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Leviticus 16:3: Am I the Captain of My Soul?

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Editor's Note: Huffington Post Religion has launched a scripture commentary/reflection series, which brings together leading voices from different religious traditions to offer their wisdom on selected religious texts. We are pleased to announce a series of reflections on scripture associated with the Jewish High Holidays with reflections by rabbis from across the country and diverse traditions.

This is the third such series following Ramadan reflections on the Holy Qur'an as well as Christian reflections on the Gospel. Next month we look forward to having Hindu leaders offer scriptural reflections upon the occasion of Diwali.

We hope all readers, Jewish and non-Jewish will gain wisdom from the insights of our contributors during the High Holidays.

With this Aaron shall come to the holy place (Lev. 16:3).

This verse in Leviticus refers to the high Priest bringing the pan of incense to the holy of holies in the Temple. But the sages of the Talmud teach that the verse means that there is a way for each individual to come to his or her "holy place." The sages then go on to enumerate the ways. One strange remark is offered by Rabbi Yochanan. He says the way to come to your holy place is "kabarnitin," which means in Aramaic, "as a captain." How does one achieve holiness as a Captain? I'd like to offer two possibilities to understand this enigmatic saying.

The first is teaching us that we are in charge of our own souls. In the famous, echoing words of William Ernest Henley's well known poem "Invictus" -- "I am the master of my fate / I am the Captain of my soul."

Throughout the year we are deluged with studies of human behavior. Why do we choose the mate, or job, or neighborhood we do? What are the genetic determinants of our behavior? How do neuroscience and evolution and the latest sociological studies all prove that we were determined to do this or that? Each day the paper brings us more news from the fatalistic front. But the prayer insists that we choose. To push the metaphor one more step, we did not design the ship and we do not control the seas, but our hand is on the tiller.

The second point of this interpretation is that on a ship, others are dependent upon the Captain. The Captain's decisions will decide the fate of the crew and passengers.

Each of us is in that position, as well. Our decisions are often made with reference to how they touch us. Less often do we see the circles of influence -- our family, our friends, society at large -- that feel the pitch and sway of the way we steer our own lives.

These two realizations -- that we are responsible for ourselves and that we are responsible for others -- are what bring you to a holy place. Because they suggest that God is found both by searching inside ourselves and in our relationships with others people. God indwells and dwells between. Holiness is not a static attribute. Like all dynamisms, it moves through the world; but of course its origin is beyond this world, in the Source of all that is holy. Have a sweet, sacred New Year.

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