Yom Kippur: The Real Center

For those of us who follow the news, it is hard to escape the impression that the center of the world is located in one of the major capitals. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Washington has been the undisputed center of wealth and power. Before that, it shared the title with Moscow. Today, Beijing seeks to reassert its ancient hegemony, as the western power appears to wane. Indeed, throughout history, the claim to centrality has been made by one empire after another, from Athens and Rome to London and Paris.

At the same time as each has seen itself as the nexus of superiority, it has cast all others in an inferior role; the barbarians beyond the gates. Until, that is, their time comes to displace the powers-that-be and write their own headlines.

During the Yamim Nora’im, we seek to correct such misperceptions. We focus not on those foreign pretenders to enthronement but on Yerushalayim and the Beis Hamikdash, the true center of the universe.

In historical-geographical terms, Eretz Yisrael was always the physical center, the crossroads of Eurasia and Africa, of the conquerers who led their armies back and forth across the famous land bridge. Even today, when transportation by sea and air has reduced its strategic position, the politics of the Cold War, Arab oil and the rise of jihad have kept Eretz Yisrael in the headlines.

But the centrality of the Jewish Homeland rests on a firmer bedrock than geopolitics. It goes to the very essence of reality.

As the Midrash says: “Eretz Yisrael sits in the center of the world; Yerushalayim in the center of Eretz Yisrael; the Beis Hamikdash in the center of Yerushalayim; the Heichal in the center of the Beis Hamikdash; the Aron in the center of the Heichal; and the Even Shesiya, the Foundation Stone, from which the world was founded, in front of the Aron.” (Tanchuma, Kedoshim 10)

While it is of course true of all the Yamim Tovim, that the Jewish people would at those times converge from across Eretz Yisrael and Bavel on Yerushalayim and the Mikdash to perform the mitzvah of being oleh regel, it is also true that they gathered on Yom Kippur. On Rosh Hashanah, we crown Hashem as the Master of the Universe; on Yom Kippur we went to Him in the holiest place on Earth to ask forgiveness and atonement.

And it was there — not any of the centers of pomp and power — that the attention of the world was focused. All day long, for 12 successive hours, from sunrise to the closing of the gates of the Heichal at Ne’ilah, the people stood on watch as the Kohen Gadol performed the avodah of Yom Kippur. Tens of thousands stood in silence, in holy awe, all eyes fixed on this one man whose meticulously prescribed actions would help determine the outcome of the year.

A man — and yet not a man. For it says that no man may enter the Kodesh Hakadoshim. So on this day the Kohen Gadol is not a human being but a malach. Through a process of purification, he is elevated to a level of spirituality which gains him admittance to the place where the laws of nature do not apply, where the Aron occupies more than the space that can naturally contain it. And only if he attains to such a level can he emerge alive, to return to the realm of mortality. While in the Kodesh Hakadoshim he cannot daven for the people, for in a sense he is not one of them; only when he emerges can he ask Hashem for the material needs of the nation, after he has returned to his former ordinary human condition.

Not only the Kohen Gadol was elevated on that day, but the entire people. All day they stood and watched, unencumbered by physical needs (Harav Eliyahu Kitov, Sefer HaToda’ah, P. 73). And though they stood so crowded together that one’s feet would be off the ground, as if floating in air (tsefufim, Harav miBartenura to Avos 5: 7), when they prostrated themselves, they found, miraculously, that each person had four amos of space on each side, so that no one could hear his neighbor’s confessions.

In the nusach of the tefillah, it says that when they heard the Divine Name issue forth (yotzeh) from the mouth of the Kohen Gadol, they would bow and prostrate themselves, fall on their faces and say, “Baruch shem kavod laolam va’ed.”

Why does it say yotzeh, go forth, rather than motzi, he would utter? The answer is because even the Kohen Gadol on his level on this day was not worthy of actually pronouncing the Divine Name. He would merely open his mouth and the Name would come forth of its own. For just as Hashem’s essence is concealed, so His Name is ineffable. (Eitz Yosef, Otzar Hatefillos; Shnei Luchos Habris, Torah Sh’bichsav, Yisro 9; HaChida, Chasdei Avos 3:6)

At the end, all eyes were on the lashon zehoris, the band of red tied to the entrance of the Ulam. If all was well and the avodah was accepted, the band tied to the horns of the seir hamishtalayach would turn white, and so too would the band at the Ulam. At that moment it was clear to everyone that their sins were forgiven.

The Mikdash is the real center. It is furthermore the place of all beginnings and the place of all endings, from the foundation of the world to the coming of Moshiach.

These days we can only recall in the nusach of Yom Kippur the avodah of the Kohen Gadol. May we merit soon and speedily in our days to see, with all the world, where the center of existence really is.

L’shana haba b’Yerushalayim!