The Loneliness of the Kohen Gadol

By illustrators of the 1890 Holman Bible – Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

By Elliott Rabin

The highlight of the Yom Kippur service is the Avodah section of Musaf. When I was a child, in the Dark Ages before children’s services and paid babysitters, when we had to sit quietly for hours on end, this part of the service is where I lost it. Why did we need to spend so much time focusing on an ancient ritual that is no longer operable? The Temple is no longer, the sacrifices are no longer, there is no Kohen Gadol, and the kohanim today merely stand on the bimah waving their tallises on holidays (in Ashkenazi shuls outside of Israel). Why do we devote so much time when we’re fasting to this figure performing this atonement ritual? (and then, there are the goats…)

As I got older – not necessarily wiser – I came to identify more with the Avodah. I became intrigued by the mystery of the High Priest – the holiest person, dressed in the holiest garments, on the holiest day, entering the holiest place, on behalf of all of us. I was absorbed by the communal sweep of the kahal bowing all the way down on the ground several times, putting ourselves at God’s mercy, after all of our attempts to do teshuvah, to atone, to make our lives and relationships whole, to ransack our consciences and confess our misdeeds. The focus on the Kohen Gadol became a way for me to contemplate a symbol of closeness with God, of awe and love. And yes, the melodies, the passionate singing are different today than in my youth, representing a stirring sensation that the community has gone this far in the day and will keep on going through Neilah to reach the Gates of Heaven with our voices.

This year, the Avodah will mean something different to me. I’ll be in-person at a very small, socially distanced, outdoor (weather-permitting) minyan, much curtailed, without the accustomed, extraordinary people leading the flock. When we recite the Avodah, most likely without the prefatory piyyutim, it will likely be impossible to recapture the feeling of being surrounded by the kahal and transported back in time to the inner precincts of the Temple, in the Kohen Gadol‘s presence.

Instead, I may find myself dwelling on the Kohen Gadol as a figure of extraordinary loneliness. As we read about him in the Torah service, the Kohen Gadol performs a host of actions on Yom Kippur alone: cleaning the ashes from the altar, changing clothes, attending to the two goats (the scapegoat and the sacrifice), and ultimately entering the Holy of Holies, whence he may not return alive. In this time, when nearly all of us have been feeling so much more alone, isolated, cut off from loved ones, friends and our larger communities, we may find in the Kohen Gadol a model of someone able to draw strength when alone, who lives with a consciousness of God’s presence in every action and tries to be worthy of it. And is able to lead from that place of strength and loneliness.

Elliott Rabin is the Director of Thought Leadership at Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools, where he edits Prizmah’s magazine HaYidion. He is the author The Biblical Hero: Portraits in Nobility and Fallibility.