Book Serialization Part 14: Six People You Meet in Synagogue

Book Serialization Part 14:  Six People You Meet in Synagogue

The Mythic Priest

ust above, we saw how the mystic vividly employs and deploys her mythic narratives of heaven.
Priests, whom we meet formally as synagogue archetypes a bit down the road in our journey (in the chapter “The Priest’s Prayers”), get in on a mythic mode of their own by imagining the sacrificial orders of the ancient Temple, by making reference to them and by reliving them. For instance, on the Sabbath, the day of rest, the priest recites at the center of his Amidah prayer, not a long paean to the creation in six days and rest on the seventh, but strikingly something else. He chants a recollection of the sacrifices of the Sabbath day in the ancient Temple.
You did institute the Sabbath, and did accept its offerings; you did command its special obligations with the order of its drink offerings. They that find delight in it shall inherit glory for everlasting; they that taste it are worthy of life; while those who love its teachings have chosen true greatness. Already from Sinai they were commanded concerning it; and you have also commanded us, O Lord our God, to bring thereon the additional offering of the Sabbath as is proper. May it be thy will, O Lord our God and God of our fathers, to lead us up in joy to our land, and to plant us within our borders, where we will prepare unto you the offerings that are obligatory for us, the continual offerings according to their order, and the additional offerings according to their enactment; and the additional offering of this Sabbath day we will prepare and offer up unto you in love, according to the precept of thy will, as you have prescribed for us in thy Law through the hand of Moses thy servant, by the mouth of thy glory, as it is said:
“And on the Sabbath day two he-lambs of the first year, without blemish, and two tenth parts of an ephah of fine flour for a meal offering, mingled with oil, and the drink offering thereof: this is the burnt offering of every Sabbath, beside the continual burnt offering and the drink offering thereof.” (Numbers 28)
They that keep the Sabbath and call it a delight shall rejoice in thy kingdom; the people that hallow the seventh day, even all of them shall be satiated and delighted with thy goodness, seeing that you did find pleasure in the seventh day and did hallow it; you did call it the desirable of days, in remembrance of the creation.
Our God and God of our fathers, accept our rest; sanctify us by your commandments, and grant our portion in your Law; satisfy us with your goodness, and gladden us with your salvation; purify our hearts to serve you in truth; and in your love and favor, O Lord our God, let us inherit your holy Sabbath; and may Israel, who hallow your name, rest thereon. Blessed are you, O Lord, who hallows the Sabbath.
For the priest, there is no better way to single out what makes the Sabbath special than to reference and relive the service for the day as it was performed on the altar in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.
And, to further illustrate this point, on the day of great introspection and confession when Jews gather to seek atonement for their sins, in the service for Yom Kippur, the priest invites you to relive the olden activities in the Jerusalem Temple when the High Priest obtained forgiveness for all of the sins of the people of Israel.
The highlight of this ancient service is called the Seder Ha-Avodah (the sacrificial service) in the Musaf Additional Service for Yom Kippur. It describes how the high priest entered into the Holy of Holies, the innermost holy sanctuary of the Temple. He offered there incense and sprinkled blood and then emerged intact from the presence of God and declared God’s acceptance of the people of Israel’s prayers for atonement.
This lovely, almost childlike narrative of the high priest, tells me the simple things that he did, what he wore, and how his face looked when he finished the ceremony. It stands out as a uniquely vivid mythic story made into a prayer for the Yom Kippur service in the synagogue.
Here is the core of the text of the High Priest’s Yom Kippur sacrificial service:
For his sake you made the covenant of the rainbow as a statute, and in your loving regard of his savory offering, you blessed his children.
You gave him twelve tribes, beloved of the exalted God; they were called “loved ones” from their very birth.
A forehead-plate, a robe, a breastplate, an ephod, a tunic, linen breeches, a turban and a sash.
He was then given the golden vestments which he put on; he sanctified his hands and feet from a golden pitcher.
Arousing within himself feelings of reverence, he entered the Holy of Holies, and when he reached the Ark, he set down the fire-pan between the staves of the Ark.
He transferred all the incense from the ladle into his hands, put it on the glowing coals to the west side and waited there until the Holy of Holies became filled with smoke.
He hastened and took the blood of the bullock from the stand whereon he had placed it, dipped his finger in the blood... and sprinkled from it upon the curtain...
And thus he would count: One!
One and one; one and two; one and three;
one and four; one and five; one and six; one and seven!
When the priests and the people standing in the Temple court heard God’s glorious and revered Name clearly expressed by the high priest with holiness and purity, they fell on their knees, prostrated themselves and worshiped; they fell upon their faces and responded: Blessed be the name of his glorious majesty forever and ever.
…and he took off the golden vestments. His own garments were brought to him and he put them on; and they accompanied him to his house. He would celebrate a festive day for his coming out from the Holy of Holies in peace.
How glorious indeed was the high priest when he safely left the holy of holies!
Like the clearest canopy of heaven was the countenance of the priest.
Like lightning flashing from benign angels was the countenance of the priest.
Like the purest blue of the four fringes was the countenance of the priest.
Like the wondrous rainbow of the bright cloud was the countenance of the priest.
Like the splendor God gave the first creatures was the countenance of the priest.
Like the rose in a beautiful garden was the countenance of the priest.
As I go forward now to the next chapters, I observe that the other ideal synagogue people whom I meet invoke the mythic narratives of Israel for their own purposes. Scribes whom I visit in the next chapter recall the narratives of the sins and punishments of Israel from the book of Deuteronomy to instruct us to keep track of our credits and debits and to fulfill more commandments of the Torah.
Meditators, whom I seek out later on, recall chapters from the past narratives of Israel so as to help them bring compassion and loving kindness to the present experiences of their lives.
To summarize, as I have met the ideal people of my prayers, I have come to realize how the mythic mode looks back in time. It helps bring the narratives of Israel’s past to life in the synagogue so that we may find more perfect ways to pray. And, in particular, I’ve observed how Hannah, our mystic archetype, looks heavenward to learn to pray and even to dare to imagine that, while praying, she transcends her time and place.
In the next four stations of our spiritual journey, we meet four more archetypes of the synagogue: first the scribe, then the priest, the meditator and the celebrity-monotheist. We shall see that they apply the mythic mode of expression with greatly diverse results. They, too, seek to transform their synagogue environs and seek spirituality according to their own understandings of God and Judaism. And, in their worship, they offer up some additional instances of God’s favorite prayers.

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