Such Silence – a poem by Mary Oliver
As deep as I ever went into the forest
I came upon an old stone bench, very, very old,
and around it a clearing, and beyond that
trees taller and older than I had ever seen.
It really wasn’t so far from a town, but it seemed
all the clocks in the world had stopped counting.
So it was hard to suppose the usual rule applied.
Sometimes there’s only a hint, a possibility,
What’s magical, sometimes, has deeper roots
I hope everyone knows that.
I sat on the bench, waiting for something.
An angel, perhaps.
Or dancers with the legs of goats.
No, I didn’t see either. But only, I think, because
I didn’t stay long enough.
Across the street from my house is a hill and if I go up and up and up that hill, I’ll find myself on a ridge overlooking Tilden Regional Park. A short way along the fire trail on that ridge is a tree stump, cut flat and rubbed smooth by the years. It’s just about waist high for me, easy to clamber onto, and perfectly-sized to hold my cross-legged self. That stump is one of my sacred spaces, a space that I seek out when I need to remember who I am and that I am profoundly connected to the cosmos. And no, I haven’t yet seen angels or dancers with the legs of goats, but I can sit there listening to the natural and urban sounds blend, surrounded by morning fog or shielding my eyes from the sun as it peeks over the hill across the canyon, and I can feel myself sink down into the earth through the roots of this old stump, and extend up and out to the edges of our expanding universe. And I can know with a deep sense of knowing that I am part of the fabric of creation, whole and holy.
Where are your sacred spaces? Where do you go to know yourself, to remember yourself? Perhaps like me you can easily tick off a few places. For me it’s also at the edge of the ocean as I lose myself in the majesty and motion of the sea and its thunderous presence. And it’s in the arms of my beloved on a no-alarm morning where I can listen to the birds in the backyard and remember that I am safe and loved. Perhaps those places are harder for you to find. Maybe they are in a memory or a moment in time or in far-flung places that you have touched only briefly.
The traditional text we read on Yom Kippur teaches that “God spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of God.” (Leviticus 16:1) God tells Moses to let his brother Aaron know, as if it weren’t already apparent from the experience of his children, not to come into the Holy of Holies, the inner shrine of the Mishkan, our portable desert temple, whenever he feels like it. “For I appear in the cloud over the cover.” says God. (Leviticus 16:2). Then God proceeds to explain the circumstance in which Aaron is invited in, which is the temple ritual for Yom Kippur.
Aaron is to bathe himself, put on special vestments, and bring particular offerings – a bull for the sins of himself and his household – and a ram as a burnt offering. God instructs Aaron regarding the two goats, one of which is made into a sin offering to God and the other upon which Aaron lays all of our sins before it is driven into the wilderness. There is blood and fire and a cloud of incense which protects Aaron from the intensity of his encounter with God, “lest he die.” (Leviticus 16:13) At the end of all of this, on this day of atonement, the people of Israel are made pure again.
“This shall be to you a law for all time,” the text teaches, “to make atonement for the Israelites for all their sins once a year.” (Leviticus 16:34) A few hundred years later, the first temple was built in Jerusalem and for most of the next 1000 years, this is how we observed Yom Kippur, with the high priest making atonement for us each year.
The 13th century mystical text, The Zohar, adds another small detail of this temple ritual, the rope tied around the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest’s leg. “Rav Yitzchak said”, the Zohar reports, “‘One rope was tied to the Kohen’s leg when he went in [to the Holy of Holies], so that should he die there they could pull him out.’” (Zohar on Parashat Emor 102a) So dangerous is it to encounter God with this kind of intimacy, this kind of intensity, that it requires an emergency plan to reclaim the body of the High Priest if he doesn’t make it out alive.
Today, on Yom Kippur 5784, our practice has changed but our intention remains the same. Our mission here is to bring our whole messy selves to God, to reconnect with our sense of the divine, with what is holy in us and around us, and to recommit to becoming expressions of that holiness in the year ahead. What might that look like for you?
