Star Wars Edition

Acharei Mot Drash by Jake Honigman

With Pesach now over, it’s time to talk about . . . Yom Kippur!  That’s right, this parshah we just read, Acharei Mot – in addition to giving us the rules on incest, some controversial stuff about men lying, and some additional kashrut rules, talks a lot about Yom Kippur.  The portion of Acharei Mot regarding Yom Kippur – which is actually also the Torah reading on Yom Kippur (during morning service) – is the place in the Torah where Hashem defines Yom Kippur, and commands us to observe it.

So I want to talk a little bit about Yom Kippur.  First I’m going to talk about how we observe Yom Kippur, about our modern understanding of what Yom Kippur is about.  Then I’m going to talk about what Acharei Mot actually says about Yom Kippur.  And then, I’m going to talk about Star Wars.  (Today being May the 4th . . ).

We all know that Yom Kippur is about atoning for our sins, so that we may be sealed in the Book of Life.  But atoning how?  

Our modern understanding is based largely on T’shuvah.  Returning.  Repentance.  Recognizing our sins, our misdeeds.  Confessing them.  Apologizing for them.  Committing to doing differently, and better.

Starting in the month of Elul, we repent.  We say selichot.  We blow the shofar.  We ask for forgiveness.  Then, as Tishrei begins and we pass Rosh Hashanah, we enter the Aseret y’may t’shuvah. The 10 days of t’shuvah.  The shabbat during the Aseret y’may t’shuvah – the shabbat before Yom Kippur – is Shabbat Shuvah.  Shabbat of return!  In the haftarah for Shabbat Shuvah (my bar mitzvah haftarah), we read from Hoshea:

שׁוּבָה יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל עַ֖ד יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ כִּ֥י כָשַׁ֖לְתָּ בַּֽעֲו‍ֹנֶֽךָ

“Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled in your iniquity.  Return to the Lord. Say: ‘You shall forgive all iniquity and teach us the good way’”

Maimonides, the Rambam, wrote a book called Hilchot Teshuvah – the laws of t’shuvah (part of the Mishneh Torah).  He said:

“Everyone is obligated to repent and confess on Yom Kippur.  The mitzvah of the confession of Yom Kippur begins on the day’s eve, before one eats [the pre-Yom Kippur meal.  And] even though a person confessed before eating, [he must] confess again in the evening service, Yom Kippur night, and repeat the confession in the morning, Musaf, afternoon, and Ne’ilah services.”

Rabbi Heschel – in a 1965 essay called “Remarks on Yom Kippur” – wrote:  “We are all failures. At least one day a year we should recognize it.”

And of course, our Yom Kippur services do indeed feature a ton of confessing, discussing our wrongdoings, and asking forgiveness – al chet, vidui, again and again, and more.

So now let’s take a look at the Torah portion.  Now I want you all to listen carefully, and I’m going to read directly from the Torah – from the English translation – and I want you to see how much you hear about recognizing sins, talking about them, apologizing for them.  OK, ready? 

  • With this shall Aaron enter the Holy: with a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering.
  • He shall wear a holy linen shirt and linen pants shall be upon his flesh, and he shall gird himself with a linen sash and wear a linen cap these are holy garments, [and therefore,] he shall immerse himself in water and don them.
  • And from the community of the children of Israel, he shall take two he goats as a sin offering, and one ram as a burnt offering.
  • And Aaron shall bring his sin offering bull, and initiate atonement for himself and for his household.
  • And he shall take the two he goats, and place them before the Lord at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.
  • And Aaron shall place lots upon the two he goats: one lot “For the Lord,” and the other lot, “For Azazel.”
  • And Aaron shall bring the he goat upon which the lot, “For the Lord,” came up, and designate it as a sin offering.
  • And the he goat upon which the lot “For Azazel” came up, shall be placed while still alive, before the Lord, to [initiate] atonement upon it, and to send it away to Azazel, into the desert.
  • And Aaron shall bring his sin offering bull, and shall [initiate] atonement for himself and for his household, and he shall [then] slaughter his sin offering bull.
  • And he shall take a pan full of burning coals from upon the altar, from before the Lord, and both hands’ full of fine incense, and bring [it] within the dividing curtain.
  • And he shall place the incense upon the fire, before the Lord, so that the cloud of the incense shall envelope the ark cover that is over the [tablets of] Testimony, so that he shall not die.
  • And he shall take some of the bull’s blood and sprinkle [it] with his index finger on top of the ark cover on the eastern side; and before the ark cover, he shall sprinkle seven times from the blood, with his index finger.
  • He shall then slaughter the he goat of the people’s sin offering and bring its blood within the dividing curtain, and he shall do with its blood as he had done with the bull’s blood, and he shall sprinkle it upon the ark cover and before the ark cover. 

I’m going to skip two p’sukim here.  By the way, if you’re thinking I’m trying to sneak in some extra Torah reading, my response would be:  “So?”

