Seder Ha-Avodah

By Rabbi Edwin Goldberg

In the traditional machzor, the Seder Ha-Avodah (literally “Service of the Sacrificial Cult”) occurs on Yom Kippur during the musaf (additional) service. In Gates of Repentance, the Reform machzor published in 1978, there is no musaf service itself, but the Seder Ha-Avodah is featured in the afternoon service for Yom Kippur.

The traditional Avodah evokes the ancient High Priest’s ritual on Yom Kippur, when the Jerusalem Temple still stood. This section was added to the traditional High Holy Day liturgy after the close of the Talmud. A central part of the Avodah is the confession of the High Priest on behalf of himself, his family, and the Jewish People. There is also a reference to the sacrificial goat that is sent into the wilderness as vicarious atonement for our sins.

Gates of Repentance contains some reflections of this traditional liturgy, but also presents a new paradigm, entitled “from Creation to Redemption.” Through poetry, prayer, and music, the history of the Jewish people is offered, including the Holocaust and the subsequent creation of the State of Israel.

While the Avodah for the new Reform machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh, is still in the planning stages, the editorial team is leaning toward a worship service that creatively retrieves the imagery of the traditional high priest ritual while at the same time offering modern worshippers a framework for seeking the holy in our own lives.

Questions we are considering: (1) What are the steps we should take in our lives that will lead us to more sacred encounters with the great mystery of our being? (2) How can our sincere repentance ennoble our lives? (3) In an age when we are all considered sacred vessels of God’s spirit, how can we act with a holy sense of spirit?

Although the English word “sacrifice” connotes for us the act of giving something up, the ancient understanding was quite different, as expressed in the Hebrew term, korban (lit., “to bring near”). Also, the word avodah means more than sacrificial cult; it also means “work.” In that spirit, the new Avodah service will not be only about the sacrifices we make or the confessions we declare; rather, it will help us frame our lives in consideration of our divine work.

For us, Seder Ha-Avodah is not a museum of our past; a better metaphor would be a trove of family heirlooms, each one about our past and yet also our present. The worship service aims to inspire us to resume our lives after Yom Kippur with more awareness of the holiness around us, as well as the sacred work that beckons us.

Edwin Goldberg, D.H.L., is the senior rabbi of Temple Sholom of Chicago and serves as the coordinating editor of Mishkan HaNefesh. 

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