Parshat Acharay-Mot details the Temple service that the high priest would perform every Yom Kippur. Today, the description of the Temple service forms the center of the communal Yom Kippur Musaf prayer, and the Torah reading on Yom Kippur is taken from the parsha of Acharay-Mot. Yet the Temple service seems irrelevant to us today. What does it tell us about the nature of Yom Kippur and repentance?
We may first note that the service is introduced with the verse, “Speak to Aaron your brother, that he come not at all times into the holy place… for I will appear in the cloud upon the covering.” (Lev. 16:2). The primary purpose of this service is that it allows Aaron to enter into the Holy of Holies, the place of the divine presence. In fact, it is only thirty verses later that we discover that this service, appropriate perhaps all year round, is to be done on Yom Kippur. This, then, is the first message: we should not repent on Yom Kippur because it is what we are supposed to do on that day. Rather, Yom Kippur heightens our awareness of our distance from God, and we must repent motivated by a desire to enter into to the Holy of Holies, to be close to God, to regain our lost intimacy.
Aaron (or the High Priest) is commanded to must wear simple, white, linen garments. This is probably the source of the custom to wear the kittel, or white garment, on Yom Kippur. In addition to being a sign of purity, this garment symbolizes the shedding of our fancy clothes, our posturing, our armor. We must stand before God naked, as it were, in all honesty and integrity, throwing away our facades and self-deceptions that we cloak ourselves with throughout the year.
The High Priest would first atone for himself and his household before performing the atonement rites for the Children of Israel. This is a critical message for all those involved in community service. Such people may be inclined to sacrifice their needs and the needs of their family for the sake of the community. While the proper balance is always difficult to strike, the obligation to self and family must come first. “If I am not for me, then who will be for me?” asks Hillel.
Next, the High Priest would atone for the Children of Israel. This atonement process consisted of taking two goats, equal in all respects. By the casting of lots, one would be chosen to be sent away from the Temple into the wilderness, to atone for the sins. The other would be brought as a sacrifice in the Temple to cleanse the Temple from impurity. These two goats represent two types of sins. The most common sins are those of the first goat: those that occur because we are lost in the wilderness, wandering further and further away from the Temple, away form God. But there are also sins of the second goat: sins that occur because we are in the Temple. We sometimes allow our religious involvement to give us license to act in inappropriate ways, or we may perform mitzvot, but not in the proper manner, not with the proper respect. This can impurify the religion itself, and these sins are in equal need of atonement.
The purifying of the Temple teaches us another important lesson. Sin pollutes. Not only ourselves, dragging down our character and ideals, but our environment as well. If we have not respected our parents or our spouse as we should, our relationship with them has been damaged. If we are not as careful about keeping the Sabbath as we should, the sanctity and inviolate nature of the Sabbath has been violated. The process of repentance must bring about a change not only in ourselves, but in the environment that we have corrupted.
Finally, we read how the High Priest would bring the censer of incense into the Holy of Holies. Although not explicit in the Torah, our Rabbis teach us that the final Temple service was when the High Priest would re-enter the Holy of Holies to remove the censer. Many of us pour all of our energies on Yom Kippur into entering the Holy of Holies, getting close to God on that one day. We must remember that the final work to be done is to take that intimacy out with us; to enter into the rest of the year with changes and closeness that we have experienced on that day.