  • And he shall then go out to the altar that is before the Lord and effect atonement upon it: He shall take some of the bull’s blood and some of the he goat’s blood, and place it on the horns of the altar, around.
  • He shall then sprinkle some of the blood upon it with his index finger seven times, and he shall cleanse it and sanctify it of the defilements of the children of Israel.
  • And he shall finish effecting atonement for the Holy, the Tent of Meeting, and the altar, and then he shall bring the live he goat.
  • And Aaron shall lean both of his hands [forcefully] upon the live he goat’s head and confess upon it all the willful transgressions of the children of Israel, all their rebellions, and all their unintentional sins, and he shall place them on the he goat’s head, and send it off to the desert with a timely man.

So we just heard mention of confessing – I will talk about that in a minute.  Let’s continue:

  • The he goat shall thus carry upon itself all their sins to a precipitous land, and he shall send off the he goat into the desert.
  • And Aaron shall enter the Tent of Meeting and remove the linen garments that he had worn when he came into the Holy, and there, he shall store them away.
  • And he shall immerse his flesh in a holy place and don his garments. He shall then go out and sacrifice his burnt offering and the people’s burnt offering, and he shall effect atonement for himself and for the people.
  • And he shall cause the fat of the sin offering to go up in smoke upon the altar.
  • And the person who sent off the he goat to Azazel, shall immerse his garments and immerse his flesh in water. And after this, he may come into the camp.
  • And the sin offering bull and he goat of the sin offering, [both of] whose blood was brought to effect atonement in the Holy, he shall take outside the camp, and they shall burn in fire their hides, their flesh, and their waste.
  • And the person who burns them shall immerse his garments and immerse his flesh in water. And after this, he may come into the camp.
  • And [all this] shall be as an eternal statute for you; in the seventh month, on the tenth of the month, you shall afflict yourselves, and you shall not do any work neither the native nor the stranger who dwells among you.

So all we get is one mention of “confessing” – and it’s Aharon “confessing” all the sins of all of B’nai Yisrael.  To a goat.  Aharon doesn’t know, obviously, the sins that each person has committed.  He’s not engaging in any kind of sincere apology, to this goat.  Sounds to me more like a symbolic transference.  There’s nothing requiring each individual Israelite to confess, or discuss, or apologize for his or her sins, or even suggesting that they do so.  Nothing remotely close to what we would recognize as t’shuvah.

The focus of what the Torah says about Yom Kippur is not on any of that stuff at all.  It’s on purification.  On cleansing.  The focus of what the Torah says about Yom Kippur is not on talking about sins and apologizing for them.  It’s about getting cleansed of them – and through symbolism as much as anything else.  Ritual and symbolism.

And, of course, there still is a strong tradition and culture of cleansing ourselves of sins in a symbolic manner.  We conduct the Tashlikh ritual.  We cast off bread, and we say: 

“He will show us compassion, suppress our iniquities, and cast all sins into the depths of the sea.”

וְתַשְׁלִיךְ בִמְצֻלוֹת יָם כָּל־חַטֹּאתָם

Some Jews, conduct the Kaparot ritual.  Rather than really describe it, I’ll just quote the prayer that is said while doing Kaparot:  “This is my substitute. This chicken shall go to its death and I will go on to a good long life and to peace.”

And actually, speaking of animals going to their death, I should also circle back to what I read a minute ago in the Torah portion about the two goats.  You heard me say that the goat to whom Aharon told B’nai Yisrael’s sins (the “Azazel” goat) would be sent off into the desert.  But that has been interpreted to involve a fate far more dramatic than simply being sent into the desert, to wander around there.  The Mishnah (Yoma Chapter 6) says that the person in charge of sending the goat into the desert actually would “push the goat backward, and it would roll and descend.  And before it was even halfway down the mountain, it would be torn limb from limb.”  So as part of our Yom Kippur ritual – according to the Mishnah, and accepted widely in Jewish lore – we’re pushing this goat, this scapegoat, off a cliff.  We’re having it fall violently to its demise.

So now we’ve talked about t’shuva, repentance, recognizing and apologizing for our sins.  And we’ve talked about the Torah’s treatment of Yom Kippur, and cleansing ourselves of our sins, symbolically casting them off.  I said we were going to talk about Star Wars, so let’s go ahead and do that now.

I’m going to keep it old school Star Wars, just the original trilogy.  

In the first Star Wars movie (Episode IV), the bad guy is Darth Vader.  He is ruthless, taking Princess Leia prisoner, destroying her home planet while she watches, killing Obi-Wan Kenobi.  The embodiment of evil.  Before Obi-Wan dies he tells us a little bit about Darth Vader’s origin, that he used to be good, that he was a young Jedi and a pupil of Obi-Wan’s – who was seduced by the Dark Side, and turned to evil.  At the end of the first movie, the rebels (the good guys) manage to destroy the Death Star, but the villain Lord Vader very much lives on just as he is.

