The Torah describes in great detail all that must be carried out on Yom Kippur in the mikdash. We read the account in the Torah reading in the morning of Yom Kippur and there is a very old custom of reciting a poetic rendition of the service during mussaf. The focal point of the day, even in non-mikdash times, recounts very much what went on in the mikdash on this day (as opposed to most other holidays where we give a cursory mention to the day’s sacrifices during mussaf and maftir but they are not center-stage).
If we ask ourselves what is the meaning and purpose of Yom Kippur, I think we are all quite clear about it. It is a day of atonement of sins. This is very obvious in almost everything we do and say on this day. If anyone has doubt about this we need to look only as far as the signature line of the main bracha representing the day in each of the five amida prayers that we have on Yom Kippur – “….King who forgives our sins, He who dissolves our guilt every year….”.
However, when we examine the verses in the Torah concerning the service in the mikdash it seems to be more complex. The pesukim start by describing what needs to be done in order to enter the most holy part of the mikdash. The ensuing list of ingredients and procedures are designed to help the Kohen Gadol gain access to this place. Why is he going there? We don’t know. It seems that the arrival at the destination is somehow self-evident as the goal to the process.
At the very end of the process we read that the Kohen will “atone for the holy place, the tent and the altar. He will atone for the kohanim and the people. This will be an annual procedure to atone for the people and for all their sins.”
We finally find reference to the atonement elements with which we are familiar but it is not clear how this fits with the atonement for the structure itself and what this had to do with the entrance into the kodesh kedoshim.
I would like to share a beautiful idea that has roots in many different sources but I recently saw it formulated very nicely by Rav Avraham Stav in his book “Mbait Laparochet” on the avodah of Yom Kippur.
Rav Stav points to the similarity between the instructions for Yom Kippur and those for the eighth day of the inauguration of the mishkan. The animals brought are similar, and many exceptional issues that we don’t find elsewhere are found in both of these cases. However the ultimate purpose is very different.
When it comes to the inauguration of the mishkan the ultimate purpose was the revelation of the Shechina, God’s Presence. The entire endeavour of the mishkan was to provide a place on Earth for God’s shechina to be – therefore it was obviously the highlight of the occasion. All of the other elements were a build up to that moment. Sacrifices that involved major adornment had to be brought in order to facilitate the dramatic scene at the end when the great cloud descends on the Ohel Moed. In a word, atonement led to revelation and therefore a much closer bond between God and the Jewish people.
Yom Kippur is different. We start off the account with the immediate goal of entering the kodesh kedoshim. This special location is out of bounds to us all year long and symbolizes the dwelling place of God that we simply are not qualified to enter. It is on this special day that we are invited in, or at least the Kohen Gadol is invited in on behalf of us all. The incense plays a primary and introductory role in the day’s events, as opposed to the incense in the tragic cases of Nadav and Avihu that was he conclusion of the service during the inauguration.
After we have established this unique bond with God on this special day we can then inspect our year-long standard relationship with Him and look to atone and repair damage that may have occurred in the mikdash itself, as the process ending implies – “atone for the holy place, the tent, and the altar”. Once we have taken care of that as well, as the process continues, “atone for the people and for all their sins”, we can then turn and focus on personal sins and atone for them.
The centrepiece of the day is the renewal of the bond that we have with God. It is a bond that He is willing to recognize and strengthen even if we are not necessarily worthy of the confidence He has in us.
The very difficult and heart-wrenching task of teshuva must be done. We cannot ignore anything and we must improve everything. But as we embark upon the mission on Yom Kippur we are meant to feel confident that we are not facing an angry God, waiting to punish us and one that is distanced from us. Rather we face a benevolent God who, despite all the baggage that we are carrying around, has graciously invited us in to the most intimate locations to be with Him as we go through the process. It is as if (please forgive any anthropomorphic references) God looks us in the eye, extends a hand and embraces us as a loving parent and says “I know what you have done, you know what you have done, let’s figure out how we can make this better.”
We cannot enter into the teshuva process without His help, and He is happy to provide it. After all it was His idea.
Gmar chatima tova.