Commentary

Anonymous Leadership:  The Emotional Drama in Ishay Ribo’s Seder ha-Avodah

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Shira Hecht-Koller and Aaron Koller

Ishay Ribo has had a record-breaking year.[1] The French-Israeli singer, who has become popular with both secular and religious Israelis, released a version of Amir Benayoun’s Nitzaht Itti ha-Kol earlier this summer, garnering over a million views on YouTube in the first week it was posted and 4.5 million as of this writing. Then, in September, his rendition of the Yom Kippur Temple service, Seder ha-Avodah, “the order of the service,” was released to instant acclaim, in part for blurring the lines between secular and religious. It, too, was viewed more than a million times in short order.

One of the major tensions in Seder ha-Avodah comes to the musical fore in the penultimate movement of the song, as it moves to an intensification as it nears the climax. After the High Priest has been accompanied to his home and thrown a party for his friends and family, two parallel musical celebrations follow. The choral voices sing:

!אשרי העם שככה לו

!אשרי העם שה’ אלהיו

Fortunate the people who have it thus/

Fortunate the people whose God is the Lord!

The communal focus, then, is on the people. Ribo’s own solo voice, however, praises the solo High Priest. This focus on the priest’s appearance at the end of the day draws on the prayer Mar’eh Kohen, which itself has its roots in the Second Temple period (Ben Sira 50). Here there is no attention paid to the people or the results of the day, but on the individual at the center of it all:

כאהל הנמתח בדרי מעלה מראה כהן

כברקים היוצאים מזיו החיות מראה כהן

כדמות הקשת בתוך הענן מראה כהן

כחסד הניתן על פני חתן מראה כהן

As the canopy of the heavens stretched out on high/

was the appearance of the Priest.

As the flashes emanating from the shine of the Hayyot/

was the appearance of the Priest. As the figure of the bow in the clouds/

was the appearance of the High Priest.

As the grace reflected in the face of a groom/

was the appearance of the High Priest.

The simultaneous voices, one drawing our attention to the nation and the other to the High Priest, compete for our attention. In fact, this tension lies at the heart of the Yom Kippur service, brilliantly dramatized and brought to life in Ribo’s piece.

The song is a poignant and powerful reflection on leadership, individuality, and the emotional experience of Yom Kippur. It asks us to ponder the role of the leader vis-a-vis the community and the relationship between the actions in front of our eyes and the internal dramas playing out within our hearts and minds. Although the focus of the entire song is the High Priest, he is never actually introduced: the listeners are thrown into the story, expected to recognize the character. We know immediately who he is, and we know that we have just opened a window onto the powerful ritual of Yom Kippur. We know this partly because much of the song – some details, some key words and phrases, and even the rhythms – derives from classical descriptions of the service on Yom Kippur, in the Mishnah and especially in the long, detailed poems recited in Musaf of the day (Askenazic and Sephardic). Of course, we were primed for this by the song’s title, a phrase that in rabbinic literature refers to the sacrificial service of Yom Kippur. Ribo assumes that his audience will find its bearing immediately as the song begins with a staccato description of the priest’s opening moves:

נכנס למקום שנכנס ועמד במקום שעמד

רחץ ידיו רגליו טבל עלה ונסתפג

He entered the place he entered, and stood in the place where he stood/

He washed his hands and legs, immersed, emerged, and dried off.

The next line sounds like more of the same, but actually takes an existential turn:

בא ממקום שהוא בא והלך למקום שהלך

He came from the place whence he came/

And he went to the place thence he went.

This line is not found in any earlier source, and is Ribo’s way of focusing our attention on an aspect of the ritual not usually fronted. Who is this High Priest? How did he come to occupy our attention on this holiest day? Was it through personal merit? Did he inherit? Is he tolerant? Is he a zealot? For the purposes of the song, it matters little. He has come from wherever he has come; he will go wherever he will go. For now, he is the one who is, and he is the one who matters.

The audience – about whom we will hear in a moment – is silent, waiting, watching, as the priest transitions from just a figure arriving anonymously to the star of the show: he removes his street clothes, and puts on the white garments of the priest. And the show begins. The service that will ensue has the feel of performance art. It begins with confession, a formula essentially taken from the Mishnah, a plea for forgiveness: “Please, God, forgive the sins, iniquities, and misdeeds that I have committed before You, I and the whole house of Israel.”

In the Mishnaic script, this confession is recited at the time of a sacrifice. But there are no sacrifices in Ribo’s song, no flesh and no blood. Instead, much more attention is paid to the human experience. In the Mishnah, the high priest takes the blood and sprinkles it on the curtain separating the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple, famously counting as he does: “One, one [up] and one [down], one [up] and two [down],” and so on, until “one [up] and seven [down].” The counting is here in the song, but it is not of drops of blood being counted:

ואם אדם היה יכול לזכור את הפגמים את החסרונות את כל הפשעים את כל העוונות

בטח כך היה מונה: אחת, אחת ואחת, אחת ושתים, אחת ושלש, אחת וארבע, אחת וחמש

ישר היה מתייאש כי לא יכול היה לשאת את טעם מרירות החטא, את הבושה, את הפספוס, את ההפסד

If a person were able to remember/

The flaws, the imperfections, the sins/

Surely he would count this way:

One, one and one, one and two, one and three, one and four, one and five…

He would quickly give up/

Unable to bear the flavor of the bitterness of sin/

Of chances missed, of loss

Although it sounds like we have moved away from the Temple, away from the High Priest, we suspect we are meant to imagine the High Priest himself thinking this. What was he thinking as he sprinkled? Perhaps just this: I stand here, alone, representing the people. But who am I to represent the people? I have my own flaws, my own skeletons, my own lapses and regrets. One, one and one, one and two…

He, and we, are brought back out of his thoughts, and to the performance, by the response of the people. As the Mishnah describes, when they hear the name of God, they lay prostrate in the courtyard, and proclaim in unison: “Blessed is the name of the glory of his kingship, forever and ever.”

