In Acharei Mot, B’nei Yisrael is basically doing what we do on Yom Kippur but a bit simpler. All they had to do was “give” their sins to Aaron, who was the head Kohen. Then Aaron placed all the sins of B’nei Yisrael on a goat which they sent off into the wild to die. And it was simple, for the people. But not for the Kohanim. God gave Moses all these rules and laws on how to conduct the work of the Kohanim. And there were a lot of them! Keep in mind that two of Aaron’s four sons had just been killed by God because they went up to the altar drunk. Aaron had no time to grieve or mourn, it was just, “Help the people with their sins. Make sure the people are okay. The people are the top priority.” That seems pretty harsh if you ask me.
Now as I said in the last paragraph, the people of B’nei Yisrael didn’t really do anything in their equivalent to a Yom Kippur service. They just gave their sins to Aaron, which basically consisted of them going to Aaron and telling him their sins. But that’s the point, they didn’t do anything. After this once a year Yom Kippur service that occured in the desert, the Jews started a new way to get rid of their sins when they got to Israel and built the Temple.
As the Roman consul, Marcus says in his eye witness testimony, on Yom Kippur “There were thirty-six thousand of them, and all the prefects wore clothing of blue silk; and the priests, of whom there were 24,000, wore clothing of white silk. After them came the singers, and after them, the instrumentalists, then the trumpeters, then the guards of gate, then the incense-makers, then the curtain-makers, then the watchmen and the treasurers, then a class called chartophylax, then all the workingmen who worked in the Sanctuary, then the seventy of the Sanhedrin, then a hundred priests with silver rods in their hands to clear the way. Then came the High Priest, and after him all the elders of the priesthood, two by two.”
Just seeing the High Priest on this holiest of holy days was a life changing experience. The Yom Kippur service was entirely surrounding the High Priest. But then, as you all know, the temple was destroyed and the nation of Israel fell in to state of grief. After that happened, the Jews found their own little communities and their own part in each service, including the Yom Kippur service.
As Rabbi Sacks says in his book The Koren Yom Kippur Mahzor “Every synagogue became a fragment of the Temple. Every prayer became a sacrifice. Every Jew became a kind of priest, offering God not an animal but instead the gathered shards of a broken heart.”
Now we would find it strange to go into a synagogue and see a priest doing everything while everyone else is just sitting there watching or even weirder, to find no one here except for a priest. But the new approach to Yom Kippur demonstrates that the people, everyday people, could talk to God. As Rabbi Sacks puts it “Even ordinary Jews could, as it were, come face to face with the Shekhina, the Divine Presence. They needed no one else to apologize for them. The drama that once took place in the Temple could now take place in the human heart. Yom Kippur was saved. It is not too much to say that Jewish faith was saved.”
Yom Kippur is one of those very special praying times. On Yom Kippur we are even not supposed to eat anything for fear of your thoughts straying away the prayers you are praying. “Yom Kippur is the holy of holies of Jewish time. Observed with immense ceremony in the Temple, almost miraculously rescued after the Temple was destroyed, sustained ever since with unparalleled awe, it is Judaism’s answer to one of the most haunting of human questions: How is it possible to live in the ethical life without an overwhelming sense of guilt, inadequacy and failure.”
But God is understanding, “He [God] asks us to acknowledge our failures, repair what we have harmed, and move on, learning from our errors and growing thereby. … at its heart there had to be an institution capable of transmuting guilt into moral growth.”
Now we pray with Rabbis, but we also pray as ourselves. By ourselves or more often, with a community. Again, “Even ordinary Jews could, as it were, come face to face with the Shekhina, the Divine Presence. They needed no one else to apologize for them. The drama that once took place in the Temple could now take place in the human heart. Yom Kippur was saved. It is not too much to say that Jewish faith was saved.” Because now we can all pray to God as ourselves.
Seth Korn ’20