You Smell Good But You Don’t Have To
A message for Yom Kippur
In the Yom Kippur Siddur[prayer book], there is a well known prayer that begins the erev Yom Kippur liturgy: in the yeshivah[academy] on high and the yeshivah down below, al daat ha makom, with the knowledge of the Holy One, we are free to pray with those who have transgressed, sinners, outcasts, strangers, losers. We are free to pray with them on this night, so, on all other nights, we are not free to pray with them? We don’t pray with them? We don’t associate with them?
Everyone is present tonight, everyone whether in or out we are all in tonight, or we are all out. We are all strangers tonight, or none of us are strangers. But tonight, we are together. There is no other tonight, or we are all Other tonight.
In Israel, the doors to the synagogues are left open, so that even the most secular Israelies can pass by, sit on the steps or stand on the streets and hear the sound of Kol Nidre being chanted in the synagogues. It is truly the closest thing we have to one people, this night, in Israel during the chanting of Kol Nidre.
No one is outside the camp on Yom Kippur. There is another prayer on Yom Kippur, what I have named my Yom Kippur prayer book after: Ketoret. It means incense. In the traditional machzor, or High Holiday prayerbook, there is a chapter about the laws of incense that was prayed in the morning liturgy. There was great significance attached to this section of the liturgy. The Arizal taught that careful praying of the section on incense alone brings a person to teshuvah-transformation. In the Zohar, there is something about incense in the prayers that is purifying.
Incense was blended with great precision in the Holy Temple and burned on a golden altar morning and evening. There were eleven spices in the blending of the ketoret, including one called the chelbenah, a foul selling spice. The chelbenah teaches the necessity to welcome the stranger, the sinner, the outcast, the other, into our prayer community, especially on Yom Kippur. There is no other. Or we are all other.
There is a personal dimension — each person too has an emptiness, a space, a darkness, a brokennesss that needs to be healed, to be integrated, to be included — it is our chelbenah, and when we integrate the chelbenah it is the key in finding our wholeness. Who is the whole person? The one with the broken heart, said Rabbi Nachman (he knew).
This is the transformational healing that we pray for on Yom Kippur, that no part of the self, nor anyone from the community, be separated from the whole.
When there is no other we are all other and whatever separates us diminishes, or whatever insulates us from the heart of suffering dissolves. We become the heart of suffering. We are the heart of suffering, all of us.
We have five prohibitions on Yom Kippur, taken from the directive in the Torah to afflict our souls. We do not wash, we do not wear leather, we do not have physical relations, we do not eat, we do not perfume ourselves. We afflict our souls, we move ourselves symbolically towards suffering because we soften to the heart of suffering, we are the heart of suffering, we are all other, we are all strangers. We are, none of us, outside the camp.
There is no outside the camp tonight.