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