When I lived for a year in Jerusalem as a student in the early 1990s, it was still possible to go up onto the Temple Mount. I was able to enter the Dome of the Rock and see the exposed earth that is, according to Muslim tradition, where Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac and from whence the Prophet Mohammed lifted off on his journey into heaven. Ultra-Orthodox Jews won’t visit the Temple Mount, even in the seasons when that is politically possible, for fear that they will accidentally walk into the space that is the Holy of Holies, a space that is no longer clearly marked, and which we know from Torah is dangerously imbued with God’s power.
When I returned to Jerusalem, decades later, new excavations and the creation of the Davidson Center made the south steps of the Temple Mount accessible. Those southern steps are where our ancestors ascended in order to make offerings during our pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. I remember sitting on those steps imagining the generations of Jews who came here to connect with the divine. They are a pile of old rocks, they are contested space in a seemingly endless geo-political morass, and they are sacred because we Jews, Muslims, Christians, children of Abraham have imbued them with the presence of the holy. The layers and layers and layers of history and story and mythology we have laid down on those rocks create and reflect a reality that is so much greater than our individual selves.
These physical places, whether they are my stump across the street or the holy places recognized by millions across time and space, are manifestations of the divine. They are places where we go to touch what is larger than ourselves. We come to these sacred spaces with attention to what the space holds combined with intention, what we, the observers or the seekers, bring to that space. Brought together, those two things, attention and intention, allow us to touch aspects of reality, both outside of ourselves and within, that we don’t normally have access to.
In her work Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal, Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen reflects on the sacred space within each of us. She considers her cat who has a particular spot on the living room rug that is his spot. It’s not hidden in any way like his other safe spaces in boxes and under the furniture. To the outside eye, this piece of rug is completely exposed and looks like every other piece of rug, but to him it is different, a safe space, a sacred space. Remen compares this to something she learned about bullfighting. Apparently a bull in a ring has a similar spot, so common to the experience of the bulls that it has a name, a querencia. “If the bull can reach this place,” Remen teaches, “he stops running and can gather his full strength. He is no longer afraid.” Once the bull finds that place, his own sanctuary, he is very powerful and very dangerous in the ring.
“For humans,” Remen continues, “the querencia is a place in our inner world. Often it is a familiar place that has not been noticed until a time of crisis. Sometimes it is a viewpoint, a position from which to conduct a life, different for each person. Often it is simply a place of deep inner silence.” (Remen, 280) While we usually locate our sacred spaces outside of ourselves, we each carry our own sanctuaries within.
Today we read in the Torah from the Book of Deuteronomy, “Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe it.” (Deuteronomy 30: 11-14) The sacred is so close to us, it’s already in our mouths, in our bodies.
The journey of Yom Kippur is ultimately a journey inward, into our own hearts and souls. Each year, we are invited to consider the essential who-ness of who we are, and of who we are becoming. Whether your journey began this morning or last night, 10 days ago at Rosh Hashanah, or 40 days ago as we entered the contemplative month of Elul, you are here now. And today, like Aaron, we step into the Holy of Holies, into the sacred space within, and try to come closer to the divine spark within each of us, to our wildly imperfect whole and holy essential selves. It can be terrifying.
My beloved has a saying when someone is coming undone, be it hysterical or depressed or otherwise dis-regulated, that they are “unspooling,” like a yarn ball rolling down a hill. When that happens, she and I have a practice of telling the unspooling person, “I’ve got your string.” “I’ve got your string.” So when you step out the front door to be whatever kind of person you can muster that day in spite of or because of your unspooled condition, you can know that someone has got you. They are holding your string. And when the time is right you can and you will respool.
While other Jewish rituals can be practiced in our home, this is why Yom Kippur requires us to be together in our synagogue community. We gather as a whole community and we go on this deep interior journey alone together. Why? Because we need to hold each others’ strings, just as our ancestors held the rope for the Kohen Gadol as we sent him into the Holy of Holies to make offerings on our behalf. Being anchored in our traditions and grounded in our communities makes possible this journey to the center of ourselves, where we can, with or without fear, encounter what is holy within, bringing our attention and our intention to becoming our truest selves as we begin this new year.
Poet John O’Donohue offers us this blessing To Come Home to Yourself:
May all that is unforgiven in you
May your fears yield
Their deepest tranquillities.
May all that is unlived in you
Blossom into a future
Graced with love.