Yom Kippur with R. I’lai

…but much earlier…

Far in the distance a wide hilltop stands separate from its neighbors. Upon it, made of uncut stone, a broad ramp leads up to a square platform with a protrusion rising from each of its corners. Nearby, a man stands dressed in linen garments the color of the clouds struck through with the blue of the sky. As he waits there, an extended family slowly, but joyfully climbs the hill. Each of them has just bathed and they bring with them a young sheep. As they reach the top, they smell the aromas of burning wood and incense. They present the sheep to the man in celebration of the healing of one of the young fathers of the family. The man in the sky-clothes knows the family. He identified the symptoms when they first appeared, stayed with him during the pain of the illness, washed and encouraged the man to visualize his wellness, helping to bring about the cure. Now, the family enjoys a feast, a religious observance, as they reconnect the young father with the healthy, the community of his family, and celebrate their becoming whole once again.

Beginning about three thousand years ago, our ancestors went to the local Cohen when afflicted with some physical or emotional malady. The Cohen was the most educated among the ancient Israelites. He knew, what at the time, was to be known about the anatomy of animals. He knew how to recognize various symptoms and understood better than any other members of ancient Israelite society what those symptoms represented and the remedies available to treat them. Aside from the bureaucrats who developed during the period of David and later, the Cohen was among the most literate of our ancestors. The Cohanim studied what was, even at that time, the ancient literature of our people. We went to them to resolve our questions about the meaning of life and its trials. For special occasions, the Cohen supervised the celebrations of our people. The Cohanim made sure that the setting was right, that the proper food for the occasion was prepared, that the suitable incense was burnt to ensure the appropriate atmosphere

On Yom Kippur, the event would be something more like this.

Time passed and foreigners destroyed the ancient high places of our people. New groups among us learned the wisdom of our ancients, developed it, gained new knowledge, and made it available to all.




Bethami knew the way down the narrow windswept alleyways of Tiberias blindfolded.

The lapping of the tiny waves of Galilee offered a constant guide. She had walked this path many times, since her earliest years, when she went with her mother to visit the rabbi. The paving stones had already been worn smooth by the time of her youngest memories.

R. Ila’i [‘Erubin 65b] greeted her at the door to his apartment.

The soft light through the windows reflected off the whitewashed walls. The coolness of the room, in contrast with the humidity outside, comforted her. He sat there, as usual, on a woolen carpet in the middle of the room, quietly watching the patterns on the wall before him. Scrolls and wax tablets covered with writing lay on the low tables beside, and in the cubby holes behind him.

She came today on behalf of her husband, Judah.

He had recently begun to suffer extreme shortness of breath and intense pains in his chest. A very high-strung man, Judah had worked hard and become important in his quarter of the city. In his free time he organized efforts to counteract the increasingly unpleasant decrees of the Roman occupiers. Though his neighbors agreed with his efforts, Judah felt they were too slow to respond.

Bethami sat before the rabbi, near his line of vision and waited.

A person’s character can be judged by the way he handles three things; his drink, his money and his anger.

Bethami understood the wisdom, she didn’t know how to express it to Judah.

The nights were already longer than the days and in the deep valley where they lived, below the level of the great sea, this made for very little daylight. Soon R. Ila’i would meet with his closest colleagues to evaluate how they had spent their time since the previous year. He requested that Bethami invite Judah to join him.


The sun set over the steep mountain to the west and the day of pardoning began.

R. Ila’i welcomed his colleagues, his students, his neighbors, and a few invited guests to his home. He had put the scrolls and wax tablets into their cubbies earlier in the day. The tables, he moved against the walls. Almost everyone in the room knew the others on a personal level. Judah sat near Pinhas, a young man he considered a loose arrow, a young ruffian. Seeing the fellow there with all the others rankled him.

Judah had never heard R. Ila’i say an unkind word or perform a hurtful act, and yet, as each new arrival entered the house, the rabbi took him aside, bowed his head and spoke words of apology.

Many are the ways I have diminished the spark of the Holy One that lives in each of you. These actions may seem too insignificant for you to have noticed them. Nonetheless, they weigh heavily on my heart. You know that much of my day I sit here and watch the walls that now embrace us. On them, as though [l’havdil] on a pagan stage, I see the way you act with one another. I see also the pain you carry inside yourselves--and cause for each other. Please, today, each of us is equal in our transgressions. We each have drawn the string of our bow and loosed the arrow only to miss the mark. This does not make us bad people. Our Creator makes us pure. The Holy One created us with only the ability to aim, not the guarantee of a perfect hit every time.

All of us will die. Some of us may die this year, others at a later date, but we all will die. I cannot prevent the dying, none of us can, but we have the ability to ease our path through this life.

Some of us carry pains that point to their end. Our anger only increases the pain we carry and constricts our way. Together we can release the fury that burns in our souls.

Others among us have not yet found their way; there appears no clearly defined trail ahead, we seemingly blindly hit those nearby destroying the harbor that shelters us. Together we can buffer your bouts and guide you toward safe paths.

Our creator has set aside this day of pardoning for us to gather the spent arrows laying around the field. Come with me as, together, we search the plains and thickets of our lives for those words let loose without thought, even those acts of helpfulness left undone.

Having begun the process, R. Ila’i closed his eyes for a moment in silence.

Those in attendance shifted uneasily in their places. When he opened them he looked intently and personally at each one of them with a inviting smile on his face. Slowly, he listed a litany of wrongs. In everything he mentioned, he spoke for all present, as though the mistakes had been committed not against any one individual among them, but against the body of creation itself. Though many had never heard the phrases before, they recognized themselves in the images evoked.

For the error we have made, which hurt You, willingly and unwillingly.

