Friday, September 21, 2007

A Special Day (Yom Kippur 5768)

The sources express considerable interest in the opening lines of the Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning:

God spoke to Moshe after the death of the two sons of Aharon, when they drew near before God and they died. God said to Moshe: speak to Aharon your brother that he should not come near at any time to the holy place from the house of the curtain, to before the cover that is upon the ark, so they should not die, since in a cloud I shall appear upon the cover. With this Aharon shall come to the holy place: with a cow of the herd as a sin offering and a ram as a burnt offering. (VaYikra 16:1-3)

This refers to the prohibition of entering the Holy of Holies (the house of the curtain, etc.), the sole exception to which was the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur, whose activities there occupy the rest of the reading. The introduction, mentioning the death of the sons of Aharon, is particularly poignant, as it seems that their unauthorised entry to the Holy of Holies was the cause of their demise. Thinking about the ramifications of the death of Aharon’s sons is considered of some importance:

It is mentioned in the Zohar that anyone who is distressed by the death of Aharon’s sons or even cries tears for them, all his sins are forgiven… The primary purpose of this is that some should set one’s heart to repent of any sins that one may have in hand, for if this happened to such great people, what of ordinary mortals? (Mishnah Berurah, Orech Chaim 621, paraphrased)

The exception, as we have mentioned, is the entry of the Kohen Gadol to perform the special expiation ceremonies on behalf of the entire Jewish people on Yom Kippur. The esoteric writers alight on the word ‘with these’ ((בזאת in the third verse of the Torah reading. They understand the word זאת to refer to a most unusual confluence of occurrences – only in those circumstances could even the Kohen Gadol enter the holy place. In accordance with the writings of the Maharal of Prague and later, the Chassidic writers, these confluence is know as ‘world’, ‘year’ and ‘soul’, more easily understood as ‘place’ ‘time’ and ‘special human being. Only when a special person (the Kohen Gadol) was in a certain place at the right time, would entry to the place be permitted.

The common factor is the lack of space and time. Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year is imbued with a sense of timelessness – we transcend our normal needs and activities to devote a complete day to God. The Land of Israel, and especially Jerusalem and the Temple Mount were said to be able to hold as many people who visited there. The Mishnah notes that although thousands of people were crammed into the Temple courtyard, when they prostrated, there was unexpectedly room for everyone. Even more curiously, the ark, which rested in the Holy of Holies itself, apparently occupied no space itself (the room was larger than the ark). The Kohen Gadol was deemed to express the pinnacle of human spiritual development; this reached its zenith on Yom Kippur, when he was understood to be almost angelic. Only with זאת – on the holiest day of the year could the holiest man at the peak of his spiritual powers enter the holiest place on earth.

We may have no Temple and no Kohen, but we are capable of experiencing 25 hours of intense other-worldliness on Yom Kippur. Armed with a proper understanding of the majesty and potential of the day, we can transcend space and time for one day, touch the Divine and change ourselves and our world forever.

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