Yom Kippur Morning 5777 – given by Rabbi Lev Meirowitz Nelson
Six years ago, someone close to me hit a rough spot in his life, and I started really
worrying about him. I was spending the year in Jerusalem, and as part of my
rabbinic studies I was meeting monthly with Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan for what’s called
spiritual direction. When I mentioned to Rabbi Ruth what was on my mind, she
offered me a way to pray for him that she had found meaningful in her life. We took
out a clean sheet of paper, and she asked me to make a list of all the good qualities
about the person I was worried about. Nothing about why I was worried or what I
wanted for him—just everything that makes him great. Then I was supposed to do
two things with this list: first, find a secret, private, holy place to keep it, and second,
take it out every morning while I was davening and read it to myself.
I have to admit that I wasn’t so diligent about the second part—taking the list out
and reading it—but I was struck with inspiration by the first part, where to put it,
and the list remains there to this day, even though things in this person’s life have
gotten much better. It’s inside my tefillin bag, nestled underneath my tefillin—a
dark, private, secret, holy place where it’s never disturbed, even when I put on my
tefillin every weekday morning.
That tefillin bag, I felt, was equivalent to my own personal Torah ark—a curtained-
off, protected place where we only go at special times and for particular, sacred
reasons. Both tefillin bag and ark are made holy in part by what we put inside
them—without the sacred scrolls of tefillin and Torah, one is just a cloth pouch and
the other just a closet—but they are also made holy by their emptiness. They create
an enclosed, protected vessel where the divine presence can dwell.
The reason I’m telling you this story on Yom Kippur morning is that both the tefillin
bag and the ark harken back to the original Ark of the Covenant, in the Mishkan, the
desert sanctuary. The Ark—essentially a gold box containing the tablets of the Ten
Commandments—was placed in the Holy of Holies, the innermost compartment of
the sacred tent. It was an empty room until the Ark was placed there. And no one
ever went in there to see it.
Except one person, once a year. The High Priest, on Yom Kippur, would purify
himself, screw up his courage, and go into the Holy of Holies to offer incense before
My teacher, Rabbi Nehemia Polen, believes that that was the most important part of
the Yom Kippur ritual. The confession was important, yes. The scapegoat was
significant, true. The sprinkling of blood was a powerful reminder of our mortality,
for sure. But all of those merely set the stage, help prepare priest and people, for the
You see, the book of Leviticus sees the whole world as a series of concentric circles,
centered on the Mishkan, with an arrow driving towards the center. Animal sacrifices were offered on the big copper altar, situated just outside the Mishkan.
But the smaller incense altar, made of gold, was located inside the Mishkan tent
itself, in the Holy Place. It was situated between the menorah and the table of show-
bread, directly opposite and pointing towards the parochet, the curtain that
separated Holy from Holy of Holies, the center of everything.
The purpose of these layers is to create gradations of holiness, to set up the
conditions under which we can experience the sacred. Having that experience
always involves crossing some boundary and moving to a deeper, more interior
place. You can’t go too far—if you exceed your limits, you can be immolated in
holiness; this morning’s reading begins by reminding us that that’s what happened
to Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu. But that move to the inside, to the deeper place,
makes us feel vulnerable, opens up our spiritual channels, and allows God to flow in
and meet us. We know this intuitively from our own emotional lives—to really get
close to someone, you don’t hang out in a bar or a restaurant; you go someplace
where it’s just the two of you, where you can really open up and have a heart-to-
heart. That’s why, on this holiest day of the year, when the need for closeness and
intimacy with God was greatest, the high priest would step into the innermost circle
in that whole series of circles, risking getting as close to God as humanly possible, so
that divine mercy might overflow and spill outward through all the other circles,
touching and nourishing and washing clean all the souls out there.
Today, of course, we have an enormous challenge. We want to accomplish the same
thing—the same level of intimacy with God, the same repentance for our sins—but
the Mishkan, and the Temple that replaced it in Jerusalem, are no more. Maimonides
tells us that today, in the absence of a Temple and an altar, verbal confession
substitutes for sacrifice, but oh, what a poor substitute it is. In effect, what used to
be a physical, external structure is now a state of mind, a spiritual and emotional
place that we seek to enter. The davening helps us, to some extent, but we need all
the help we can get.
How did Aaron the High Priest enter the Holy of Holies? How did he facilitate his
encounter with the divine and live to tell the tale?
