Rabbi Michael Rosensweig
Rabbi Michael Rosensweig

The Yom Kippur Experience and its Aftermath: the Elevation of Human Spirituality (Achat Ba-Shanah)

At first glance, the mishnah (Yoma 70a) that depicts the culmination of the avodat Yom haKippurim seems to be superfluous and somewhat anticlimactic. After presenting in intricate detail the exacting protocols that enable the personal intimate spiritual journey of kenisah lifnei velifnim (entry into the innermost precinct of the Mikdash), the mishnah finds it necessary to record that the kohen gadol ultimately returned to his home, accompanied by a retinue, and followed by a yom tov celebration with his inner circle ("u-melavin oto ad beito, ve-yom tov hayah oseh le-ohavav..."). Rambam (avodat Yom haKippiurim, end of 4:2) includes this apparent aftermath as the final stage in the seder ha-avodah, to which the entire chapter is devoted. He twice emphasizes the kohen gadol's return to his home. Upon reflection, this mishnah crystallizes a profound perspective on the goal and impact of this inimitable day.

The mishnah's chronicling of the domestic return and celebration of the kohen gadol upon the conclusion of his extraordinary odyssey contrasts sharply and perhaps needs to be understood in light of the first mishnah in Yoma that begins to detail the meticulous avodah process. That mishnah informs us that the kohen gadol must distance himself from his home a full week in advance of the avodah, taking up residence in the Mikdash itself ("shivaat yamim kodem yom hakipurim mafrishin kohen gadol mi-beito le-lishkat parhedrin"). His preparation entails a necessary separation from his wife and family ("beito zu ishto"). One could have misconstrued that the kohen gadol's quarantine in advance of the avodah reflects an acute ascetic sensibility as the spiritual ideal, particularly as it relates to his journey lifnei ve-lifnim, to the sanctity of Shabbat Shabbaton embodied by ve-initem et nafshoteichem, and to the goal of kapparah and taharah. The fact that his married state is a basic prerequisite for his very capacity to preside over the avodah belies this perspective. Rambam records this precondition not as a requirement, but almost as a definition (Avodat Yom haKippurim 1:2-"hakol be-kohen gadol nasui"). The same first Mishnah examines extraordinary steps to ensure the kohen gadol's marital status, even as the concern for ritual impurity demands practical temporary separation. Indeed, the kohen gadol's family is prominently incorporated in his personal vidui on his par ("ani u-beiti"). Yahadut unambiguously decries celibacy and evinces no ambiguity or ambivalence about the spiritual significance of family life. [It is noteworthy that Aharon, who is the paradigm of the kohen gadol on Yom haKippurim - "bezot yavo Aharon el ha-kodesh", joined with Miriam in criticizing, albeit improperly and unjustifiably ("lo kein avdi Moshe..."), Moshe's apparent withdrawal from family life.] Undoubtedly, the family ideal as a halachic value underpins this avodah requirement, and conceivably it also enhances the sense of responsibility and empathy that contributes to the kohen gadol's representation of Klal Yisrael in this pivotal process. [There is some evidence that the urgency of the kohen gadol's marital status generally based upon "ve-hu ishah be-betulehah yikach" (Hilchot Isurei Biah 17:13) surpasses the general mitzvah of "ki yikach ish ishah" (Hilchot Ishut 1:1-2). I hope to discuss this and the kohen gadol's broader ideal stature elsewhere.]

The avodah is introduced against the background of the tragic death of Aharon's two sons- "achrei mot shenei benei Aharon". It is noteworthy, that according to some mefarshim, Nadav and Avihu refused to pursue family life, as they perceived it as a distraction to, even as a substantive compromise of a more ideal ascetic form of spirituality. From this perspective, the protocols presented to Aharon model the authentic halachic balance. Only a married kohen gadol, one who is firmly ensconced in "beito" can enter the kodesh ha-kodashim, notwithstanding the high standards of purity that require temporary adjustments and personal sacrifice. The ultimate joyous return to home base reinforces these themes.

