Sunday, October 01, 2006

Losing Oneself On Yom Kippur (Yom Kippur 5767)

One of the great themes of Yom Kippur is, at least for 25 intense hours, losing one’s own identity and merging it with that of the community and the entire Jewish people. We have mentioned in previous years that the role of community is crucial in the atonement process of Yom Kippur, which is why we begin Kol Nidre with an invitation to every member of the Jewish people to pray together; the incense compound included pleasant and unpleasant smelling spices, symbolising the entire people, righteous and not-so-righteous.

There is, however, another way in which one should try to ‘lose oneself’ on Yom Kippur. The Torah instructs that when the Kohen Gadol (high priest) enters the Holy of Holies:

No man shall be in the Meeting Tent when he comes to atone in the holy place, until he exits. He shall atone for himself, for his household and for the whole community of Israel. (VaYikra 16:17)

Of course, the literal meaning of the verses is that apart from the Kohen Gadol, no other person may be present during the atonement ritual in the Holy of Holies. However, the Midrash (end of Acharey Mot) questions this reading and offers a most perplexing suggestion – that no one at all, including the Kohen Gadol, should be present at this holy moment. This suggests that the Kohen, at least for a short while, transcends the physical world, and is, in some sense, not actually there; indeed the Midrash likens him at this time to an angel. The Kohen ‘merges’ with the Divine at the time when he approaches God to atone for the people; perhaps this symbolises the fact that in order to properly represent the nation, he, on their behalf, must completely submit himself to the will of God in order to achieve absolution.

This notion has other manifestations:

Said Rebbi Levi: we have a tradition about this matter from our ancestors – the ark is not included in the measurement. (Megillah 10b)

[Israel] is referred to as: the land of the deer. Just as the [flayed deer] skin [seems to be too small] for its flesh, so too the Land of Israel, when there are people living in it, it is expansive, but when there are no people living in it, it contracts. (Gittin 57a)

Ten miracles occurred for our ancestors in the Temple…. they stood squashed, but prostrated with space. (Avot 5:5)

The Ark of the Covenant was too large for the space designed for it, so it was somehow disregarded in the measurement; Israel seems far more spacious than it actually is and those who bowed in the Temple seemed to find enough space despite the crush on Yom Tov. These sources indicate that Israel, the locus of spirituality the opportunity to ‘lose’ oneself, and ‘occupy no space’ is greater than elsewhere. In Jerusalem, it is greater still, with the quintessential expression of the concept on Yom Kippur, with the Kohen in the Holy of Holies. The mystical writers refer to this phenomenon as the confluence of ‘time’, ‘space’ and ‘spirituality’, in this case Yom Kippur, the Temple and the soul of the Kohen Gadol respectively. We have this opportunity every year on Yom Kippur – to completely lose ourselves, albeit for just one day, in the Divine will. When we emerge at the end of the day, we will be changed forever.

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