Purifying Ourselves in Order to Purify God’s Home

With Appreciation to Rabbi Shai Held[1]

          I’ve often been taken aback by how many people come to services on Yom Kippur and then are not seen again until the following Rosh Hashanah. I know that today I’m preaching to the choir, those who not only attend for the High Holy Days or for Yizkor but for every Shabbat. Nevertheless, I think about what the rationale is for th303ose who view the High Holy Days as a period of introspection and reflection but not the rest of the year.

          Parshat Aharei Mot sheds light on this idea. The parsha begins by discussing the importance of maintaining the purification of the Tabernacle. Aaron, who has just seen the death of his two eldest sons, must offer a bull as a purification offering, atoning for himself and his household[2] and enabling him to return to work as Kohen Gadol. If they attempted to serve God in a state of impurity, “God remained offended, so to speak, and the danger of His wrath and possible alienation was imminent.”[3] This immediately precedes the expiation of the sins of the people of Israel, for whom two goats are taken: one as a sacrifice to God and one inscribed with the sins of Israel taken out to Azazel.[4]

          The idea that we could atone for our sins through the sacrifice of an animal, or today through words of prayer, and that this occurs once a year strikes me as “lip service.” Why then do we strike our chest three times a day in every weekday Amidah, asking God to forgive our transgressions? Every day is an opportunity for a fresh start, and one does not need to wait until the following Yom Kippur. In fact, Rabbi Eliezer the Mishnah teaches us “transgressions between a person and God, Yom Kippur effects atonement; but transgressions against people, Yom Kippur effects atonement only after one has appeased one’s fellow.”[5] This is put more eloquently by Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim of Luntschitz in his text Kli Yakar, where he asserts, “before God will atone for him, every person must purify himself from head to toe.”[6]

          Rabbi Shai Held writes “We may be tempted to imagine at times that we can somehow go around the mess our human interactions have created, that we can go straight to God, who after all, is the ultimate Forgiver of sins. But the Mishnah will have none of it: God will not forgive our interpersonal sins unless and until we have worked to repair the damage we have done in the human sphere. There is no theological bypass around the interpersonal pain we have inflicted.”[7]

          The lesson here is clear: there is no shortcut to repentance. As awkward as it can be to return to someone whom we have wronged and asked for forgiveness, we have no choice but to do it. Rabbi Held concludes his words with this beautiful teaching: “We cannot sidestep the people we have hurt on our path to God: on the contrary, God insistently directs us towards these very people. Repair the breaches you have caused, God says, and then come see Me. But don’t forget to come see Me, because a violation of your fellow is always also a violation of Me.”

          As we continue to count the Omer and look at approaches for how we can better ourselves, let us not forget that before we can purify the Tabernacle, or in modern times the Synagogue, we must purify ourselves, making amends for past mistakes while concurrently striving to be the best version of ourselves that is possible. This is an ongoing process day in day out, certainly not one for solely the High Holy Days. It is my hope that each of us engages in this process every day, both through looking for ways to make amends for past behavior and striving to ensure that our present selves are as pure and Godly as possible.

[1] Rabbi Held’s D’var Torah for Aharei Mot is entitled “Yom Kippur: Purifying the Tabernacle and Ourselves”

[2] Leviticus 16:6

[3] Baruch Schwartz, Leviticus, page 99.

[4] Leviticus 16:10

[5] Mishnah Yoma 8:9

[6] Kli Yakar Leviticus 16:30

[7] Rabbi Shai Held “Yom Kippur: Purifying the Tabernacle and Ourselves,” Aharei Mot 5774.

The Purpose of Sacrifices

         In Aharei Mot, there is a strange section which highlights the purpose of sacrifices. Moses says to Aaron and all of Israel “if anyone of the house of Israel slaughters an ox or sheep or goat in the camp, or does so outside the camp, and does not bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting to present it as an offering to God, bloodguilt shall be imputed to that party: having shed blood, that person shall be cut off from among this people.”[1] These verses prima facie seem to indicate that no one can kill an animal without sacrificing it to God. With that being said, we know that the Israelites ate meat and were even commanded to eat parts of the sacrifice of well-being, so what could this be referring to? By continuing with the text, we get a sense of what is going on: “That they may offer their sacrifices no more to the goats after whom they stray. This shall be to them a law for all time, throughout the ages.”[2]

          What is going on here? The grammarian Ibn Ezra points out that this is a pun on words. The word for goat, שעיר, was also a word used for demon, because the body of one who sees them “storms.” (סערה). The person who sees them is agitated (צער). He goes on to say “it appears that they are so called because the insane see them in the form of goats (שעירים).[3]  Nahmanides, basing his comment off Ibn Ezra, says that they are called goats (שעירים) because on seeing them a person’s hair (שער) stands up on his body.[4]

          As moderns, what are we supposed to get out of this besides the similarity in Hebrew of the words for ‘goats,’ ‘storms,’ ‘agitated’ and ‘hair’? It seems apparent that this is a pedagogical exercise in the Israelites presenting their animals as offerings to God out of gratitude. While not all of the animal was burned on the altar, each Israelite had to at least go to the Tent of Meeting and present the animal as an act of both thanking and drawing near to God. This required a recognition that the animals were not there solely for one’s consumption and enjoyment but rather that they served a higher purpose in connecting Israel to the Holy One.

          We finished Passover last week but are still in this holy period leading up to the Giving of the Torah on Shavuot. It is imperative that each of us find a way to draw near to God during this time so that we will be prepared to receive the Torah anew in just 5 weeks’ time.

[1] Leviticus 17:3-4

[2] Leviticus 17:7

[3] Ibn Ezra on Leviticus 17:7 ד”ה לשעירים

[4] Ramban on Leviticus 17:7 ד”ה ולא יזבחו עוד את זבהיכם לשעירים