Cleansing the Altar, and the Anvil Too

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Some interrelated thoughts for today, which is Yom Kippur, a Jewish holiday that I kind of wish every year was one of my own. First of all, the text:

Okay, so that’s not the actual text; as Noah Millman helpfully reminded us in his post today, the real textual basis for the holiday Yom Kippur is Leviticus 16:18-22. And the meaning he takes from that text is very different from the one which Northern Exposure provided me with when I first saw the above episode (titled “Shofar, So Good”) nearly twenty years ago. But I love the show’s portrayal of the Day of Atonement nonetheless, and not just because I’m a huge fan of A Christmas Carol. No, I love it also because it’s just a wonderful combination of whimsy, misanthropy, ordinary realism, religious respect, and moral seriousness. (The above clip, while it conveys the main message of the episode, actually leaves out the entire best subplot, which is Holling’s feelings of guilt and shame over a child he’d never known, and the way Ed becomes a scapegoat for him.) I’ve never pretended to be anything other than a holiday enthusiast, happily borrowing them wherever I can, and finding in them whatever meaning I may; Yom Kippur is a holiday that, for me at least, invites just such an appropriation. I want to be reminded, viscerally, ritually, of the need I have for atonement, for resolution, for forgiveness. Mormons get reminded of it every week as we take the sacrament, and I love that ritual, but perhaps because of its very ordinariness it often–for me, anyway–lacks real weight. The call of the Shofar and the recitation of the Shema Yisrael…well, that’s not something one can easily elide.

But back to Noah’s interpretation of the scriptural text, which departs slightly from Northern Exposure‘s more traditional focus on prayer and personal atonement. He asks, intriguingly, just what the atonement, the scapegoat, is for. His answer is, it’s not for the person, or the people. It’s for the altar:

If you look closely at the text, what you’ll see is that the scapegoat ritual isn’t about atoning for the people, and taking away their sin from them, but about atoning for the altar. That’s what it says: the priest “shall go out unto the altar that is before the LORD, and make atonement for it”….What on earth does that mean?

When someone transgresses, and performs a sin offering to atone, the offering is not a penance, something the person gives up to make up for the sin, nor is it a bribe to the judge, something God finds pleasing and that will encourage His mercy. Rather, the blood of the offering is a kind of spiritual cleanser, which takes the residue of sin off the sinner. So where does it go? It goes, with the blood, onto the altar.

Which is why, once a year, the priest needs to make atonement for the altar, to cleanse it of the sins of the people that have accumulated over the year. It’s like cleaning the filter. The scapegoat ritual transfers these accumulated sins to the goat, so that the altar can continue to do its job of receiving the residue of sin for another year….

We moderns…don’t think we can cleanse ourselves by pouring blood on an altar. But we do recognize that the need to make restitution and the need for spiritual “cleansing” are not identical processes. The one is social; the other is psychological. And we do make use of intermediaries of various sorts for that process of cleansing, whether clergy or therapists or friends and family or even objects that we imbue with the kind of spiritual power once attributed to the altar.

And those intermediaries, who have taken on the residues of our sins, also need a cleansing.

So that’s what I’m going into this Yom Kippur thinking about. Who have I been using as an altar for the past year, making them the receptacles of my guilt and frustration and anger and all the rest of it, and what can I do to help them get clean of all that…so I can go on using them for another year.

I read this post this morning, before the holiday began, and it made me think of an old line attributed to George MacDonald–that in this life, we are not always the already-tempered and helpful hammer which is shaping and pounding another, nor yet the heated and shapeless iron, in desperate need of some honing, receiving our necessary though much regretted pounding. No, sometimes we are only the anvil. I first encountered that thought when I read an old sermon by Neal A. Maxwell, an apostle in my church. I found that sermon–which is simply titled “Patience”–in a missionary apartment in South Korea close to 25 years ago, and it struck me as one of the truest things I’d ever read:

Paul, speaking to the Hebrews, brings us up short by writing that even after faithful disciples have “done the will of God…ye have need of patience” (Heb. 10:36). How many times have good individuals done the right thing only to break, or wear away, under the subsequent stress, canceling out much of the value of what they have already so painstakingly done?

Sometimes that which we are doing is correct enough but simply needs to be persisted in–patiently–not for a minute or a moment but sometimes for years. Paul speaks of the marathon of life and how we must “run with patience the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1). Paul did not select the hundred-yard dash for his analogy!