God says to Moses: “bezot yavo Aharon el hakodesh”—with this, or perhaps ONLY
with this, shall Aaron enter the holiest place: with a bull and a ram for offerings,
wearing simple white clothing, and with two goats for sacrifice.
I want to offer three classical interpretations of what Aaron brought with him that
may help us find that state of mind today.
First, a midrash from VaYikra Rabbah (21:11) offers an understanding of the
sacrificial animals as symbols for our ancestors. The bull, it says, is Abraham,
because when the angels visited him to announce Isaac’s birth he ran to the herds
and ordered a young bull be slaughtered to feed them. The ram is Isaac,
representing the ram that took his place on the altar at the Akedah. And the two goats are Jacob, symbolizing the goats that Rebecca cooked when she helped Jacob
secure the firstborn’s blessing.
In this reading, what Aaron brings with him into the Holy of Holies is his heritage,
his ancestry. And even though the midrash only explicitly names the patriarchs, two
of the three verses allude to matriarchs as well. After Abraham orders the bull
slaughtered, he runs to Sarah and asks her to bake cakes, so that they each do their
part. Jacob deceiving his father and stealing the blessing seems sort of scummy, until
we remember that his mother Rebecca was the one orchestrating matters, seeing
with clear eyes which of her sons needed to inherit Isaac’s mantle, and taking upon
herself any blame that would result. The verse cited by the midrash is, in fact,
Rebecca speaking to Jacob. Aaron is bringing all his ancestors with him—and more
than that, he brings their defining traits: their hospitality, their faith, their vision and
determination, their willingness to self-sacrifice.
How do these elements from your past accompany you as you seek to find and enter
that mental state of ‘Holy of Holies”? How did your parents and grandparents, either
your literal forebears or your spiritual ancestors, experience Yom Kippur? What
parts of them do you bring with you that help you today?
A second midrash from the same collection (21:6) zeroes in on the word zot in
“bezot yavo Aharon,” with THIS shall Aaron enter. It’s a bit of an extraneous word,
which the rabbis hate to leave dangling, and so Rabbi Yudan connects it to other
places in the Torah where that word, zot, is used. I won’t bore you with all the
citations, but Rabbi Yudan tells us that this zot refers to a collection of key mitzvot:
circumcision, Shabbat, Jerusalem, the sacrifices, the tithes, and Torah itself—this is
one proof-text you will likely all know, the verse from Deuteronomy that we sing
whenever we lift up the Torah, “Vezot haTorah asher sam Moshe…” In other words,
Aaron enters the Holy of Holies wrapped in the mitzvot he has fulfilled.
In the same way, we enter today accompanied by the mitzvot we have done this past
year—the actions we have taken, the choices we’ve made, the priorities we have set.
How do those help you today as you seek the Holy of Holies? Do they give you
courage and comfort? Do they confront you with choices you regret and encourage
you to make changes for the coming year?
For our third interpretation this morning, we turn to the Kabbalists. Jewish mystics
love language more than most rabbis, because for them many ordinary words
become code-words for aspects of God. Zot for the Kabbalists means Shechinah, the
feminine divine presence that is closest and most accessible to us here on Earth, the
part of God that went into exile with the Jews when the Temple was destroyed. So
the Kabbalists would read our verse as meaning that Aaron was accompanied by the
Shechinah when he went into the Holy of Holies. Or they might turn the verse
around entirely and understand it to mean that Aaron would accompany the
Shechinah when she went into the bridal chamber to unite with her masculine
counterpart, called the Holy Blessed One, to bring the world back to wholeness.
Whichever way you choose to read it—whichever one of them, Aaron and
Shechinah, you think is the main actor and which is accompanying—this offers us a
third way to approach Yom Kippur. Who comes with you today when you try to
enter the Holy of Holies? How are you partners with that person or those people on
the path you are walking? Do you feel like there is a part of God walking beside
you—a kinder, more accessible piece of divinity—as you try to approach the big,
scary God and ask for forgiveness? Is there a way in which your atonement today
creates a reunification within divinity itself?
As I said at the outset, ultimately, the space we try to enter on this Day of Atonement
is an empty space. It contains only what we bring with us. We seek to turn it into a
vessel in which God can dwell, so that we may have that private, intimate encounter
with the divine and truly seek forgiveness.
So the question I leave you with, as we move into Musaf on page ___ and the core of
this morning’s service, is this: what are you bringing with you?