Yom Kippur Torah Readings – A Creative Approach



By Rabbi Edwin Goldberg

A couple of years ago, the core editorial team1 of the forthcoming Reform High Holy Day prayer book met with Dr. Marc Brettler, a scholar of Bible at Brandeis University.  We wanted to learn from him about possible alternative readings from the Torah on Yom Kippur day.  The traditional reading for the morning, dealing with a “magical” scapegoat sent into the desert with our “sins,” usually is eschewed by Reform congregations.  It is replaced with a passage toward the end of Deuteronomy that speaks of our choosing life.  The afternoon traditional portion, dealing with forbidden sexual relations, usually is substituted in Reform congregations with the chapter in Leviticus that deals with holy living.  The editors knew any of these readings could and perhaps should be included in the prayer book, but we were looking for something more.

Dr. Brettler suggested we consider the narrative of Joseph and his brothers.  The idea of including a meaty, dramatic passage intrigued us, but of course we had to ponder how Joseph fit in with Yom Kippur.  The answer, according to Dr. Brettler, could be found in the post-biblical and yet ancient Book of Jubilees, which suggests that Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers on Yom Kippur.  Based on this insight, our team decided to try using the end of Genesis in the Yom Kippur service.  The final paragraphs in the Book of Genesis speak of the brothers’ betrayal of Joseph and also Joseph’s forgiveness of them.  They also feature the brothers’ lying to Joseph for the sake of family harmony.   Clearly, there are many family issues in this tale, which is precisely why it still resonates with us today.

We also liked the idea of including Genesis chapter 4 as an alternative reading.  The story of Cain and Abel, and especially Cain’s moral failing, speaks to our own wrestling with temptation, as well as our need for forgiveness.  Both stories, Joseph’s and Cain’s offer a narrative scriptural reading for Yom Kippur, something heretofore lacking.  We Jews like stories so much that it seems a shame not to offer them for consideration on the holiest of days.  After all, when God asks Cain, “Don’t you know that you can overcome your temptations?” we should all be listening.  To paraphrase John Donne: “Do not send to ask to whom God is actually speaking.  God speaks to you!”

  1. The core team of Machzor HaNefesh includes Rabbis Sheldon Marder, Janet Marder, Leon Morris and Edwin Goldberg, assisted by Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) Press publisher Rabbi Hara Person, CCAR Worship Chair, Rabbi Elaine Zecher, and Cantor Evan Kent.

Rabbi Edwin Goldberg serves as the senior rabbi of Temple Sholom of Chicago. Rabbi Goldberg is the coordinating editor of the forthcoming CCAR Machzor and is the author of five books including, Saying No and Letting Go: Jewish Wisdom on Making Room for What Matters Most and Love Tales from the Talmud.

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