Friday, May 3, 2019

Rejoice in Reverence: Play the Lottery

It would be the height of irreverence if one were to come to synagogue on Yom Kippur dressed in a light-hearted or comedic costume. Imagine chanting the deeply inspiring and solemnly-themed liturgy on Yom Kippur as someone walks into the sanctuary dressed as a clown or a cartoon character. One can imagine the looks and comments for such a misplaced wardrobe. Conversely, if one were to assume the seriousness of Yom Kippur on the joyous night of Purim, it too would elicit looks and comments. Yet, the esoteric text Tikunei Zohar, in a Hebrew play on words, claims that Yom Kippur is a day like Purim. Yom Kippurim, translated into English as a Day of Atonement, also means “A day like Purim.” How can the two days be comparable? Could there be any more opposite days on the Jewish calendar?

Parashat Acharei Mot opens with a description of the Avodah, the service conducted by the High Priest in the Tabernacle on Yom Kippur. One of the most dramatic components of this service is when two identical goats are brought before the High Priest. The Torah declares (Leviticus 16:7-8): “And he shall take the two goats, and present them before the Lord at the door of the Tent of Meeting. And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the Lord, and the other lot for Azazel.” The Torah reports that a lottery was cast to determine which goat would be offered as a burnt offering “one for the Lord,” and which would be brought into the nearby Judean desert and thrust off a cliff, falling to its death as an atonement for Israel’s sins, i.e. “the other lot for azazel” (identified as the original scapegoat.)

Even though Yom Kippur and Purim are antipodal both in terms of mood and placement on the Jewish calendar, they both feature lotteries. On Yom Kippur, the High Priest engages in the aforementioned lottery. The holiday of Purim is itself named for its lottery. “In the first month, that is, the month Nisan, in the twelfth year of king Achashverosh, they cast pur, that is, the lot, before Haman from day to day, and from month to month, to the twelfth month, that is, the month of Adar” (Esther 3:7). Ultimately, to the faithful, a toss of the dice, or a draw of a lot, allows God is Providence to determine the fate of humankind. On Yom Kippur, we recognize God’s role in history in a very sober way; on Purim, the drawing of lots comes through joy.

King David (Psalms 2:11) states: “Serve the Lord with reverence, and rejoice with trembling.” King David was not mixing his metaphors; he understood that serving God and recognizing His active role in our lives can emerge through reverence and with joy. The Tikunei Zohar seems to agree.

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