For the error we have made, which hurt You, by hardening our hearts.

For the error we have made, which hurt You, by acting without thinking.

For the error we have made, which hurt You, by the words of our lips.

As he continued some of R. Ila’i’s colleagues began to add expressions of their own.

And then his students joined in the process. For everyone recognized something of himself in the words spoken softly, and in truth.

Judah found himself strangely at ease. The burdens of his responsibilities suddenly made distant as he sat among these people. Bethami’s involvement with the rabbi over many years had puzzled him. She had gently cajoled him into attending the gathering and he now began to feel the effort was worthwhile. He looked around him and saw men like himself: some younger and others older, some who made their living by their wits and others by the sweat of their brow. Each one of them shared the same boundaries of birth and death. His daily routine did not bring him into close contact with any one of them, yet he recognized variations of his own failings and strengths in them as he looked around the room. Nonetheless, he avoided the eyes of young Pinhas.

For his part, Pinhas squirmed.

R. Ila’i had met him in the market one day and invited him to come for the evening. In his late teens, all he knew was that he hated. He felt no allegiance to anything. Only the searing eyes of R. Ila’i convinced, almost forced him to come. He would just as soon be outside marauding as sit among all these strangers he’d seen around town. Yet, though no one held him there, something drew him closer into the circle.

The lamps began to sputter out.

R. Ila’i again closed his eyes and lapsed once more into silence. He stood, turned to Pinhas, helped raise him to his feet and said simply: “Please return in the morning.” He did the same with Judah. Then his students rose and helped Ila’i’s colleagues get up as the neighbors and other guests also arose.

They all left the quiet of R. Ila’i’s home into the silence of the street.

The three-quarter moon shown through gathering clouds that had moved north through the Jordan’s valley. As they slept, an early, unexpected rain washed the city.

Their home had been dark, and Bethami asleep, when he arrived, so Judah gently awoke her before he left for R. Ila’i’s in the morning.

He briefly told her of the evening. At the mention of Pinhas, he bristled, but noticed that he looked forward to seeing the youngster and hoped he would attend. Judah felt the heat and humidity rise as he walked to the rabbi’s house, but the dust of the summer that dirtied his bare feet the previous evening on his walk had already washed into the sea. This morning he heard the singing of the waves as they licked clean the edges of the city. He, also, felt cleaner when he arrived at R. Ila’i’s home.

The day was long, much of it spent in the silence of thought.

R. Ila’i repeated the exercise of the previous night more than once. The daylight on everyone’s face brought more directness to everyone’s expression in a way that the dimness of the evening’s lamplight disguised. Each time they repeated the phrases they found new meanings in them, saw more of themselves in one another and, as they looked around, forgave each other for their shared shortcomings.

Except for Pinhas.

The youngster arrived late in the morning, sweaty and disheveled from some strenuous activity. Though they had reserved room for him, when he sat, he fidgeted as though he had no space. His erratic motions disturbed the serenity that had begun to emerge among the others. The man beside him tried to ignore his presence but it did no good. His agitation persisted.

R. Ila’i stood and the room turned silent.

He stepped over to Pinhas, sat before him and placed his hands on the young man’s shoulders. Once again, the rabbis eyes bore into his. The hands on his shoulders were strong; yet the touch felt light. The eyes were deep and dark yet he saw softness in them. Ila’i spoke:

For the error we have made, which hurt You, willingly and unwillingly.

For the error we have made, which hurt You, by acting without thinking.

For the error we have made, which hurt You, knowingly and deceitfully.

For the error we have made, which hurt You, by wronging others.

As he spoke, R. Ila’i slowly released his grip on Pinhas. The young man felt the hands become a tender caress and the chaos in him began to subside.

R. Ila’i returned to his place and the men beside Pinhas each placed a gentle, restraining, hand on his knee.

Toward the end of the day, doves perched on the windowsill of R. Ila’i’s home.

He spoke of Jonah:

We need to change. Perhaps you consider that an impossible task. You simply cannot change. You can’t release the anger and get to the point of forgiveness. That was one of Jonah’s problems. He felt perversely good about his anger and resisted change. Remember...? God created a plant that briefly shaded Jonah and then destroyed it? Jonah’s response was ‘I am greatly angry, even unto death.‘

Jonah was so angry he could die. God discussed Jonah’s anger with him:

Jonah said:

People need You to clearly and immediately punish wrongdoing. People can’t change, they never change.

God responded:

Jonah, I threatened to destroy Nineveh because of their actions. Some of the people were primitive, ignorant, cruel, barbaric and not much different from their cattle, but they can change, they have changed. This ability to change makes them human, that is what makes me their God, as well as yours.

Jonah’s book is about us, ordinary people, whose potential as humans is our ability to change, and to let go of our anger.

As R. Ila’i spoke his voice dropped to a near whisper so everyone gathered closer to him and one another.

Some of the men even held each other in the circle with their arms on one another’s shoulders. As the day ended, the light in the room again dimmed, but this time the changed light did not disguise the faces of those gathered, it softened them. A new light of forgiveness shown from them, enlightened them and made them feel lighter of heart.

R. Ila’i paused again...

Five days from now, when the moon fills we begin the Festival of Sukkot. Each one of us is a sukkah, a fragile, delicate, temporary tabernacle, a booth, a dwelling place of the Divine. So, also, the society within which we live is such a sukkah. I can see no room for anger and hatred or destructive behavior in our sukkot. May the effort of this day help lift the burden of anger from our hearts and ease the path of our lives. May the embrace we share with one another now guide us toward creativity not destruction.

U’fros aleinu sukkat shlomecha. Spread over us the tabernacle of Your wholeness, Your peace.

©Mark Hurvitz