Can we atone? Can we clean the slate and move forward? The promise of biblical and rabbinic purification rites, particularly those involving blood, is that the answer is “yes.” As the book of Leviticus says, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have assigned it to you for making expiation for your lives upon the altar; it is the blood, as life, that effects expiation.” (17:11). Blood (and death) can help us achieve atonement, wiping away our pasts and enabling us to pursue a better future unencumbered.
One of the central scenes of the Yom Kippur service in the Temple was the High Priest sprinkling blood eight times in the Holy of Holies, once upward and seven times downward, counting as he went: “One, one and one, one and two, one and three, one and four, one and five, one and six, one and seven” (Mishnah Yoma 5:3, translation from Oxford Annotated Mishnah; this rabbinic text was recently popularized by the musician Yishai Ribo). At the conclusion of the Yom Kippur service, as the Mishnah has it, a crimson strap would turn white, and the Jews would know they had been forgiven, in line with Isaiah 1:18: “Though your sins are like crimson, they shall turn white like snow” (Mishnah Yoma 6:8).
I began writing the poem below in May 2021, amidst a flare-up of ethno-national violence in Israeli cities, and I found myself returning to it in the weeks that have followed October 7. It is somewhat less sanguine about the capacity of blood to clean the slate and enable people to move on. The urgent claim of the images I put forth is that perhaps the blood goes nowhere, nothing turns from crimson to white, and perhaps the lives lost—sacrificed—simply pool around the altar. The heavens are sealed like an iron wall, while the altar gapes as if hungry rather than redemptive.
This is in part a pushback against an understandable impulse to sanctify—and thereby justify—death as sacrifice. Death is a source of great meaninglessness, and it can be a relief to have something to say explaining why someone died or had to die. Not in itself objectionable, the attribution of meaning to death always threatens to become an embrace of death, either as the romanticization and idealization of a meaningful death or as a legitimate means for reaching one particular end or another. The atonement promised by the biblical blood rites may be a divine grace, a kindness for frail creatures who often fail to live up to our own ideals. Its logic—the claim that blood and death can achieve some positive aim—can be quite scary, particularly in concrete political and military realities.
This poem first came to me in the language of the Yom Kippur liturgy exactly because of the latter’s cyclical, repetitive nature. In my lifetime, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has often felt similarly cyclical. Now though, it feels like it may be pervaded with deep sense of “stuckness”—there’s too much history, too much blood already spilt, and we are drowning in place. If some Jewish theologians have seen ritual’s repetitive nature as emblematic of eternity, it may also capture something of the interminable. We don’t just count drops of blood, we count bodies, and we can’t seem to stop.
I can end only with the finest utopia the biblical prophets ever had to offer:
He will destroy death forever. My Lord God will wipe the tears away from all faces. (Isaiah 25:8)
Read and download a copy of this piece including the poem “Kapara” here.