Alternative Avodah Service

This interpretive/dramatic Avodah service was used at SAJ (The Society for the Advancement of Judaism) in 2016/5777. For years I struggled to make sense of the Avodah service on Yom Kippur. After studying the liturgy with my clergy partner Cantor Lisa Arbisser, we decided to create an interpretive version that brought the themes home in a way that congregants could relate to and which could become meaningful in their own teshuvah (repentance). Below is the script that outlines the interactive and dramatically staged Avodah, which was very impactful to the community.

Atonement for Family — Jewish Community — World

Cantor Lisa sings niggun several times through so the community joins.

Rabbi Lauren:

Our rabbinic ancestors taught us to pray when we could no longer sacrifice, taught us that giving tzedakah (charity) and doing gemilut hasadim (acts of lovingkindness) were more treasured by God than even the most pleasing odor in the Temple. They taught us to remember the past but live in the present — to embrace new forms of worshipping the Unknowable One.

Yet, they placed the Temple Service at the center of our liturgy on the holiest day of the year. While in our white clothes, we are reminded of the blood, the fire, the incense — the messy, physical acts of Temple times.

The Avodah service, which recalls the High Priest’s ritual of purification and atonement, involves rituals we moderns consider superstitious — placing the people’s sins on one goat to be sacrificed, and the High Priest had to be tied by a rope just in case he needed to be pulled back from the nearness of death as he entered and dwelt in the holiest and most dangerous place, the holy of holies.

The rabbis, who were often practical and rational, decided that generations to come should recall this ancient moment of atonement. Why? What is the power of this act? What does it teach us today?

For us, the Avodah’s power derives from its purpose — it is an act that can bring reconciliation, forgiveness, and healing to a whole community. It was a way of truly and completely resetting the clock, starting over. In the process, people were released from their wrongdoings and given a pure and clean slate. Our rabbis wanted to teach us that even though we no longer had the Temple, we still yearn for and strive for that kind of intense, profound release. That we might yet find a way to atone, to be forgiven, to start again.

Today, in 5777, 2016, we need that kind of release and atonement no less than our ancient ancestors. So, today, we are going to try something new. We are going to follow in the footsteps of the High Priest, to ask for atonement for ourselves and our families, our Israelite-Jewish community, and beyond. May the power of our words and the power of our intention wipe our slate clean!

Rabbi Lauren:

First, let’s hear about the High Priest’s journey in our siddurim. “Whatever place a person stands and looks towards heaven is the holiest of holy places. And every person a kohen gadol.”

Each of us is a kohen gadol who comes into this sanctuary seeking forgiveness and a clean slate. We begin where the High Priest starts his journey. Before seeking atonement for the entire community, he first prayed for atonement on behalf of himself and his household. Today, we do the same. Two families are acting as symbols for all the households of our community and our broader Jewish community. Their scripted words help us consider the wrongdoings we may be doing in our households.

Congregant Family 1:

We have done wrong, we have gone astray in the year that has passed.

Congregant Family 2:

We have turned away from each other, hurt each other by accident and on purpose.

Congregant Family 1:

We have neglected to listen to each other.

Congregant Family 2:

We have put our own feelings and needs above others in our households.

Congregant Family 1:

We have spoken harshly, raised our voices in anger.

Congregant Family 2:

We have taken the love of our family and friends for granted.

Both Families:

We were wrong, we ask for forgiveness for all our wrongdoings. Please wipe our slate clean!

Rabbi Lauren:

We confess as the High Priest confesses. Blessed are You who forgives us and our households!

Niggun reprise

Rabbi Lauren:

After the High Priest sought forgiveness for himself and his household, he prayed that the House of Israel be atoned for their sins. So too today, we pray for atonement for the wrongdoings of the Jewish community. Their words represent all our potential wrongdoings.

Congregant 1:

Please grant atonement for the transgressions of the Jewish people. For the sins of…

Congregant 2:

Not taking our Judaism seriously enough.

Congregant 3:

Judging other people in how they observe and practice their Judaism.

Congregant 4:

Worrying only about anti-Semitism and not about the problems of others.

Congregant 1:

Not worrying enough about anti-Semitism and the fate of my own people.

Congregant 2:

Not being open to hearing the views of others who see Israel differently than myself.

Congregant 3:

Not reaching out enough to my Jewish community for help and support.

Congregant 4:

Not paying attention to how Jewish values impact my actions in the world.

All Above:

For all these and more, please forgive our sins as Jews and members of Jewish communities. May our slate be wiped clean!

Rabbi Lauren:

Let us pray — we hear the confession of the High Priest for the Household of Israel.

Cantor Lisa  chants

Rabbi Lauren:

Blessed are You who forgives the transgressions of our people.

The High Priest would perform his duties and proclaim God’s holy name. If he made it out alive, the event took on cosmic significance — achieving atonement, a blank slate for all. In that light, as we seek to achieve forgiveness at this sacred hour, let us seek atonement as citizens of the world.

I invite everyone to stand up as we seek forgiveness and atonement:


We are individuals, families, and members of Jewish communities.

We are also part of a greater humanity.

This past year has brought senseless violence and hatred. Human beings have hurt each other and damaged the earth.

Whether or not we have directly caused this suffering, we share in the collective responsibility for it.

We seek forgiveness for the wrongdoings of humanity. We need a new beginning.

May our slate be wiped clean!

Cantor Lisa chants

Rabbi Lauren:

Blessed are You who grants atonement and new beginnings for our world.

“And the High Priest would pronounce sanctification… and he made celebration with those close to him—with his community—upon emerging safely from that holy place.” 

While our day is not over and there is more work to be done, we have made it to a critical point in our journey. There is release in asking for forgiveness and believe our slate can be wiped clean.

Let us go out from this place, this holy moment, in joy and in peace, with hope and with possibility.


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