Even Moshe Rabbeinu, who spoke with God one on One, was not allowed to see Him during his lifetime. “You cannot see my face, for no man shall see me and live.” Ultimately, we shall all see God one on One and face not just Him but also ourselves and the lives we led. Our desire to see Him will then be consummated and His existence will be proven beyond all doubt, but our ability to repent and prepare ourselves for that Day of Judgment will have passed.
And so one day a year God gives us the opportunity to come as close to Him as is humanly possible and still repent. Yom Kippur is the dress rehearsal of our departure from this world. We wear the shrouds in which we will ultimately face Him, and we discard the shoes we will no longer need. We do not eat, drink or bathe as we stand alone before Him. We crowd the synagogue, just as the throngs of Israelites crowded the Temple, praying, fasting and waiting for the shaliach tzibbur, standing for the high priest, to successfully complete the Yom Kippur Temple service. For if the high priest does not survive the day, Israel might not survive the year.
Before the anxious crowd, the high priest walks the tight rope between life and death from dawn to dusk. One procedural slip in the Temple service and it will be all over, just as it was for Aaron’s sons whose bodies had to be retrieved from the Holy of Holies. The high priest’s task is not easy and the stakes are high. Single-handedly he has to juggle the performance of the daily Temple service and the special Yom Kippur service, darting as he does so back and forth between the Holy of Holies, the Temple Sanctuary and the Temple Courtyard.
Fifteen sacrifices, (two lambs for the daily sacrifice, one bullock, one ram and seven lambs for the Mussaf sacrifice, one bullock for the priests’ atonement, one ram for the people’s burnt offering, one he-goat for the people’s atonement and, finally, the scapegoat that is sent to die in the wilderness) have to be slaughtered and offered up by the High Priest on Yom Kippur.
The High Priest must, among other things, sprinkle the sacrificial blood on the altars, offer up the incense, burn the limbs of the animals on the altar, prepare the Sanctuary lamps for lighting, offer up the baked cakes of the High Priest, pour the drink offerings, confess his own, his family’s and the priests’ sins, cast lots for the two he-goats, tie a crimson ribbon on the head of the scapegoat, pray for the welfare of the people, confess their sins and read to them from the Torah. Each of the five times the High Priest enters the Holy of Holies to perform the Yom Kippur service he must change out of his routine golden garments into his Yom Kippur white garments, so as not to remind God of the sin of the Golden Calf.
Each time the High Priest enters the Temple Sanctuary or Temple Courtyard to perform the daily Temple service he must change back into his golden garments. And between each change of garments he must wash his hands and feet and then immerse himself, in the cold waters of the Temple ritual bath. The precision required and the time constraints imposed make the High Priest’s task almost humanly impossible. Indeed, according to the Midrash’s interpretation of Leviticus 16:17, when entering the Holy of Holies the High Priest was temporarily transformed into a ministering angel. We are told that when the High Priest finally emerged from the Holy of Holies alive and well, having successfully completed his mission, he was swept up by the waiting crowds who celebrated with him deep into the night.
The Midrash relates that during Moshe Rabbeinu’s 40-day visit to the mountain of God, he overheard and memorized the angels’ secret prayer, “Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuto Leolam Vaed” – “blessed is the name of His Glorious Kingdom forever.” When Moshe returned to earth, he taught the prayer to the Jews but cautioned them to utter it under their breath so that the angels would not detect the infringement. On Yom Kippur, however, when we most closely resemble angels, we are asked to recite this prayer out loud.
Yizkor, the prayer for the dead, is always recited on the last days of Yom Tov. Because Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are, in a sense, considered one Festival, Yizkor is said on Yom Kippur but not on Rosh Hashanah. By reciting Yizkor, we pray for the atonement of those who can no longer acquit themselves.
As the Neilah curtain falls and we descend from the seventh heaven where, we are told, God and the angels reside, we declare seven times “The Lord, He is The God.” And on returning from our brief visit to heaven we recite the prayer uttered by those who leave this world forever, “Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad.”
About the Author: Raphael Grunfeld’s book, “Ner Eyal on Seder Moed” (distributed by Mesorah) is available at OU.org and your local Jewish bookstore. His new book, “Ner Eyal on Seder Nashim & Nezikin,” will be available shortly.
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