move forward.

We began Yom Kippur last night, though, still in the mood of trembling and trepidation, in that Rosh Hashanah mode. Over the course of this day of Yom Kippur, we shift from that mode into the joyous mode of loving compassion and forgiveness. And this is the moment in the day, the fulcrum, the tipping point, where we begin that shift.

On Rosh Hashanah, we connect back to that first day when humanity emerges into Creation. Ha-adam, the human, stepped into the world, and in those first few hours of life, encountered God, heard one divine imperative (“Don’t eat from that tree.”), violated that one, simple imperative, and immediately experienced a sense of exile, of disconnect, of distance between themselves and God. God called out to them “Ayekah? / Where are you?” And God has been calling that out to us every since.

Ayeka? Where are you? That questions carries so many nuances within it:

  • Locate yourself.
  • Know where you are in the world.
  • Know where you are in your life.
  • Know where you are in relation to God, or in relation to the Universe, or in relation to everyone else in your life.
  • Know where you are hiding.
  • Know why you are hiding.
  • Know who is seeking you.
  • Know what it will take for you to come out of hiding, and to end the exile, to close the distance, to re-establish the connection.

Where are you? Ayeka?

For Israel, we hid in Egypt for so long, in the place of narrowness and confinement, until we finally cried out when we could take it no longer, when we finally understood for the first time that there was even a distance to fill, hope that could met, a reality that could change. It was only at that moment that we cried out and moved God, the most moved Mover (sorry Aristotle!), to help take us out of Egypt.

And it was not a perfect process, all neat and tidy. It was messy, and had moments both of victory and moments of loss. We created distance when we sinned with the Golden Calf, when we despaired over the report of the Scouts, and so many other moments of frustration, fear, and rebelliousness.

What did we do then?

We and God recreated the Garden of Eden in our midst in the form of the Mishkan, a place where we could go back and mend what was broken. We made a space where the possibility of experiencing God’s love and forgiveness would be palpable, visible, knowable. Where for one moment, we and God could both come out of hiding and affirm our love for each other, even if only for one moment out of each year. That would be enough.

With the genus of artisans and craftspeople, we took our most precious materials and created the Mishkan, our own portable version of the Garden of Eden. And every year, we appoint one of us, the High Priest, to re-walk the path of the first human, to push aside the curtain, past the turning flaming swords, and re-enter the Garden, to a time when it was just one human being and God alone together in the world, and repair the relationship between us and God, to mend the breach, to use all of the words that they can muster to bring God and Israel close again.

And it takes the High Priest so few words, just a few dozen, three short confessions, one for the High Priest and his family, one for their tribe, and one for the entire people. Only a few smatterings of words, but uttered with purity of heart and sincerity of mind.

That portable Garden of Eden moved with us, and it moved us. It was eventually made into a permanent space in Jerusalem, and was destroyed, rebuilt, and in the end destroyed. How insane is that? What confidence and loyalty must it have taken to take the time and resources again and again to recreate that space in which the possibility of God’s love and forgiveness could be felt? And it is gone. But it is just a space. The time still exists. The day is still on the calendar. The idea of the High Priest, the Holy of Holies, of the Garden of Eden still exist. The rest is just window dressing.


  • We are not standing on the mountain in Jerusalem, but we are all standing at the base of an inward mountain, a mountain of our misdeeds and our sorrows.
  • There is no Temple in Jerusalem, but the memory and this space.
  • There is no High Priest, but there is us.
  • There is the moon, which on the tenth of day a month is in the shape of an oval, which developed identity, of being grown up enough to come face to face with God.
  • Is still today, that space that we carve out of the year to do the same the the first human wishes they could’ve done, to do the same as the High Priest would have done.
  • There is still the possibility that a smattering of words can shape not just today, but our entire year ahead.

For today, I have asked all of you to write down your prayer, your blessing, your hopes and aspirations for the coming year is no more than 18 words. [Note: This was done via email in the days leading up to Yom Kippur.] I hope that many of us did that, and that you wrote them down and brought them with you today. And even if you did not, that’s ok. There is still the time today, still the opportunity, to compose those words in your heart and in your mind.

These words are not for you alone; they are for all of us. They are words that can lift us up, inspire us and give each of us hope for the coming year.

Here is what I would like you to do:

  1. In Private. First, take out the paper that has your 18 words on it, and if you did not do that, take some time now to reflect on what your 18 words would be for the coming year. Take time time to re-read what you wrote, and reflect on those words. Where did they come from? What moved you to choose those words? What do they point to for the coming year? What do they call you to do in the next twelve months?
  2. Share with another. Next, I would like you to offer those words to someone sitting near you. It can be someone next to you, in front of you, or behind you. Feel free to move a little closer to them if you can. Introduce yourselves. Connect with that person in some way. Perhaps it is just by looking into their eyes, maybe by holding their hand or their hands, if appropriate. If you are so inclined, perhaps put a tallit over your heads to make a private space.
    1. Decide who will go first.
    2. Listen to each others words. Take turns.
    3. As you listen to the words of the other person:
      1. How do those words touch you?
      2. How do they lift you up, inspire, or comfort you?
      3. What do those words call on you to do differently in the coming year?
  3. Public Sharing. Next, I would like to invite no more than 18 of us who have written their 18 words to come and share what you have written with all of us. [Note: Several members came to share what they wrote or composed.] What do we do when we hear words of blessing, hope and inspiration? We say Amen! So after each of these 18 words, we will respond as one community: Amen!

May all of these words, these beautiful, heartfelt smatterings of words, have the power:

  • to help us feel God’s presence in our lives over the coming year.
  • to help us make God’s presence felt in the coming year.
  • to lift us up.
  • to give us the optimism that this will be a year of goodness and light.
  • to come out of hiding and find each other.
  • to inspire us to seek atonement.
  • to help us cleanse us of all our misdeeds.
  • to help us begin this new year afresh.
  • to renew our lives.

Conclude with the Niggun for “Marei Kohen”

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