This Shabbat is named after the Haftara which opens with “Shuva Yisrael…”. In the second section of the reading we find an impassioned plea by the Navi, Yoel, to rally the people in a mass gathering of teshuva. A shofar is to be sounded, a fast declared and all members of the society are to attend.
They seem to assemble in the Mikdash and we witness the following teffila:
Between the Hall and the Altar (Bein Ulam Lamizbeach) the Kohanim, servants of Hashem will cry out and say, “God have mercy on your nation and do not allow your nation to be disgraced…”
The scene is a very moving one, and I would like to focus on one detail that seems to be fairly trivial, the location. The Kohanim are standing “Ben Ulam Lamizbeach” (Between the Hall and the Altar). As mentioned, it would seem that this is a trivial piece of information, and this for two reasons. Firstly it should not matter where exactly they stood. The content of the prayer and the mass gathering should have been sufficient in the description. In addition it seems this is not even a clear description of an important place, having been described as “between point X and point Y”, with no distinctive personality of its own. In fact, the area should have a much better name – “the stairs in front of the Mikdash” – as we learn in Mesechet Midot. “Between the Ulam and Mizbeach there were 22 amot and there were 12 steps…” So it would seem that the Kohanim were standing on a most natural stage that should have some better description than “between here and there”.
Our question becomes more intriguing when we investigate a bit further and find that this exact location is mentioned in a few other places as well. In Yechezkel (8:16) we find the same exact phrase, “Between the Ulam and Mizbeach”, in the description of the awful idol worship going on in the Mikdash. This time those standing were with their backs to the Mikdash and they were bowing to the rising sun in the East.
The scene in Yechezkel serves as the antithesis to the ceremony done on Sukkot when the Nisuch Hamayim (the water libation) was done and the Kohanim would march over to that exact location, align themselves away from the sun and towards the Mikdash and declare their allegiance to God (see Mishna Sukka 5:4).
In addition we find this area mentioned on Yom Kippur itself when the Kohen Gadol rests his hands on his bull which is positioned “between the Ulam and the Mizbeach” (see Mishna Yoma 3:8).
Finally we find “between the Ulam and the Mizbeach” discussed as one of the geographic areas of increasing levels of Kedusha in the Mishna (Kelim 1:9).
This seems to be an important place, yet it suffers from what seems to be a lack of independent identity.
In order to understand this location I think we need to note that the Mikdash has two distinct, although related, functions. On one hand the Mikdash is meant to be the “dwelling place of Hashem”, God’s home (despite the philosophical caveats in such a statement). On the other hand the Mikdash is meant to be where Man can approach God to offer Korbanot in times of joy and to atone for sins. It is the most appropriate location for tefila as well which, in it’s very essence, is Man’s attempt to converse with God (see Melachim I, 8).
The two functions of the Mikdash take place in two different locations. The building itself, containing the Kodesh Hakodashim (the Holy of Holies) and the Kodesh (The Holy), serves as God’s home and we generally have little (in the Kodesh) or nothing at all (in the Kodesh Kodashim) to do in these places. On the other hand the Mizbeach represents the locus of Man’s activity. It is here that the vast majority of the korbanot are brought and it is the hub of everything that we do in the Mikdash.
(The two elements are clearly related but can be seen as functioning separately. When the second Bet Hamikdash was built they began with just the Mizbeach and only 22 years later (!!) did they get around to building the building itself. In addition, we recognize the concept of a Bama – a private altar (during certain times of history) – which in effect is really a Mizbeach without the Mikdash)
The area that we are discussing today – “Between the Ulam and the Mizbeach” – is the exact seam where we can say that Man meets God. It is a critical piece of real estate and can only be described accurately by stating that it is in between the Ulam – God’s part of the Mikdash – and the Mizbeach – Man’s section of the Mikdash.
If one stands at that point, it is absolutely critical as to which direction he faces, towards the East, the Mizbeach focusing on Man as did the idol worshipers in Yechezkel, or towards the Ulam, as we do on Sukkot declaring that our main focus is to the West, towards God and His section of the Mikdash.
The Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur prepares himself to enter the Kodesh Kodashim on the only day any man is allowed in by starting at this exact point. He needs to prepare his Korban while standing at the “border” between the human realm and that of the Divine.
If we continue this idea a bit further I think that we can suggest another reason for reading this particular section as the Haftara for this Shabbat. In terms of the Mikdash, we find ourselves this week, as an entire nation, standing between the Ulam and the Mizbeach. Rosh Hashana is best represented by the Mizbeach. The story of the Akeda, one of the most central themes of the day, takes place on the site of the Mizbeach. The Akeda is the first mention of the importance of the site of Har Habayit and establishes it as the one and only place forever. The concept of the Akeda, the unconditional surrender and willingness for sacrifice, sets the tone for all future Korbanot at that spot. It seems that without the Akeda and our continuing the tradition of Avraham Avinu, our offering would be seen as insufficient. The Akeda proves our total commitment. It terms of what we have been talking about, it is the quintessential example of Man’s approaching God.
Yom Kippur is of course focused on the Kodesh Kodashim. It is the only time that we are allowed into this most revered chamber, where we are given a glimpse of the “home” of the Shechina. To a great extent, we almost “skip” the Mizbeach on Yom Kippur. The blood of the korbanot is brought into the Kodesh Hakodashim and the rest of the animals are burnt outside the camp, as opposed to the standard procedure of using the Mizbeach.
This week, the week between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, is when we need to move ourselves along from the “simple” stage of making sacrifices to Hashem to the next stage of being ready to approach Hashem. Our goal on Yom Kippur is to penetrate the highest levels of Kedusha and not be left on the periphery.
It is this week that we must decide which direction we face. As we find ourselves on the threshold of the Divine we need to choose between facing God’s home and realizing that our real direction is to push to get in, or turning our back on the potential and focusing on our human mundane issues.
May we have the strength to face the right direction and proceed as we truly should.
Shana Tova — Gmar Chatima Tova