Mistakes

I have been making mistakes all week in the afternoon service, and a friend tried to cheer me up by telling me that even the Kohen Hagadol was corrected by his fellow priests.

Sadly enough, the reason why the Kohanim Gedolim [High Priests] needed help with their services as per Mishnah Yoma [the book of the Mishnah dealing with Yom Kippur] was that they often attained their position by bribery to enjoy the position’s emoluments. They were in real danger from God if they were to exercise their duties in an inaccurate or faithless way. The priests sequestered them a week before Yom Kippur and drilled them mercilessly on the precise points of the ceremony.  Perhaps the most perilous moment was when the Kohen Gadol had to pronounce the 72-letter Name of God, which effected the remission of sin for everyone. The shofars blasted as long as they could, but the Kohen Gadol had to say the Name under them. Often it was too much for the Kohen Gadol to learn the Name, and so, the backup Kohen, the Kohen with the most kehuna [priestliness], would pronounce it.

A year in which the Name was not pronounced correctly was an inauspicious and possibly deadly year for the Jewish people. One can imagine that the source of our national tragedies commemorated on 9 Av came from failures in Temple services on Yom Kippur.

The story of the Names, and how they evolved beyond the Tetragrammaton, has always fascinated me — how we could force God’s direct attention. My knowledge of the subject is limited to the Midrash, or, to be more precise, Die Legenden der Juden, a massive Midrash anthology from the early 20th century compiled by Louis Ginzburg. The simplest name of God is one character long: the yud. It went on Cain’s forehead, the message and its signature in one. It is amazing how many “magic numbers” we know of that cohort that could determine the length of one of God’s names. One, two, four, five, seven, eight, and then the squares of those numbers. And all of these letters had their value in gematria. The longest Name is seventy-two letters, and it was put in Jacob’s coffin as the Israelites left Egypt. Later, some prosaic medieval sages simply put together the consonants from lines in Psalm 21 and 23 to create a Name, although we don’t know whether it worked. And, of course, there’s the late Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote the story “The Nine Million Names of God.” He said that you could simply work out permutations of letters to find the name by exhaustion of the problem space; in the story, there is a success, followed by the stars in the sky going dark one by one. One could imagine some unlucky Israeli computer science graduate student printing out the Name’s permutations and pronouncing them in the same manner. There is a medieval precedent for this. The scholar Moshe Idel writes in his book on the Golem that the Name is required to give life to the Golem and that the Maharal and assistants spent weeks working out the permutations, chanting as they went until the Golem quickened. The Maharal lived.

Now that we only know the four-letter version of the Name, Yom Kippur is a lengthy and draining holiday. No more, as in Temple times, can the scapegoat be let loose and the Kohen Gadol pronounce the Name, a procedure which might have taken under thirty minutes. The day, like Tu B’av [a day of joy after the wrenching Tisha B’av fast], could in its greater part consist of proposals, betrothals, and joy because we had all been redeemed.

Now, we labor and sweat at the most important job in the world, asking God for forgiveness, a task which we have no idea whether we have done well until the High Holidays come around again without disaster. We are monads, everyone praying for themselves, their loved ones, and for this benighted and perverse world. We look forward to the Third Temple, when the burden on us is not so great, and when we can rely on the Kohen Gadol. This world has become very large, and we have a set of earnest, learned, and upright men and women who can do the job. And if you doubt that there are female kohanim, our OC Jewish Collaborative employs a Kohenet, one of many. She will have to get used to flaying and dismembering the sacrifices, but perhaps one day she will be High Priestess by right and do everything without a mistake.

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