In the second Star Wars movie, the Empire Strikes Back (Episode V), Darth Vader is still the primary bad guy, but we now meet “the Emperor” – briefly – when we see his holographic, disfigured face talking to Darth Vader.  It is he who tells Darth Vader that Luke is Darth Vader’s son, and the two of them discuss turning Luke to the Dark Side.  The Emperor is clearly the true source of evil.  But Darth Vader is still very much on the evil path, telling the Emperor that Luke “will join us, or die, Master.”  Near the end of the movie Darth Vader and Luke engage in extended combat, with Darth Vader using his command of the Dark Side to overpower Luke, enabling him to slice off one of Luke’s hands.  Darth Vader then makes an impassioned plea for Luke to join him on the Dark Side, during which he tells Luke he is Luke’s father.  Luke, of course, refuses to join the Dark Side, but escapes, and at the end of this movie the stage is set for another showdown.

Which brings us to the third and final movie of the original Star Wars trilogy, the Return of the Jedi (Episode VI).  At the beginning of this movie, we see Darth Vader arrive on the new Death Star they’re building, and get into a heated exchange with his underlings about the pace of construction.  But in this exchange, Darth Vader focuses on the Emperor, and what the Emperor will do to them if they underperform.  He ends with telling a commander:  “The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am.”  A few scenes later, when the Emperor shows up – in person, for the first time – he lays out his plan to turn Luke to the Dark Side, with an evil cackle, while Darth Vader merely says:  “As you wish.”

Meanwhile, right after Yoda dies, Obi-Wan Kenobi’s spirit comes to talk to Luke.  As they start to talk about Darth Vader, Luke tells Obi-Wan (over Obi-Wan’s doubt):  “There is still good in him.”  Then, when Luke tells Leia that she’s his sister (and also Darth Vader’s daughter), he tells her (over her doubt) that he must confront Darth Vader because “there is good in him.  He won’t turn me over to the Emperor.  I can save him.  I can turn him back to the good side.”

By the end of the movie, near the end of the movie, Darth Vader is indeed redeemed.  But redeemed how?

Darth Vader captures Luke and brings him before the Emperor.  Luke defiantly tells the Emperor that he is mistaken about Luke being open to join the Dark Side.  The Emperor replies:  “You will find that it is you who are mistaken . . . about a great many things.”  The exchange continues for a while, with the Emperor epitomizing evil, telling Luke about how Luke’s rebel friends will be unable to save him.  We hear the Emperor’s underlings say he “has something special planned” and we watch the Emperor order vicious attacks on the rebel forces, while Luke watches.  The Emperor teases and taunts Luke, inviting him:  “Strike me down with all of your hatred, and your journey toward the Dark Side will be complete.”  Luke and Darth Vader start fighting, while the Emperor sits there, cackling, taunting, as father and son fight viciously.  In a lull in the fighting, Luke says to Darth Vader:  “I feel the good in you.”

So how does it end?  Does Darth Vader suddenly declare the evil of his ways, and do t’shuvah?  Does he confess, and repent, and apologize?

No!  The sparring, verbal and physical, continues, as vicious as ever, until Luke slices off one of Darth Vader’s hands!  And that moment the Emperor comes down from his perch, laughing of course, and it is the two of them – good is embodied by Luke, and evil is embodied by Emperor Palpatine.  When the Emperor’s attempt to get Luke to finish Darth Vader off – to kill him – fails, and Luke declares he will never turn to the Dark Side, the Emperor reveals a new weapon we have never seen before.  “If you will not be turned, you will be destroyed.”  He starts shooting lightning at Luke, as Luke lies there defenseless.  He does so again and again as he taunts Luke, who can do nothing but scream in pain, and beg for Darth Vader’s help.  “Now, Young Skywalker, you will die.”  More lightning, more horrible screams.  

Until we hear Darth Vader say:  “No.  No!”  Darth Vader comes up behind the Emperor, and he picks the Emperor up, as lightning pulsates through both of their bodies – to the point that we can even see Darth Vader’s skeleton through his armor and mask.  Darth Vader then throws the Emperor down the reactor shaft.  We hear the Emperor now screaming, as he pulsates with his own lightning, and when he hits the bottom we see a fantastic explosion.  

Darth Vader has caused the Emperor, the symbol of evil, to fall violently to his demise.

In the final scene between Luke and Darth Vader, his father, Darth Vader lies nearly lifeless, and asks Luke to take off his mask, as he can’t even do so himself.  He tells Luke he is going to die.  We see Darth Vader’s face, and he tells Luke to leave him and go fight.  Luke says:  “No, I’ve got to save you.”  Unmasked Darth Vader replies:  “You already have.”  And as he dies, there is doubt that Darth Vader – Anakin – has, indeed, truly been redeemed.

And yet he has never confessed, repented for, or apologized for, a single one of his sins.

Shabbat shalom, and May the 4th be with you!

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