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.

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