This year we’ll be revisiting a topic we first discussed eight years ago. The Torah reading for Yom Kippur describes the Yom Kippur service as it took place in the Beit HaMikdash. The service culminates with the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) entering the Holy of Holies and offering incense. Hashem tells Moshe [Vayikra 16:2-3]: “Speak to Aharon your brother, so that he should not enter at all times into the [Holy of Holies]… so that he not die; for I appear in a cloud upon the ark-cover. With this shall Aharon come into the Holy of Holies: with a young bullock for a sin-offering and a ram for a burnt-offering.” Before Aharon offers incense he must offer two sacrifices in preparation.

I’ve always been a stickler for grammar and for this reason masculine/feminine and plural/singular mismatches always bother me[1]. The Yom Kippur Torah reading contains a mismatch that is simultaneously masculine/feminine and singular/plural. Moshe tells Aharon “With this [you] shall enter the Holy of Holies”. The phrase “with this” is written in Hebrew as “b’zot”, which is feminine-singular. What is “this” that Aharon must bring with him into the Holy of Holies? Many commentators, including Rav Sa’adya Gaon, explain that “this” is referring to that which is mentioned at the end of the verse, i.e. the two animals that were offered as sacrifices. But this explanation does not make grammatical sense. “Two sacrifices” are plural. If the verse were referring to sacrifices, it should have read “b’eleh” – “with these”. Moreover, the bullock and the ram are male, and the word “zot”, as we have just mentioned, is female. Before we answer this question, we must ask one more question: The laws of the Yom Kippur service are preceded by a seemingly unrelated verse [Vayikra 16:1]: “Hashem spoke to Moshe after the death of the two sons of Aharon, who drew near to Hashem and died”. This verse is referring to Nadav and Avihu, who were killed by Hashem when they offered [Vayikra 10:1] “a strange fire that Hashem did not command them to bring”. Why does the Torah preface the Yom Kippur service with a reminder of the death of Aharon’s sons, an event that occurred six chapters earlier?

Eight years ago we suggested that the word “b’zot” taught Aharon that even while he despaired over the recent loss of his sons, he still had the power to overcome that despair and to enter the Holy of Holies. This year we’re going to turn that explanation on its head. What should a person do before he comes face-to-face with the Divine? Specifically, how does the Kohen Gadol prepare himself before he enters the Holy of Holies, the only place in the universe in which the spiritual and the corporeal touch, a place so holy that it is entered only once a year, on Yom Kippur, when the Kohen Gadol places a tray of burning incense on the altar. How does the Kohen Gadol get himself “into the zone”? A letter from the Roman Consul written near the end of the second Beit HaMikdash indicates that this question has always been nontrivial: “Seven days before [Yom Kippur] they would prepare the Kohen Gadol… and they would say to him ‘Understand before Whom you are entering, and know that if you lose concentration you will immediately fall and die and Am Yisrael will not be forgiven for their sins. The entire nation is looking at you!’” What was the Kohen Gadol meant to do in order not to “lose concentration”?

The answer has to do with the death of Aharon’s sons. Their death was premature and unexpected and it occurred on what should have been the happiest day of Aharon’s life, the day he and his sons were consecrated as Kohanim. Their death was a kick in the gut. It shook Aharon to his very core. He could think of nothing else. While it sounds horrific, this was the kind of concentration that was required of the Kohen Gadol. “With this[2]” – “With the overpowering sense of shock and awe, with the nearly unbearable sense of awareness of the Al-mighty that you felt after you lost your sons” – so shall you enter the Holy of Holies. This is how a person must prepare himself to come face-to-face with the Infinite.

Looking back at the words I just wrote I am shocked, but I will not change even one letter and I’ll tell you why not. For more than twenty years I have been the Ba’al Toke’a – the shofar-blower – in our shul in Moreshet. Each year before I blow the shofar I read aloud six of the most poignant verses in all of scripture, including [Eichah 3:56] “You heard my voice; do not hide Your ear from my sighing [or] from my crying!” and [Psalms 118:5] “From [dire] straits I called out to Hashem!” Afterwards I make two blessings – a blessing on the shofar followed by the Shehechiyanu blessing – and then the blowing begins. It is clear that the reason for the all of the ritual leading up to the actual blowing is to foster a certain frame of mind. Man blows the shofar as he stands naked before Hashem. The shofar is a visceral cry, expressing things that are impossible to put into words. And sometimes the preparation works. Last year a close family member took ill and when I said the blessings I had to fight back tears. I was literally shaking as I took the shofar in my hands. I could barely finish the blessings. This year another close family member is fighting for his life. On the first day of Rosh HaShanah I felt the emotion as I raised the shofar to my lips. But on the second day, not so much. Emotion is not something that can be easily be called up or set down at will. It’s there or it’s not. One might ask how I managed to “get into the mood” those years when nobody was ill in my family. Or maybe one might ask an even better question: How did Aharon maintain his concentration during the forty years he served as the Kohen Gadol, when the memory of his sons had been reduced to a dull ache?

The answer lies in the sacrifices that preceded the offering of the incense, specifically the “ram for a burnt-offering”. One of the motifs of the High Holidays is the Akeidah, in which Hashem commands Avraham to sacrifice his only son, Yitzchak. Just before Avraham slaughters Yitzchak, an angel appears to him and tells him to put down his knife. Avraham doesn’t want to leave empty-handed. He looks around and he sees a ram whose horns have been caught in the brush. Avraham [Bereishit 22:13] “took the ram and offered it up as a burnt-offering instead of his son”. I suggest that the ram-for-a-burnt-offering that the Kohen offers on the morning of Yom Kippur is meant to conjure up images of the ram-for-a-burnt-offering of the Akeidah.

I am nearly fifty-two years old and I still cannot get my head around the Akeidah. What Hashem asked of Avraham was inconceivable and Avraham’s response was even less conceivable. Hashem’s did not speak to Avraham face-to-face. Avraham heard a voice in a dream that told him to sacrifice his only son. From the minute that he attributed that voice to Hashem there was nothing in the universe that could stop him. Not his wife, Sarah, who was left completely in the dark, not the Satan[3], and not even his own self-doubt or his sense of right-and-wrong. All that mattered was the complete and entire nullification of his own will to Hashem’s will. Søren Kierkegaard writes in his monumental “Fear and the Trembling” that “Once Abraham became conscious of his eternal validity he arrived at the door of faith and acted according to his faith. In this action he became a knight of faith”. Before the Kohen Gadol enters the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur he offers the same ram that Avraham offered on Mount Moriah, as Yitzchak still lay bound to the altar. This inexorably draws the Kohen Gadol’s thoughts to the Akeidah. The Kohen could visualize Avraham as he unsheathes his knife and holds it high above his head. He could sense the fear and the trembling. He could envisage how Avraham obliterated everything he was in order to take his designated place in the scheme of creation.

And then the Kohen Gadol could approach Hashem and beg for forgiveness…

G’mar Chatima Tova,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5776

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka, Yechiel ben Shprintza, and Shaul Chaim ben Tziviya

[1] English is nearly exempt from this phenomenon. When I say “You”, I can be speaking to a group of males or to one female. In Hebrew, depending upon who is being addressed, I would say either “ata” (one male), “at” (one female), “a’tem” (multiple males), or “a’ten” (multiple females).

[2] The word “mot” – “death” – is both singular and female.

[3] The Midrash tells of the Stan’s unsuccessful attempts to thwart Avraham.