On this Shabbat directly after Yom Kippur, I would like to loosely weave together three themes that have touched me during these recent holidays. I hope you will see the link. And… the culmination is today, with the death of Moses.
On Yom Kippur we read from the Torah (Leviticus 16) about the role of the High Priest. About the 2 goats and the sacrifices and about what happens in the Holy of Holies once a year.
The High Priest will bathe and wear a tunic with breeches, sash and turban – all in white linen. He will go alone behind the parochet, the curtain.
There, in the Holy of Holies are the Stone Tablets that God gave Moses. They are in the gold-plated wooden chest—the Ark of the Covenant
But lest he die from such a sight, from such proximity, the High Priest will throw incense on God’s fire – and cloud his own view. What is it that he should not see? The kaporet, the cover of the golden chest? Kaporet? Why is this like kapara, or kippur. What does the root Kaf, Peh, Resh mean?
Rashi explains kaparah as wiping out
Ibn Ezra as hiding, covering
Rambam as ransom for a soul; atonement
Kippur is often translated as Atonement and Kapara as Sacrifice
The text says: “He shall then slaughter the people’s goat of sin offering, bring its blood behind the Parochet/curtain, and do with its blood as he has done with the blood of the bull: he shall sprinkle it over the Kaporet/cover and in front of the Kaporet/cover.”
Kaporet (Kaf, Pey, Resh & Tav) ……..Parochet (Pey, Resh, Khaf, Tav)
Same letters; different order.
Behind the Parochet is the Kaporet
I understand that something terribly important happens between the two—
between Parochet and Kaporet:
It is a permutation of letters, but a reversal that is transformational…that is, in fact, redemptive.
The second theme is the 2 goats
One is sacrificed by the High Priest as a sin offering.
The other goat, the scapegoat, is burdened with all the sins of the people and sent off to make expiation into the wilderness, to Azazel (whatever that is. Our Rabbi spent time on Yom Kippur exploring this in his sermon).
Rituals are powerful. Perhaps the ritual of the scapegoat inspires Jews to repent because it symbolizes that we can divest ourselves of past sins. The goat is left standing alive but sent off to possible or probable death… but we will not witness its death in the wilderness.
And, so in this week’s parshah … I imagine Moses… standing… high up on the peak—that is, on Pisgah. Is he perhaps the 2nd goat and is he also the High Priest pouring out the past and future sins of the people? His poem or song describes what will happen to us when (not if) we betray God.
It’s a history lesson—a harangue—an accusation—a warning—a witnessing …and a promise of God’s redemption. He speaks about God …and for God.
The last line (verse 43): ve’khiper admato amo translated variously as:
God will “cleanse the people’s land.”
or “appease His land & His people.”
But admato may be a scribal error for u’dmaot
Meaning, therefore, He will “wipe away His people’s tears” (not land).
Cleanse, appease and wipe …are all used for the word= khipper…which we know as atone or sacrifice.
Are the sins poured on our heads or has Moses taken them on like the goat? Is he somewhere between parochet and kaporet expiating our sins.
And later, on that very day Moses dies somewhere in the wilderness…
Much has been made of why he is prevented from coming into the Land…But I see this moment in the story as a sacrifice—a not so willing one.
14 years ago I wrote this midrash:
(Moshe and God on Mt. Nevo: a Midrash on Deut. 34:4-6)
So, the day was ending, and Moshe climbed the narrow trail to the other face of Mt. Nevo. Earlier in the day, at Pisgah, God had shown him the entire Promised Land and all that would befall Israel in the future. He saw more than he cared to.
So his thoughts turned to the past. He thought of Avraham who also climbed a mountain…that time, to sacrifice his son Yitzhak at God’s command. But God intervened and substituted a ram. “Maybe God will ……” he half suggested raising his eyebrows as if in conversation… and one hand opened to express the possibility.
He thought of his own sons, and wondered if he could have withstood such a test. His throat tightened around a flood of memories…so many recent deaths…
As he continued his climb, his thoughts wandered over the years. He recalled protesting to God that he was “not a man of words…that he was heavy of mouth and speech.”
“But, I suppose I did alright these last 5 weeks… teaching the people…with God’s help, of course” he added quickly, for he remembered God answered him then rather impatiently:
“Who makes a mouth for man…Is it not I, Yod-Hey-Vuv-Hey. So now go! I shall be with your mouth and teach you what you should say.”
Oh yes, he remembered well, and everything. He had pleaded with God so often—but he knew that no plea would change God’s decision now. He was not going with his people across the River Jordan. He would die here. Certainly, it was not because he had no strength or no skill. …for he certainly had the ability to persuade… even God. But, not this time.
The evening sun stood sentinel. “I understand,” he said suddenly out loud, startling himself.
The Man of God stepped surely over stones and brush to reach the place — haMakom… the very place where God would meet him, as promised.
“Hineni. I am here.”
“Friend,” said the voice of God softly, “I, too, am here.”
“You are my faithful servant,” pronounced God, raising Moshe’s already lofty status to that of Servant of God! A servant, after all, is permitted to enter the inner chamber of the king. Moshe would surely see now more than the afterglow of God’s passing presence.
Even kneeling Moshe was dignified.
God enveloped him and placed His mouth on Moshe’s mouth and reversed the act of creation. Yod-Hey-Vuv-Hey had breathed life into Adam’s mouth.
Now, He held His Godly breath and Moshe expired.
God carried Moshe’s body down to the valley and buried him Himself.
And that night, we are told, I-Am-That-I-Am was heard crying on Mt Nevo.
Well, a lot has happened to me, as you can imagine, in the last 14 years.
Which brings me to the next and last theme.
During these Holy Days we did a lot of remembering of our parents, our teachers. I thought about how hard it is to separate from them. To keep them close (in love and in hate) ….and to become separate—to become oneself.
I thought about the admonitions, criticism and other, shall I say, “poems” my father aimed at me and I wondered if I was any freer from perpetuating these “sins” than the Israelites were after hearing Moses tell them how they would fail repeatedly.
I thought about the role of parent/teacher—like Moses, like my father and now like me.
I am not sure that any of us know what we are doing with our warnings & predictions if not insuring that they will indeed happen.
But I do know that God loved Moses… and retired him from his job as father/leader/teacher in the only way possible. Moses died and there is no grave to visit, to mourn, to protest and cry at, or even fight over.
The Israelites had to make their own way with their own mistakes…just as I had to & just as our children must… in spite of who our parents were… but also because of who they were.
The last few days have been filled with remembering: of sins, of sacrifices, of deaths and then… then atonement.
The Baal Shem Tov said that “remembering is the secret of redemption.”
As we come back to the mundane world from our own personal Pisgah experience…
…from the intensity of the mystery between Parochet & Kaporet…
…from our restoration through reversals & teshuvah…
…from cleansing and appeasing and wiping away tears…
…May we go forward guided by the memory of a courageous Moses and the Torah he taught. On his yahrzeit, may his memory be for a blessing.
This year, Moses will be the first guest in my Sukkah.