Chazal perceived the emulation of melachim on Yom haKippurim as a central theme that manifests in numerous minhagim (see Rosh Yoma 8:24, and numerous other practices cited in Shulchan Aruch and poskim). On the surface, this appears to be puzzling in light of the Talmudic passage (Shabbat 88b) that establishes man's superiority to the angels as it relates to Torah values and observance. The solution is, however, evident. Man's flaws and vulnerabilities require a more nuanced but ultimately more impressive, more challenging human spirituality. However, that entails the capacity to muster discipline and to harness a single-minded, even semi-ascetic orientation when mandated. Yom Kippur, "achat ba-shanah", embodying "ve-initem et nafshoteichem", "kulo la-Hashem", and "kenisah lifnei ve-lifnim" tests Klal Yisrael's mettle and its singular brand of human spirituality. Only if we can successfully compete with the melachim when it is halachically required or appropriate, then the wider scope and more formidable challenge of human spirituality is demonstrated to be a superior expression of avodat Hashem. Aharon's avodah, which required initial quarantine but had both its roots and telos in "beito", was accorded normative status, it was the foundation of halachic spirituality, while Nadav and Avihu's sincere effort, based on a one-dimensional ascetic posture, led to tragedy.

Chatam Sofer (Vayikra 16:23-24) commenting on Aharon's capacity to finally part with the bigdei lavan and resume his more conventional avodah representing Klal Yisrael, discusses the relative spiritual merits of isolation and engagement. While he notes Chovot ha-Levavot's (Shaar ha-Perishah) admiration for single-minded spiritual focus, he endorses the conclusion that halachically impacting Klal Yisrael takes precedence. He argues that precisely because Aharon required an initial period of quarantine in order to preside over the avodah, it was vital that he be instructed that his primary task remained as an engaged leader dedicated to "yoru mishpatechah le-Yaakov". Hence, he was instructed after completing the bigdei lavan-avodah, "u-ba Aharon el ohel moed u-pashat et bigdei ha-bad", a homiletical reference to concluding his "bedidah" (isolation) and rejoining mainstream leadership life! [Elsewhere (Torah Moshe), Chatam Sofer adds that Aharon's esoteric experiences while donning the bigdei lavan elevated his status, and by extension elevated the routine avodot (be-bigdei zahav) he resumed, justifying the need for a tevilah from bigdei lavan to bigdei zahav!]

It is no coincidence that the yirah-yeteirah (Hilchot Chanukah 3:6) - focused Yom Kippur leads seamlessly into the "simchah-yeteirah" (Hilchot Lulav 8:12) - centered Sukkot. Elsewhere, we have noted Rambam's view (Hilchot Yesodei haTorah 2:1-2) that ahavat and yirat Hashem are intimately connected. The concept of "gilu be-readah" (joy through trembling) is a core idea in Jewish thought. The celebration that concludes the avodah naturally paves the way for the multiple halachic expressions of joy on sukkot. The Shulchan Aruch records the practice to begin constructing the Sukkah on motzaei Yom haKippurim both in the end of Hilchot Yom haKippurim as well as at the very start of Hilchot Sukkah, as the interconnection between these seemingly conflicting but actually complementary motifs is reciprocally vital. It is also interesting to note that while we relocate our home in the sukkah during sukkot, the Mishnah (Sukkah 48a, and especially Rambam's codification - Hilchot Sukkah 6:11,14) emphasize that returning back to our year-round family foundation on Shimini Azeret constitutes a kiyum, the culmination of the entire period, a parallel to the journey of the kohen gadol on Yom haKippurim.

The subject of the final mishnah on the avodah, the successful and safe return of the kohen gadol to his home and family, then, represent the true culmination of the avodah itself, as implied by the Rambam's codification. While the methodology of avodat Yom haKippurim, and the demands of taharah on this day and in this process demand precautions, elevated standards of ritual purity, and a single-minded focus, the ultimate goal is to reaffirm, revisit and renew an intense level of spirituality, characterized by the theme of "kulo la-Hashem", that animates, elevates, and integrates into daily life. The initial domestic separation that is an investment in an impactful, and enhanced return home mandates a triumphant reception not only as an expression of personal relief, but as a joyous yom tov celebrating the genuine impact of Yom haKippurim, "achat ba-shanah"- a single day that transforms the entire year and that encapsulates the halachic ideal of human spirituality.

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