For on this day atonement will be made for you to purify you of all your sins; you shall be pure before the Lord. (Vayikra 16: 30)
On this day alone, most sacred of days,
bathed and attired in white linen robes,
came the holiest priest to the holiest place
to atone for his people and stand before God.
With a panful of coals retrieved from the altar
the incense was burned to a billow of smoke;
he sprinkled the blood of the animals slaughtered,
and sent forth the goat to atone for the sins.
But now we are called to become our own priests,
to forever re-enter each singular shrine,
to summon our prayers and give voice to our trust
that forgiveness will flow forth like water.
The beginning of Parashat Acharei Mot describes the Yom Kippur ritual. According to the Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS, the primary purpose of the expiatory rites described was to maintain a pure sanctuary, as, were it to be defiled, God’s Presence would depart. (Hence these rites are introduced in the first verse by alluding to the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s two elder sons, “who died when they came too close to God’s Presence.” (Vayikra 16: 1)). The next verse continues, “…Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the Shrine behind the curtain [the Holy of Holies], in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die…“(Vayikra 16: 2). In these rites, only the High priest may enter the Holy of Holies.
The Etz Hayim continues that on reading the words, “After the death of the two sons of Aaron” we are prompted to confront our own mortality and take stock of our lives, as the text describes the Yom Kippur rituals of “cleansing, self-scrutiny and self-renewal.” Further, the commentary notes that the rituals of Yom Kippur are presented here rather than in the list of festivals in Vayikra 23 because their focus is less on the public observance, but rather on the priestly duties of purifying the sanctuary to render it fit for the atonement rituals. The suggestion is, then, that as this Parasha is read in the spring, half a year before Yom Kippur, we may deduce that any season is a good time for self-reflection and atonement.
Rav Soloveitchik comments on the two expressions that are used in this verse, which features prominently in the Yom Kippur liturgy: “For on this day atonement will be made for you to purify you of all your sins; you shall be pure before the Lord.” (Vayikra 16: 30). He distinguishes between “atonement” and “purification”. He says the former relates to repairing our relationship with God and is dependent on God’s willingness to love and accept imperfect people, whereas the latter is reliant on the capacity of those imperfect people to improve. As Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk notes on the same verse, ” “On this day“, but you have to purify yourselves. You will not achieve purity without hard work and struggle.”
In a commentary on Parashot Acharei Mot and Kedoshim, from 2010, http://www.rabbisacks.org/covenant-conversation-5770-acharei-mot-kedoshim-the-sacrificial-crisis/ Rabbi Jonathan Sacks addresses the Yom Kippur ritual depicted. He notes that the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies on that day and sought absolution for all Israel. “It was a moment on which the fate of Israel depended. For their destiny depended on G-d; and G-d in turn sought their obedience. Yet a sinless nation is inconceivable. That would be a nation of angels, not women and men. So a people needs rituals of collective repentance and remorse, times at which it asks G-d for forgiveness. That is what the Day of Atonement was when the Temple stood.”
Rabbi Sacks continues, describing the devastation wrought by the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in the year 70 CE. In addition to being a military and political disaster, it was, most of all, a spiritual catastrophe. The survival of the Jewish people, whose religion was centred on the Temple and its sacrifices, was imperilled. The prophets who had infused the people with hope after the destruction of the First Temple were long gone. How then did Judaism survive this calamity? Rabbi Sacks finds the answer in a famous statement in the Mishna: Rabbi Akiva said, “Happy are you, Israel. Who is it before whom you are purified and who purifies you? Your Father in heaven. As it is said: And I will sprinkle clean water upon you and you shall be clean (Ezekiel 36:25). And it further says: You hope of Israel, the Lord. (Jeremiah 17:13) Just as a fountain purifies the impure, so does the Holy One, blessed be He, purify Israel.” (Yoma 8:24-25)
Rabbi Sacks adds “According to Rabbi Akiva specifically, and rabbinic thought generally, in the absence of a Temple, a High Priest and sacrifices, all we need to do is repent, to do teshuvah, to acknowledge our sins, to commit ourselves not to repeat them in the future, and to ask G-d to forgive us. Nothing else is required: not a Temple, not a priest, and not a sacrifice. G-d Himself purifies us. There is no need for an intermediary.” He cites the Yiddish dramatist S. Ansky “Where there is true turning to G-d, every person becomes a priest, every prayer a sacrifice, every day a Day of Atonement and every place a Holy of Holies”.
Rabbi Sacks concludes “That is how one of the greatest tragedies to hit the Jewish people led to an unprecedented closeness between G-d and us, unmediated by a High Priest, unaccompanied by any sacrifice, achieved by nothing more or less than turning to G-d with all our heart, asking for forgiveness and trusting in His love.”