Acharei-Mot details the special avodah, the sacrificial rites, that the High Priest performed on Yom Kippur to affect atonement for the Jewish people. However, as the Vilna Gaon noted in Kol Eliyahu, the Torah only introduces the connection to Yom Kippur at the very end of the lengthy description of this special avodah. The framing of the avodah is not what must be done to achieve atonement on Yom Kippur, but rather, what must be done when Aharon wants to enter the inner sanctum: “Speak to Aharon your brother, that he come not at all times into the holy place inside the veil before the covering, which is upon the ark; that he die not; for I will appear in the cloud upon the covering” (Vayikra 16:2).
Thus, says the Vilna Gaon, this is a rite that the High Priest—or, according to the Gaon, specifically Aharon—could perform any time he wanted to enter the Holy of Holies so that he would not die as his sons had, provided that the ritual was followed precisely. Understood this way, the parasha is underscoring the dangers of unbridled religious passion, of approaching God without due care and caution; it gives a very structured way that one—the High Priest in this case—can channel his desire for intense, intimate connection.
This approach makes the avodah a tool for the High Priest’s realization of his religious yearnings, but it does not address larger communal issues. It also does not reflect the simple sense of the Torah, which mandates communal sacrifices for the avodah and declares that it will cleanse the Mikdash and atone for the people. It seems that while the emphasis of the avodah is not on Yom Kippur, it is also not on the High Priest entering the Holy of Holies. Yes, he must enter it, but this is a means, not an end. What, then, is the end goal? The Torah tells us in the climactic verses after the High Priest exits the inner sanctum:
And he shall make atonement (vi’khiper) for the holy place, from the uncleanness of the people of Israel, and from their transgressions in all their sins; and so shall he do for the Tent of Meeting, that remains among them in the midst of their uncleanness. And there shall be no man in the Tent of Meeting when he goes in to make atonement( li’khaper), in the holy place, until he comes out, having made atonement, (vi’khiper) for himself, and for his household, and for all the congregation of Israel (Vayikra 16:16–17).
The goal is not the entering itself, not the religious experience for its own sake. Neither is the goal primarily for bringing atonement and forgiveness for the Children of Israel. The goal is atoning for the Sanctuary. Well, not atoning exactly, for what atonement does the Sanctuary need? The term used here is kaper, which more precisely means cleansing, not atoning. The Sanctuary must be cleansed from the defilement it has endured as a result of the sins of Israel. Sins, according to the Torah, create a type of tumah. Sin defiles both the person who performs it and the person’s surroundings. And how much more does it defile the Sanctuary, the place of the Presence of God?
Thus this avodah must be performed to cleanse the Sanctuary and to cleanse the people. Its central sacrifices are chataot, generally translated as “sin-offerings,” but more accurately translated as “cleansing sacrifices.” This is why certain tamei people, such as women who have given childbirth, must bring a chatat. Not because they have sinned, but because the chatat achieves a cleansing of tumah (see Sotah 15a).
The focus is not on the sin itself but on its impact, its defilement, and the sin-offerings, or rather, the cleansing-offerings, restore the world to its previous state. They restore the person to how she was before this sin affected her and God’s Sanctuary to how it was, allowing God’s Presence to continue dwelling among the People.
Now, it is worth asking how this cleansing is achieved and how it can be effective. Isn’t tumah the antithesis of the Sanctuary? Why, then, does the tumah not drive God’s Presence out of the Sanctuary? The question is sharpened further when we realize that, of all that can invalidate sacrifices, tumah is the problem that can most be tolerated. The Talmud (Menachot 25a) teaches that the tzitz the High Priest wore on his forehead allowed sacrifices that were tamei to be acceptable after the fact. And fixed-time sacrifices could be brought despite tumah: tumah hutra bi’tzibbur. If it can so easily be tolerated, why, then, is tumah the very thing that must be driven from the Temple?
The answer relates to the very nature of the Temple, to God choosing to have God’s Presence dwell among the people of Israel. On the one hand, tumah is the antithesis of kedusha, and having a Mikdash creates a heavy demand that we do everything in our ability to keep tumah at bay. But because we are not God, because we are human, tumah is an inevitable part of our lives. This is certainly true in terms of the ritual tumah that has been the focus of Vayikra: animals die, people die, women give birth to children, women menstruate, and men have seminal emissions. Such tumah is encountered every day. But perhaps more significantly, it is also true about tumah that it is a result of sin. To be human is to sin. No matter how valiant our attempts to prove otherwise, to be human is to produce tumah.
So if tumah and sin are inevitable consequences of our human existence, how can God continue to dwell among us? Simply put, God wishes it to be so. When, after the sin of the Golden Calf, God accedes to Moshe’s request that God continue to dwell among the people, God agreed to accept the reality of human sin and to dwell among us regardless. For our part, we must do all we can to keep tumah away, but even when we do not, God continues to dwell among us. This is what is both acknowledged and addressed by the Yom Kippur avodah. God has given us this to allow us to be forgiven and to start fresh. And hence, this verse of cleansing the Temple ends with an acknowledgement of the inevitability of tumah: “And so he shall do to the Tent of Meeting that dwells in their midst, in the midst of their impurity.”
Of all the verses that speak about God dwelling (shakhen) among the Children of Israel, this is the only one that emphasizes not that tumah must be kept at a distance, but that, despite our best efforts, tumah will always be present to some degree. And this acknowledgement comes exactly in the section of the Torah that speaks to how tumah can be tolerated: because God has agreed to tolerate it, God has accepted our humanity, and, to make the tumah manageable, God has given us a rite to cleanse the Temple and start over each year.
Of course, we cannot allow this Divine tolerance to undermine our awareness of God’s presence. If tumah becomes the norm, then the place will no longer be one of kedusha. This is how the tzitz allows tumah to be tolerated. The tzitz, with the words kodesh la’Hashem, “Holy to God”, worn on the forehead of the Kohen Gadol, tamid, continually, is a symbol of the continual consciousness of the Divine Presence. If in the presence of tumah the consciousness of the Divine Presence remains firm, then the tumah will be tolerated.
This, in turn, is why only the Kohen Gadol can affect the necessary cleansing. The Kohen Gadol, who symbolizes the constant awareness of God’s Presence, does the rites of the Yom Kippur avodah without wearing the tzitz because such a reminder is not necessary. When the Kohen Gadol enters into the Holy of Holies he is not only reminded of God; he is in direct contact with the Divine Presence. It is this connection to God, achieved through constant mindfulness and awareness, which reaches its apex on Yom Kippur. It is this connection to God that allows tumah not to undermine God’s Presence, but to be tolerated and cleansed. “With this Aharon may enter the holy place”; he may concretize the connection to God so that the Temple and the people may be cleansed.
Tumah, in its essence, is the very thing that distances us from God, but if we work to keep God in the forefront of our consciousness, to have kodesh la’Hashem inscribed on our forehead, then it will be tolerated, and God will be close to us despite our tumah. God, Who dwells among them, despite their impurity.