Avodah

By Jo Radner

     Ritual constantly changes, but it must feel to the participant
      as if it has always been this way.
      —Barbara Myerhoff

1. Preparing To Say The Name We Cannot Say

To say the unspeakable Name
required unthinkable purity

a lifetime of study
a night of sweeping and scouring
five immersions
five white and gold vestments
ten washings of hands and feet
three confessions of sin
one sheep, one sacrificial bull, two perfect twin goats,
and the crucial sacred four
      the holiest place
      the holiest priest
      the holiest hour
      the holiest word
awestruck listeners prostrate at the Name—
Israel cleansed in a luminous instant.

2. What about Those Goats?

I can’t imagine that crystalline flash of forgiveness.
Was it like lightning? a jolt of power? the soul cauterized?

My mind wanders after those perfect twin goats,
one elected for heaven
– blood on the altar, immolation, purity gone up in smoke –
the other for the wilderness,
packed with Israel’s iniquities,
laced with red thread,
launched into the desert
no water
no food.

If I were that sin-laden goat,
alone in the waste,
prey to the wild,

I’d yearn to go home.
I’d use my God-given goat-brains,
ditch that hot red thread on a prickly bush
and creep back to my flock,
custodian only of my own iniquity,
hungry to eat, unnoticed, among friends.

3. And Now

Here we stand in white vestments
home with our own flock
but still
no water
no food
our own iniquities unbounded.

We are laced up with the world’s wrongs,
coupled to contamination,
allied with armies,
related to refugees wandering in wilderness.

Avodah is not what it was.
The Temple’s stones are scattered;
the high priest is gone;
blood sacrifice is out of style;
no single Name can bring atonement
though the distant story tantalizes.

Here we stand in white vestments,
empty, broken-hearted, as clear-eyed as we’ll ever be,
luminous together
still calling the Name
still finding our way
still hungering to be cleansed.

 

©Jo Radner