My mother-in-law had a saying, which was in due course passed on to my wife, Melissa, and now has become second-nature to me as well: “The problem with life is that it’s so daily.” Not an original insight, to be sure; millions have noted, in all sorts of ways, the real burden that comes from the repetition of ordinary responsibilities, the constant need to attend to the same, whether with family or work or anything else. I know that I often struggle with that dailiness. I actually think that I’m not doing too badly insofar as basic spiritual matters are concerned, but I also know that I get worn down by it all. And when I do, I can see that I make anvils of my wife, my children, my friends. I don’t treat them badly, or at least I hope I don’t…but I do dump on them, let loose my sarcasm and annoyances on them, use them as a break from needing to be, from even wanting to be, a decent person. Because I know–or at least hope–that they’ll forgive me, and let me get away with being a jerk sometimes. I hammer on them, in other words; maybe what I’m hammering is me, or some unresolved issue I have at work or church or somewhere else. But I’m not doing it for them; I’m doing it for me. And that, itself, is a sin that I need forgiveness for.

So I thank Noah, and Neal Maxwell, and Northern Exposure, this Yom Kippur. The occasion of the holiday has provided me with a needed insight: that in trying to be honest and repentant of my sins, I take for granted some of those on whom I spill (metaphorical) blood, and employ (I hope at least mostly unintentionally) as anvils as I hammer out my own issues and the issues of those my church responsibilities put before me. I hope God’s grace is sufficient to cleanse these anvils and altars in my life, because I love them so. I hope I can be someone else’s altar and anvil as well…because that means that I’ll also get some reprieve sometimes (at least once a year, if the Jews are right!) from all that hammering and blood-letting which, in this mortal coil, we probably can’t ever fully avoid.


  1. And of course the scapegoat is released.
    There are so many possible distractions during the sacrament. I say possible because I know that some move beyond the distractions. I rarely did as a young mother and I still struggle to as an older person. Actually, this post is making me realize that I have strayed pretty far from where I ought to be during the sacrament. As a young mother, I was often chasing after my children. As a mother with grown children, I wonder where they are, what they’re doing, if they even remember the words of the sacrament prayer. (Two of my children are active; two are not.) Interestingly, all of my children look forward to our Mormonish celebration of Passover, when we do talk about many of the elements common to both Judaism and Christianity. It’s once a year, and regardless of their religious convictions, they enjoy it, and we have good conversations. The fact that it comes only once a year makes it special.
    I wonder what the significance of the goat is. There is a ram to replace Isaac at Mt. Morai, and blood of the lamb on the Hebrew doors, with Christ being the Lamb for Christians. Why the goat? What is its significance?

  2. Let’s not overdue the philo-semitism, it’s embarassing bc the Jews are highly skeptical of us.

  3. “The Jews” are all skeptical of us? Might there be one or two exceptions? We share significant traditions. I heard a presentation about Yom Kippur by a famous rabbi during a BYU conference years ago. His insights were remarkable, and he shared them freely, as did other presenters in the conference. Undoubtedly, there are some Jews who are skeptical of us (though you might even want to nuance “us” into “our beliefs/doctrines”), but there are many devout Mormons who have formed deep friendships with orthodox Jews. And why would we not want to express admiration for another religious group and its particular traditions–even if they were, without exception, “highly skeptical of us”? Let’s aim for greater appreciation of all religious traditions and overdo (not overdue,btw, which refers more to library books) our expressions and our respectful questions. We would love to have such treatment ourselves.

  4. Yeah I meant Reform Jews, you know, the successful ones in the economy, academia, etc. Alliance with Orthodox Jews is just getting deeper into cultural fringe movements. YMMV. I am not the best exemplar of our faith, to put it humbly. But I’m still part of “us” and I do hate it when you call my or other religions a “tradition.” That’s PC and shows weakness towards the mainstream that you can’t own it as a religion.

  5. thanks for the spelling correction re overdue/overdo
    let me guess-you make $20/hour?

  6. A Reform Jew says:

    The sermon I heard in synagogue this evening was somewhat bland–all about why our children should love Israel–so I came here in hopes of finding something more thought-provoking. I didn’t expect to read a piece that fit the bill so well. Thank you for applying your intellect to this holy day and giving me something new and challenging to work on this year.

