YOM KIP­PUR NA­TION­AL­ISM

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - BY RABBI DAVID LIS­TER David Lis­ter is rabbi of Edg­ware United Syn­a­gogue

Yom Kip­pur does not come out of the blue. The High Holy Day pe­riod ex­tends over ten days, be­gin­ning with Rosh Hashanah and end­ing with Yom Kip­pur. Rabbi Nach­man of Breslav gives a ra­tio­nale for this bit of maths in a way that trans­forms our un­der­stand­ing and ex­pe­ri­ence of the day. He states that these ten days cor­re­spond to the ten lev­els of ho­li­ness in dif­fer­ent parts of the Land of Is­rael. Yom Kip­pur, the last and holi­est day, is linked to the holi­est place.

These ten de­grees of sanc­tity are listed in the Tal­mud (Ke­lim 1:6-8). The first ex­tends across the whole of the land, since cer­tain tithes and of­fer­ings could be made in bi­b­li­cal times from pro­duce grow­ing any­where in Is­rael. The sec­ond ap­plies just to walled cities. The third is within the walls of Jerusalem. The fourth is within the Tem­ple that stood on Tem­ple Mount in the cen­tre of Jerusalem. The tenth and last is tiny in size, cov­er­ing only the few square yards of the Holy of Holies, the in­ner­most part of the Tem­ple.

It is cu­ri­ous to note that, the holier a place is, the less peo­ple are al­lowed to go there. Whereas any­one could en­ter the Land of Is­rael, only the priests were al­lowed into the Tem­ple and only the High Priest could en­ter the Holy of Holies.

In mod­ern Bri­tish cul­ture as in an­cient To­rah ethics, in­clu­sion and di­ver­sity are prized virtues. Moses made it abun­dantly clear that the To­rah is for ev­ery sin­gle Jew (Deuteronomy 29:9-14). So what are we to make of the cor­re­la­tion be­tween ho­li­ness and ex­clu­siv­ity which de­fines and cat­e­gorises our land?

The an­swer lies in co­hen, the He­brew word for a priest. Rabbi Sam­son Raphael Hirsch links this word to the He­brew kan, mean­ing “a foun­da­tion”.

This means the co­hanim (priests) in the Tem­ple were not a clique with priv­i­leged ac­cess to God. Rather, their role was to serve as a foun­da­tion for the spir­i­tu­al­ity of the en­tire Jewish peo­ple. By ex­ten­sion, the more ex­clu­sive an area in Is­rael was, the more the peo­ple there had to carry the spir­i­tu­al­ity of oth­ers who were not there, and the more spir­i­tual de­mands were placed on them. Ex­clu­sion and in­clu­sion were two sides of the same coin.

We can un­der­stand from this why the co­hanim had so many elab­o­rate rit­u­als to per­form in the Tem­ple. There were spe­cial clothes to be worn, sac­ri­fices to be of­fered ev­ery day and in­tri­cate cer­e­monies reg­u­lat­ing who should do and say what, down to the mi­nut­est de­tail, be­cause they were serv­ing on be­half of the en­tire peo­ple and their spir­i­tual re­spon­si­bil­ity was enor­mous.

The most awe­some and de­tailed cer­e­mony was ac­com­plished by the Co­hen Gadol, the High Priest, on Yom Kip­pur (Leviti­cus 16). He spent the en­tire day per­form­ing a complex ar­ray of Tem­ple rit­u­als, in­clud­ing de­posit­ing burn­ing in­cense in front of the ark in the Holy of Holies, be­cause he was rep­re­sent­ing the Jewish peo­ple on the holi­est day of the year in their hour of need as they sought for­give­ness for a whole year of sins and fail­ings (Leviti­cus 16:24).

The fact that the Tem­ple cer­e­monies were tightly de­fined did not mean that the priests did not feel or think any­thing as they per­formed their tasks. They were ex­pected to be re­flec­tive and rev­er­ent. Those among them who did not en­ter into the spirit of the ser­vice they were per­form­ing, or who sought to take fi­nan­cial ad­van­tage of their role with­out re­ally want­ing to min­is­ter to the needs of the peo­ple, were harshly con­demned (I Sa­muel 2:22 – 34).

Pre­dictably, the High Priest was sup­posed to be a supremely righ­teous man, deeply moved by the ex­pe­ri­ence of en­coun­ter­ing the Divine pres­ence at its most in­tense in the Holy of Holies, and by the privilege of in­clud­ing us all in this amaz­ing mo­ment.

In our own time, we have no High Priest and no Tem- ple. There is no per­fect set­ting for our ap­proach to God and we lack the Tem­ple rit­u­als which welded us to­gether at this crit­i­cal mo­ment in our cal­en­dar.

But Yom Kip­pur’s place at the end of the ten High Holy Days still links it to the Holy of Holies, the place where, on Yom Kip­pur, all Jews were united be­fore God in the heart of one man. Yom Kip­pur still gives us a spe­cial ca­pac­ity for Jewish unity.

The ev­i­dence is plain to see. Like the High Priest, we have a lot to do on Yom Kip­pur, and the stakes are as high as they could be. But, de­spite the heavy de­mands the day brings to us, our syn­a­gogues are filled on Yom Kip­pur like on no other day, and the soul­ful singing of con­gre­ga­tions at Kol Nidre and Neilah tugs at many a heart.

And when, like the priest­hood at its best, we are at the top of our game, ob­serv­ing the laws of the day and pray­ing the pray­ers of the day as best we can, feel­ing their mes­sages in our hearts and con­scious that our sis­ters and broth­ers across the world are united with us in fast­ing, prayer and re­pen­tance, we can at­tain and build that beau­ti­ful global Jewish unity for our­selves.

The Ten Days of Re­pen­tance cor­re­spond to the ten lev­els of ho­li­ness in Is­rael’

PHOTO: WIKICOMMONS

The High Priest en­tered the Holy of Holies in the Tem­ple of Jerusalem only once a year, on Yom Kip­pur

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