The Holy or the Broken (Yom Kippur)

Part 1

The Scapegoat by William Holman Hunt

The Scapegoat by William Holman Hunt

Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement, is the most holy day in the Jewish year. And it starts with goats. In the English language we have the saying ‘a scapegoat’; a scapegoat is someone we blame for the mistakes of others. It’s a common political strategy - divert attention away from one’s own wrongdoing, by putting all the blame on someone else, or some other people group. They then become our scapegoat. The saying ‘scapegoat’ comes from the Jewish tradition Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, went like this: the High Priest would take two goats, and stand at the entrance of their meeting tent, the Tabernacle. This is written about in the Book of Leviticus, which is one of the first five books of the Bible. At this time there was no Temple, as was later built, just a tent, which could be packed down and moved around with them. It was within the Tabernacle, the tent of meeting where the Spirit of the Lord was said to reside, in the tent, where they housed the stone tablets, upon which were written the Ten Commandments.

Okay, so the High Priest is in front of the tent of meeting, and they have two goats. They then cast lots, to determine which goat is to be sacrificed to God, and which is to be released into the wilderness to die. The one that was released into the wilderness had the sins of the people ceremonially placed upon it. Hence ‘The Day of Atonement’ – the day in the year in which, in effect, the slate is wiped clean for everyone. And hence the saying ‘scapegoat’, in which the wrongs of everyone are literally put on the goat. The goat died so that we can live.

Part 2

The interesting thing about the ‘scapegoat’ ritual is that it is done on everyone’s behalf. It requires no actions, no penance, it happens to all people regardless. (Lev 16:21) Aaron is to lay both his hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the transgressions, crimes, and sins of the people; he is to put them on the head of the goat and then send it away into the desert. The normal course for Jewish people in bible times was, upon transgressing the laws of God, they would have the High Priest offer up an animal on their behalf. Depending on how bad the sin was, an animal of greater quality or size may be required. But on the Day of Atonement everything is levelled, the transgressions of all people are forgiven regardless. Regardless of how religiously observant they are or not. If you take a step back, and think about this in terms of organising a tribal community, it’s quite a useful ritual to have in place. It meant that the divides that arose in society could not become too deeply rooted. Even if you were the most holy, observant guy on the block, on the Day of Atonement both you and your rascal of a brother were on equal terms before God. Today Jewish people often wear white on Yom Kippur to symbolise their forgiven state, their angel-like status before God.

Okay, now to talk about the song we heard - ‘Hallelujah’. ‘Hallelujah’ was written by Leonard Cohen, and made its first appearance on an album of his in 1984. He later adapted it and changed some of the lyrics. Then in 1994 the probably more famous, definitive version, was released by the late Jeff Buckley. And this morning we listened to Rufus Wainwright’s version of the song – you’ll notice that some of the lyrics in Rufus’ version differ to Cohen’s original. Indeed, changing this song, changing the words, adapting it to different contexts, was a process this song underwent right from its conception. The original Leonard Cohen version of the song, which you all have on your order of service, has a great deal of biblical imagery in it, which we will get into in a minute, but a later version by Cohen himself removed the religious imagery. Other more contemporary uses of the song, in Christian churches in the States for example, have changed the lyrics entirely, to be more in keeping with an explicitly Christian, Jesus-centred message. If one is the kind of cultural Christian that goes to only one religious service a year, it’s usually a Christmas carol service, or perhaps a midnight mass on Christmas eve. In Judaism the equivalent such service is Yom Kippur, as it is regarded as the most holy of Jewish holidays. This song ‘Hallelujah’ is a popular choice at these services. In playing the song ‘Hallelujah’, therer is a welcoming of the complexity of life, a welcoming of people’s doubts, and a recognition that the Holy and the Broken can be intimately bound up together. This directly challenged the hurtful notion that religiosity is in some way a yardstick against which the unfit fall. But of course the underlying message behind Yom Kippur is the very opposite, a message of redemption, and a release from guilt, or a release from shame you are holding against yourself.

The first verse of ‘Hallelujah’, is about King David in the Bible, the harp playing king, who is traditionally said to be the author of the psalms, which would have originally been put to music. In one section of the Bible King David’s music is said to revive someone who is ill, and cast out evil spirits. ‘Hallelujah’ has obviously become an anthem of supreme significance. According to Bono, “it may very well be the most perfect song in the world.” Music has the power to cut across divisions, and ‘Hallelujah’ is the timeless ballad which speaks to many people’s hearts. Music in this way can almost seem to possess a magical quality, a healing quality, which can bring us together even when division is most apparent. ‘The secret chord, that David played: the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift, the baffled king composing Hallelujah’. As we heard from our Old Testament reading of David and Bathsheba, we have to keep in mind that King David is regarded as the greatest king of the Israelites, and yet, was an adulterer, and a murderer, a king with a command of the most beautiful music, and yet, and yet... The power of the music brings together the wretch and the saint, even the wretch and the saint within us. It brings unity to our souls.

In ‘Hallelujah’ this story of David and Bathsheba is blended with the story of Samson, who in the book of Judges is tied down, and his hair cut - the source of his power. Even the Bible’s most heroic character has a reversal of fortunes, even he cannot overcome his broken nature. The song builds to the its central point; those ‘hallelujahs’, not to be understood solely in the traditional sense, as some are cold, some broken, and some holy. We give praise out of our confusions, doubt and dread. Music will offer solace when love has broken our hearts. Do not despair and turn to nihilism, there is hope in the face of a cruel world. And the final verse: ‘I'll stand before the Lord of Song, With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah’ – ‘Hallelujah’ coming forth from us, the broad complex us, us with all our doubts and brokenness, us living this kaleidoscopic life, who like David, hold beauty in one hand, and death in another. On Yom Kippur, as in ‘Hallelujah’, this broad spectrum is reconciled. All our Hallelujahs are of worth, and our faith in life is affirmed with enthusiasm and emotion. In this way ‘Hallelujah’ can be understood as a modern day psalm – a psalm of lament and praise. To close with some words by Leonard Cohen himself, “there is a religious hallelujah, but there are many other ones. When one looks at the world, there’s only one thing to say, and it’s hallelujah. That’s the way it is.”


Sources: 'The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of 'Hellelujah' By Alan Light