  7. HenryJ (#4),

    I’m far from the best exemplar of our faith either, but what is the problem with calling a religion–our own or any one else’s–a “tradition”? I don’t see it, and I’ve never heard “tradition” employed in the purportedly “politically correct” manner which you allege. I mean, is your point that by speaking of our faith–or any faith–as a body of beliefs and practices which provide a structure for a certain sort of socialization and heritage, we’re somehow denying the “truth” of said tradition, or traditions? Why on earth would that be the case? I don’t see how recognizing the sociological or communitarian aspects of a belief system means that some how you’ve become less attached to that belief system. Granted, the sort of critical distance which would allow for that kind of awareness probably means you’re not simple-minded about your chosen set of traditions (you’re presumably aware of other traditions and belief systems, you can recognize similarities and differences, you can–as I do–see a value in borrowing or adapting various elements of other traditions and incorporating them into one’s own, etc.,), but that sort of knowledge does not necessarily equal unfaithfulness to one’s own religion.

  8. A Reform Jew (#6),

    Thank you!

  9. I earn $0 an hour, does that make my thoughts worth even less than Margaret’s?

    Russell, thank you for giving me something to mentally chew today. Your posts always make me think a little harder.

  10. Melissa–your thoughts are priceless. I was a bit quick on the spelling correction for Henry. I’ve taught English for nearly 30 years and have some habits that are hard to kill. Truth told, I make all sorts of mistakes when I write blog posts because I write them quickly. I can edit a post. I can’t edit a comment, though. And I often need editors in my own writing.
    So glad you appreciated RAF’s post. It is indeed thought-provoking.

  11. Bless you, Margaret. My comment was 100% tongue-in-cheek, but you know all about Ze Internet and tone. ;)

  12. My modest point is that the embrace of Yom Kippur here, whilst well-intended, comes across as ham-fisted and even a bit creepy to a lot of Jewish people (given that, to Jews, Judaism is as much an ethnicity as a religion, and we do not share that ethnicity). And that is something we should account for, I submit. I am biased bc I live on the east coast,but I think the bias can run in the other direction as well.

  13. @7, yes I think substituting “tradition” for “religion” is 1) new and faddish and 2) a relativistic implicit denial of truth-claims. I may be wrong, but it seems obvious to me.

  14. Fun fact: the scapegoat is released to be eaten by a demon in the wilderness. KJV left that part out.

  15. Re: 12. HenryJ, I could use many adjectives to refer to your comments on this thread, but “modest” would not be one of them.

  16. Well, Karen H. , I do apologize if my tone is off. It probably has to do with who I spend time with and how I make a living. But I am interested in substantive debate. And I do feel LDS engagement with Judaism is clumsy and needlessly offensive, in a way that harms me a bit, economically. So, that’s where I’m coming from. I’m doing my best to be open and not hide the ball, probably imperfectly though.

  17. Henry, you’ve stereotyped both “us” and “Jews” in your comments and basically said, “Don’t write about things if you aren’t an expert, even though your writing shows respect and admiration.” You’ve also mentioned your pocketbook and made disparaging remarks about others pointed at what you suppose to be their market worth.

    No, thanks – on all counts.

    Beautiful post, Russell. I honestly had never considered the principle of atoning for the altar and who I use as an altar. Thank you for making me think about it. It’s a powerful message.

  18. Well, Ray, my point would be, are we going to interact with Jews on the basis that they are an infinitely diverse group, or do we think they have some central tendencies that we might be trespassing on? I am arguing the latter, based on experience. Not sure what you think of those (as I see them) facts on the ground.

  19. Now it’s disparaging to suggest someone makes $20/hour? Wow, what do such geniuses think about Hispanic immigrants? Something is stinking . . . .

  20. A Reform Jew says:

    HenryJ–I get where you’re coming from about hamfisted creepy philosemitism as an unfortunate subculture of LDS thought–the kind of talk that, in one breath, celebrates the Torah or Jewish holidays while using “Pharisee” or “pharisaical” as an insult or describing Judaism without Jesus as if it’s obviously a primitive and incomplete means of relating to God–but Russell’s post doesn’t do any of those things. By my measurement, he gets it exactly right.

  21. Thanks for this post. And G’mar Hatimah Tovah!

  22. Since this is (or was) Yom Kippur, it might as well be today that I publicly apologize for the considerable number of uncharitable thoughts I allowed myself to think about Mormons and the LDS Church almost 4 years ago in the aftermath of California’s Prop 8. Much of my reaction (as a just-married gay man) was fueled by the fear of losing the sudden increase in self-esteem that unwisely feeds off public signs of respect.

    Several years ago I forgave those who had offended me. Only now 4 years after the fact, I am ready to ask the same in return. However each of you may have (or would have) voted in that election, I ask forgiveness for thinking ill of you to justify feeling better about myself.

  23. Dan,
    You’re a peach!

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