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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A major aspect of our Yom Kippur liturgy is the service of the High Priest on this Day of Forgiveness. The detailed description of the dramatic service can only be understood in the context of the biblical promise, "For on this day the Almighty will forgive you for all your sinsâ€¦" Indeed, the High Priest assumes the role of the Community of Israel, and it is to a great extent his proper execution of the service which brings about the forgiving of a nation.
Certainly, the day's high point - or at least one of its highlights - is when the High Priest enters the Holy of Holies. At that moment comes the loftiest convergence of sanctity in the Jewish year: the holiest of men in the holiest of places on the holiest of days. The purpose of this sacred entry is to bring the offering of incense, one of the most difficult activities in the Temple. However, the High Priest does not enter this holiest of places only once; he is enjoined to enter it again, much later in the afternoon, when he must first remove his golden garments, bathe a fourth time, and put on the white linen garments. And this second time there is no specific offering, certainly none mentioned in the Bible or Talmud. So why does he go in again?
There are those who suggest that he changes clothes this fourth time to enter the Holy of Holies and remove the vessels he brought in on his previous visit. Many commentators suggest that this teaches a critical lesson: one must always clean up after oneself. But why not instruct him to remove the vessels at the end of his first visit?
I would like to suggest another reason, based on a fascinating instruction found in many High Holy Day prayer books from two centuries ago which begins with the words "Avinu Malkenu" (Our Father our King). Just before the last request in this prayer, "Please be gracious to us for no reason and answer us because we do not have meritorious good deeds; act in righteousness and loving kindness toward us and save us," there appears the following insertion: "The Holy Ark is to be closed before reciting this petition, and it is to be uttered in a whisper."
The usual explanation given for this instruction is the following analogy. Imagine that you owe a person $1,000 and are asking him for another $1,000. It's hard to imagine that you would shout your request for the additional funds, adding that you don't have the means to pay him back. At best you would reveal your position in an embarrassed whisper.
The great hassidic sage Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, however, would always insist on keeping the Ark open for this last request, and would sing the words out loud in unison with the congregation. He explained his departure from custom with what he believed was the central teaching regarding Yom Kippur: Our God is a God of unconditional love, Who guarantees forgiveness despite our unworthiness and dearth of good deeds. This is the biblical promise that the Almighty will forgive us on Yom Kippur, as long as we admit our unworthiness and ask for His forgiveness. Hence, there is no greater reason for our rejoicing on this day, even though have no good deeds.
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak's interpretation is borne out by the magnificent Book of Jonah, which we read toward the conclusion of Yom Kippur. Jonah attempted to escape from God's presence because his sense of justice could not abide a God who was a hanun (one who showed grace without cause, in colloquial terms a freier or sucker) who would be willing to forgive the evil people of Nineveh merely because they asked for forgiveness. Jonah's reluctance notwithstanding, God's message of being a God of forgiveness wins the day.
Therefore I would suggest that it behooves the High Priest to enter the Holy of Holies a second time without any offering, any act of service or dedication. The priest concludes the Yom Kippur service by standing before the Almighty just as he is, secure in his faith that God will forgive him and his people.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.