In these times of turmoil we rabbis bring a sense of comfort and steadiness to the communities we serve. In the storm tossed waters that seem to shake the world these days, our congregants, students, and communities look to us to help them make sense of it all. They look to our tradition, our prophets, our Torah for soothing, healing, and that most important quality, hope.
These coming High Holy Days will challenge us to bring that spiritual nourishment to the Jewish people like never before. In the aftermath of Charlottesville our people will need a true message of consolation. How to forgive in the face of such vile bigotry?
We, too, are not immune to these same feelings as those we serve. Our own outrage and concern as we have to respond to the hatemongers among us affects our well-being too. I have heard from many friends and colleagues about their own worries and concerns for the U.S. as the racists and white supremacists, Nazis and Klan have come out from their hoods into the light of day and the light of their tiki torches. I have heard about the fatigue that grips us as we are constantly called upon to march and comfort, speak up and show up.
So how can we in these days and weeks of preparation for the Yamim Noraim prepare ourselves to lead? How can we bring a sense of shalom to our own souls so that we in turn my guide and uplift our communities in prayer and reflection? How can we prepare to lead the Jewish people toward t’shuvah in the weeks ahead?
If we turn to Yoma 2ab we find the discussion of the sequestration of the High Priest. Seven days prior to the start of Yom Kippur the High Priest was removed from his home. This was done according to tradition to ensure the High Priest’s spiritual purity for the sacred day and sacred service. The High Priest lived in a special chamber at the Temple during this time and his team went to great lengths to ensure that his spiritual purity could be guarded and protected. During the Avodah service on Yom Kippur the atonement of the people depended upon his spiritual purity. But our tradition also teaches that the High Priest was sequestered to also search his own soul. This time allowed him to pray and reflect and meditate on the awe-some task that would soon come.
While we are not priests like in the days of the Temple, I believe we have to find the time even as Religious school starts up again, and there are sermons to be written, music to be chosen and our people return from their summer vacations, to prepare ourselves spiritually for the Days of Awe. Rabbis may not be able to take seven days prior to Yom Kippur to sequester ourselves but this text does provide us with a reminder that even the High Priest needed to prepare for his task. We too have to prepare our spiritual selves for our task. Our spiritual purity and sensibilities do need some time and attention. Self-care in these times of political disruption and assault will help each of us steer our people’s prayers toward heaven.
I am inspired by the High Priest’s preparation and I am inspired to ensure that my own soul is ready to do the heavy lifting of t’shuvah.
Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, CA and is the immediate Past President of the CCAR.