Perhaps the most powerful moment in the history of Yom Kippur is one single sound that no one heard.
Buried deep within the seemingly endless liturgy of Yom Kippur, we find the Avodah service–often referred to as The Service of the Kohen Gadol (The High Priest). In terms of product placement, this portion of the service is a disaster. It comes late in the morning service, long after all the high publicity material and the sermon. The only people left in the sanctuary at this point are the true diehards–those that would never think to leave before the whole thing was completed. (And anyway, it’s not like anyone needs to rush home for lunch.)
But it always seems like we just keep on adding random things to the service just to make it longer. There you are, making your way nicely through the pages–looking forward to getting out of shul, if not for lunch then for some fresh air and then maybe a nap–and no, sorry–time for the Martyrology service. OK, now we skip to another section and turn to something called the Service of the Kohen Gadol. Could anything feel more irrelevant than reciting some texts having to do with an aspect of Judaism that hasn’t existed for 2000 years? This has to do with us how exactly?
In fact, this particular excerpt from the Yom Kippur liturgy better encapsulates the entire High Holiday experience as much (or better) than any other page in the Machzor. If it were up to me, I would place it front and center, right near the sermon and “Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die.”
The Avodah service is less a series of prayer and more of a historical vignette. It’s telling us about something that the Kohen Gadol once did–and it’s astounding in its power and simplicity. There used to be a way to pronounce God’s name that has been lost to history. Today, we say Adonai (literally: “our Lord”) instead. But the original word–notated in print with the ambiguous and unvocalized tetragrammaton Yud Hei Vav Hei–was in fact the one, true, and utterly sacred name of God. So holy that no one even dared say it or hear it–except for one person on one day. On Yom Kippur, the High Priest, after making sure that he was completely prepared physically and spiritually, would emerge from the Holy of Holies and perform one amazing act. After prostrating himself in utter humility, the High Priest would say out loud this now unthinkable name of God.
And in abject fear for their lives because of the sheer awe of this event, the people who were assembled would refuse to hear it! Much as a young child might cover his ears and yell, “la la la la” to drown out his parent’s voice, so too did the people recite in unison over the voice of the Kohen Gadol, announcing:
Baruch shem k’vod malchuto l’olam vaed! Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom forever!
The Avodah service, then, doesn’t express any fervent wish to return to the ancient rites of the Temple or to restore the Priesthood or sacrifices. It’s not even a set of prayers. Rather, it’s a short dramatic re-enactment which we witness in our own modern sanctuaries. Its sublime message is thundering in its simplicity: if we accomplish only one thing during these High Holidays, let us try to tap into even a fraction of the emotion which these ancient Jews experienced.
The opportunity for spirituality, holiness, and connection is all around us–our ancestors found it in the unheard sound of a single word.
So now I have to pay attention to this part of the service?
Only if you’re still there at that point.