The musical transition takes a cinematic turn with a brief dramatic interlude before the next section of lyrics. We feel the drama, the power of the proclamation issuing from the crowd. The High Priest is alone on stage, but he is far from alone; the throngs are hanging on his every word. Is he a leader? He hopes for no followers. He has shouldered the burden entirely on his own, taken the sins and the hopes of the entire community with him. And as he counts, is he counting only his own? Is that infinitely long list to be multiplied again and again, as he looks at the faces around him? It is hard to see the individuals in the crowd, but as his gaze lingers on one face, and then another, as these strangers come into focus, he is crushed by the expectations laid upon him. “Blessed be the Name.”

When the High Priest emerges again, he has changed from a priest into the priest, changing from the priestly white garments to the golden garments worn only by the High Priest. Then again, a confession. And again, counting. But this time:

ואם אדם היה יכול לזכור את החסדים את הטובות את כל הרחמים את כל הישועות,

בטח כך היה מונה: אחת, אחת ואחת, אחת ושתים, אחת ושלש

אחת מאלף ורב רבי רבבות נסים נפלאות שעשית עמנו ימים ולילות

If a person were able to remember/

The kindnesses and goodnesses, all the mercies and all the redemptions Surely he would count this way: one, one and one, one and two, one and three

One of a thousand, many tens of thousands, wonders and miracles, which You have done for us, day and night.

If the first time, he was crushed by the sins he could not enumerate, his own and those of everyone around him, this time he is uplifted by the thought of the innumerable kindnesses bestowed by God. Again, his thoughts run along, counting one, one and one, one and two – and the magnitude of the count overwhelms, filling him with thoughts of good fortune and covenantal kindness.

The music at this point pauses, and then again soars. The arrangement captures something profound about the end of Yom Kippur, not often palpable in many congregations: the tension of the day that is released the moment after Neilah comes to a crescendo. The High Priest steps out (“he emerged from where he emerged”) and is overcome with the emotion of the moment: “He trembled in the place where he stood.” For those standing in terror of the closing gates, in anxiety over the fate of the High Priest and his rituals, the end of the day brings a wave of relief. Those of us fortunate enough to have spent a Yom Kippur in the presence of Jews profoundly terrified by the day, quaking at the gates’ closing, may have experienced, or at least seen, this release, the profound joy as the day ends and the new year, hopefully now sealed for life, gets underway. The moment of relief explodes into joyous song.

It is at this point that our attention is divided between the priest, described in near angelic terms, and the people, “fortunate” that thus is their lot. The High Priest plays a stirring role in the drama, but his own identity is beside the point. On the other hand, he provides a model of leadership starkly different than the one in vogue today. Rather than facilitating the development of his flock, he takes all the work upon himself. Bearing their sins, their hopes, their anxiety, and their dreams for the future, he performs alone, under the watchful eyes of the entire nation. This sense of individualism clashes with the anonymity of the priest, “who came from wherever he came, and who went to wherever he went.”

In our world, filled with conflicts – individual vs. communal, secular vs. religious, public vs. private – the lonely figure of Ribo’s anonymous High Priest draws us in. He captivates our imagination and prompts us to think about ourselves in his place. We all know the feeling of being the actor on the stage, with the expectations of others on our shoulders. But inside our heads – that is entirely our space. Yom Kippur may be that experience, as we stand waiting, alone, counting, trying to find ourselves in the infinite world that surrounds us.

 

Note: For those interested in further exploring the sources cited in the song, please feel free to use this Sefaria source sheet, designed by Sefaria’s team, as an accompaniment to this essay. 


[1] Our thanks to Dr. Daniel Beliavsky for help with the analysis of the music.

Shira Hecht-Koller and Aaron Koller
Shira Hecht-Koller is an educator, attorney, and writer. She is currently Director of Education for 929 English, a platform for the daily global study of Tanakh and a faculty member at Drisha, where she teaches and directs the Dr. Beth Samuels High School fellowship program. She brings with her a decade of experience teaching Jewish and interdisciplinary studies in high schools. Prior to embarking on a career in education, she practiced corporate intellectual property law at Debevoise & Plimpton, LLP. Shira was a Paradigm Fellow at the Paideia Institute of Jewish Studies in Stockholm, where she is currently Educational Ambassador, and holds a certificate in experiential education from M2. She is a past board member of Uri L’Ttzedek, and sits on the advisory board of Shazur/Interwoven, an organization designed to rebuild the relationship between Israeli and American Jewry. She holds a JD from Cardozo School of Law. Her photography was featured in The Jewish Journey Haggadah (authored by Adena Berkowitz). Aaron Koller is professor of Near Eastern studies at Yeshiva University, where he is chair of the Beren Department of Jewish Studies. His last book was Esther in Ancient Jewish Thought (Cambridge University Press), and his next is Unbinding Isaac: The Akedah in Jewish Thought (forthcoming from JPS/University of Nebraska Press in 2020); he is also the author of numerous studies in Semitic philology. Aaron has served as a visiting professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and held research fellowships at the Albright Institute for Archaeological Research and the Hartman Institute.