(By Shlomo Riskin – Courtesy: JEWISHLEDGER)

A major aspect of the Yom Kippur liturgy is the service of the High Priest on this sacred Day of Forgiveness. The detailed description of the highly dramatic service can only be understood within the context of the Biblical promise, “For on this day G-d will forgive you for all of your sins to purify you…” Indeed, the High Priest assumes the role of the historic Community of Israel, and it is to a great extent the result of his proper execution of the service of the day which brings about the atonement of a nation.  

Certainly, one of the major highlights of the day is when the High Priest enters the Sanctum Sanctorum, or the Holy of Holies. The purpose of this most sacred entrance is to bring the offering of the fragrant incense, an atonement for the sin of slander, an expression of the causeless hatred which seems to be the Achilles’ heel of our nation. It is also one of the most difficult services in the Temple, requiring great dexterity in addition to sheer physical strength.

Furthermore, the High Priest enters this holiest of places not only once with the incense; he is enjoined to enter the Holy of Holies again, much later in the afternoon, when he must remove his golden garments, bathe for a fourth time, that day of days, put on his white linen garments, and then enter the Holy of Holies once again. But on this second occasion there is no specific offering that the High Priest brings. So why does the High Priest enter again?

I would like to explain this second visit of the High Priest based upon a fascinating instruction found in many High Holy Day prayer books (Machzorim) from two centuries back: The Avinu Malkenu (Our Father our King) prayer, which concludes: “Avinu Malkenu, please be gracious to us for no reason and answer us; we do not have meritorious good deeds; act in compassionate righteousness and loving kindness towards us and save us.”

In most early versions of the Mahzor prayer books, the following instruction is inserted – in small print – before this last Avinu Malkenu request: “The Holy Ark is to be closed before reciting this petition and it is to be uttered in a whisper.” The usual interpretation given for this instruction is built around the following analogy: Imagine that you owe a person $1,000 and now seek a loan of another $1,000. The last thing one would expect the borrower to do is make the request of the loan by shouting from the rooftops. At best it would be done in an embarrassed whisper. Thus, the analogy suggests that by closing the Holy Ark at this point, the petitioner remains modest in his request. 

Despite this logic, the great Hassidic sage Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev would insist upon keeping the Holy Ark open for this last request and would sing the words out loud in unison with the congregation. He explained his departure from the earlier custom by relying on what he believed was the central teaching regarding Yom Kippur: our G-d is a G-d of unconditional and freely giving love who guarantees our forgiveness despite our lack of worthiness and our dearth of good deeds. This is the Biblical promise that the Almighty will forgive us on Yom Kippur as long as we admit our unworthiness and ask for His forgiveness.Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s interpretation is completely borne out by the magnificent book of Jonah which we read towards the conclusion of Yom Kippur. Jonah attempted to escape from G-d’s presence because his sense of truth and justice could not abide a G-d who was willing to forgive even the evil people of Ninveh merely because they asked forgiveness despite the long and egregious record of their transgressions. Despite Jonah’s moral position, it’s G-d’s message of His being a G-d of forgiveness which wins the day.  

Therefore, I would suggest that it behooves the High Priest to enter the Holy of Holies a second time without any offering, without any act of service or dedication, even without any special prayer. The High Priest concludes his Yom Kippur service by standing before the Almighty, as it were, just as he is himself, representing the Jewish people as they are, albeit even devoid of merit, secure in his faith that “on this day G-d will forgive (Israel) of all their sins to purify (them).”

Shlomo Riskin is Chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and Chief Rabbi of Efrat Israel