Entering and returning are simple daily act -physical, psychological and electronic – but they are superimposed with gravity during this season of return – Teshuva –these high and holy days of awe. The invitation that these days summon is to enter the inner life, to enter, in the footsteps of the ancient high priest of Israel, into the Holy of Holies – for the purpose of at-one-ment.
(The traditional selection from the Torah for the Day of Atonement is Leviticus 16, describing the detail by detail instructions for conducting the atonement rituals in the sanctuary – the desert tabernacle that then became the Jerusalem Temple. The highlight of the high and holy day is the moment, the only one during the year, when the High Priest, all in white linen, parts the veil and enters the sacred innermost chamber, the holy of holies. The Hebrew term used in this context is KODESH – Robert Alter translates it as ‘the sacred zone.’ Once inside, in the presence of the Divine, he fills the chamber with the cloud of incense. He then quickly exits – returns – and prays privately on behalf of the people. The atonement is complete.)
I’ve been reading and teaching a lot in the past two weeks about the lost mystery of the high priest and the access to the sacred zone. With no temple, no holy of holies, and no highest ranking Levite to enter the sacred on our behalf – how do these symbols, if at all, still mean something, still serve as keys into the inner life, into the process of returning, focused, to the center of self?
What would it mean for me, for you, to enter, this Yom Kippur, the sacred zone, ever so briefly, click restart and return and live, and live better?
I asked this question this past week on three different occasions: at a private study salon in a beautiful library on the Upper East Side, at an open study session in a hip Tribeca loft, and at an interfaith event in Midtown Manhattan. The answers varied from terror to giggles. R. recoiled from the possibility of identifying what ‘holy and holies’ may mean to him and what it may mean to enter. ‘It fills me with terrible fear’, he said. B. imagined standing on the beach outside her home on Yom Kippur and writing the word ‘compassion’ on the sand, over and over again. K. talked about the ritual of going to therapy – entering that room. At the very moving midtown event (check out www.faithhousemanhattan.org ) S., a minister, spoke about entering through the front door and encountering the ‘other’ and the sacred within each one of us. Others spoke of entering the sacred through the liturgy, the music, and about the paradox of being surrounded by so many people in these modern new temples, yet being called to enter the intimacy of this sacred chamber and be alone. (And are we ever?)
Last night I flipped to the last few chapter of the Torah – this week’s portion, Ha’azinu, is but one before the last. And there, just at the end I was reminded of the other, darker side of entrance – the closed door.
Moses’ epic poem lingers through chapter 32 of D’varim, and as its epilogue is the dry narrative reminder of his fate. On the threshold of the Promised Holy Land – his destination for so long – access is again denied by the God of mysteries:
‘You will see the land afar off; but you will not enter into the land which I give the children of Israel’ (Dvarim 32:52)
Some doors have no keys, and sometimes keys are lost or stuck, and we cannot enter.
The Holy of Holies, like the Promised Land are not merely geography – they are also metaphor and symbol, markers on the maps of our inner life.
Like Aaron, the first High Priest, we are invited annually to face the mystery and enter the sacred, and exit, and return to our ordinary lives in peace. Like Moses, his brother, we are reminded that despite all our yearnings, sometimes, some doors will not be ours to enter. This too requires our inner peace.
What will it be like for each of us to take a minute on Yom Kippur and imagine, visualize, utilize the key and enter our own private sacred zone?
When the sun sets this coming Monday, the Neila will conclude, and with it the final prayer of Yom Kippur, and the doors will close, and the Book of Life will be a closed book, sealed and delivered. I hope, and pray, that for many of us, a door opens (is it an eternal revolving door with no keys at all?), and we will re enter, returning to our sacred tasks on this earth, renewed and restarted.
Gmar Chatima Tova
May we be signed and sealed in the Book of the Good Life.