Achare Mot: “I Can Do It Myself!”
Photo credit: Flickr.com, Kenny Holston, Whiteman fitness center
Years ago Joan Collins did a commercial for Jack LaLane Fitness Centers. She asked her butler to bring her her shoes and gym bag. When he asked if perhaps he should exercise for her, she replied, “There are some things one must do for one’s self.”
As I was thinking about Achare Mot, this week’s Torah reading, this commercial came to mind. A good part of Achare Mot is taken up with instructions for Aaron, as high priest, to perform the sacred rites in order to effect atonement and expiation for himself and the entire people of Israel. This became the basis of the Avodah service on Yom Kippur. Although many synagogues have taken it out of that day’s liturgy, I remember my teacher, Rabbi Jill Hammer, pointing out that this is a wonderful–often missed–opportunity to engage the congregation.
That was fall of 2014, and I was headed to Congregation Temple Beth El in Kauneonga Lake, NY to lead High Holy Day services for the first time in a rabbinic capacity. I took her words to heart, looked at the text, and created something with a bit of pageantry. Instead of the Kohen Gadol putting his hands on a goat and transferring the people’s sins, I passed around a Nerf football (I told them Dollar General was out of goats) and invited each person to hold it and transfer their sins to the ball, which would then be taken to the wilderness of Connecticut and set free.
For some it was silly, for others, quite powerful. It was amazing to watch people’s reactions.
Since we no longer have a Temple, we no longer have a High Priest to request atonement on our behalf, as in the Torah reading, we have to do it ourselves. In just under six months(!) we’ll be doing just that; fasting (which is commanded elsewhere in the Torah) and praying for forgiveness for sins we’ve committed against God. No one else can do it for us.
That’s good news and bad news; the bad news is, we have to do the work. The good news is, we don’t need a high priest or other intermediary to approach the Holy One of Blessing to ask forgiveness. We are each part of a goy kadosh u mamlekhet kohanim–a holy nation and a kingdom of priests.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that I’m only fooling myself if I shortchange my workout, or don’t write down the ice cream I ate; my body knows, it doesn’t care if anyone saw me. Like asking for forgiveness, from others, from God, from ourselves, there are some things we just have to do for ourselves.