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Holy of Holies

Yom Kippur (Leviticus ch. 16 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

It is the holiest space in the Jewish world. It is also the holiest space inside each one of us. The Holy of Holies. Plunge the depths...

The goat will bear upon itself all their iniquities ... (Leviticus 16:22)

One of the most perplexing topics that we encounter in the Torah concerns the "scapegoat" – the goat that was offered on Yom Kippur carrying on its back all the sins of the Jewish people.

Maimonides tells us that the "scapegoat":

...brings atonement on all the sins in the Torah, whether they be light or grave, whether the transgression was committed unintentionally or with deliberation, whether the sin is known to the perpetrator or whether it is not... (Laws of Teshuva 1:2)

And the Talmud adds:

This goat (sair) refers to Esau, as it is written: but my brother Esau is a hairy (soir) man. (Genesis 27:11) [The Hebrew words sair, "goat," and soir, "hairy" are spelled identically.]

[It is further written]: The goat will bear upon itself all their inequities (avonotam). In Hebrew this word avonotam can be split into two words: avonot tam, meaning "the inequities of the innocent." This is a reference to Jacob about whom it is written: Jacob was a wholesome (tam) man (Genesis 25:27). The word wholesome in Hebrew also being tam. (Midrash - Bereishit Raba 65:15)

Thus the goat represents Esau, and somehow he is made to carry the sins of the Jewish people, the descendants of Jacob. Is there any way we can bring this strange idea a bit closer?


At the very beginning of the Laws of Teshuva, Maimonides explains that teshuva requires confession, and he describes this confession as consisting of three elements:

  1. An enumeration of the actual sin.
  2. An expression of regret for having done the sin.
  3. An expression of firm resolve never to do it again.

He then goes on to discuss Yom Kippur:

Yom Kippur, is a time of teshuva for everyone – for the individual as well as the congregation. It marks the final stage of forgiveness and pardon for Israel, therefore, everyone is commanded to repent and confess on Yom Kippur... The confession that Israel has adopted to say on Yom Kippur is: "But we have sinned," and this is the essence of confession. (Laws of Teshuva 2:7-8)

It is perplexing to note that two of the three elements Maimonides himself earlier stated as essential requirements of confession are missing from the confession recited on Yom Kippur – regret, and the undertaking never to repeat the sin. If this confession is the final act of teshuva adopted by Israel, how is it that the most important parts of this act of contrition are absent from it?

To be able to answer this question, it is important to understand the role that confession plays in teshuva. Jews do not confess to a priest who gives them absolution. The confession is done in private and is made directly to God. As teshuva is an act of the heart, what possible role does such a confession play in it?

The rationale of teshuva is change. A person's actions reflect his beliefs, his character and his personality. When he repents, he is making a statement: "I am not the same person today as the one who committed the sin. I have changed and such an act no longer expresses the person I am today. I look back at the person who committed the sin, and I no longer see myself in him or identify with that act."

When this is a sincere process, God accepts it and takes note of the change. Since the person has changed, and the sin no longer reflects his character and personality as they are today, it is impossible to hold the person of today morally responsible and liable for the acts of a person who no longer exists, and God duly pardons the sin.


As we humans are unable to see into a person's heart, and we can only see each other's deeds, we cannot take note of teshuva in human justice systems. Nevertheless we are able to relate to the principle – if the sinner becomes a genuinely different person we can recognize the justice of excusing him from having to suffer the consequences of actions that do not reflect the character of the person he has become and who does not deserve to be punished.

In effect then, teshuva involves the shedding of old character. We are unable to alter our height, our IQ, or our age, but we can alter our character. When we repent we are changing our inner furniture, leaving only the outer shell intact.

The shedding of character is in effect externalizing what was, until then, the innermost core of our beings, our old operating system, the primary source of our past behavior and motivation. We shed these like a snake sloughs off his old skin and emerges with a brand new one.

To externalize the inner man requires speech. It is through speech that what is inside the heart and mind of a person becomes a part of the outer world. The verbalizing of teshuva in the form of confession is the act of shedding old thoughts and attitudes, rejecting them and making them part of the external world instead of our inner environment.

Change is difficult. We often regret our actions as soon as they are finished, but rarely do we succeed in really changing ourselves. Most often we repeat our mistakes and suffer the regret all over again each time we repeat the mistake. The resolution never to do this again is what generally defeats our sincere desire to be better than we are at present. This is where Yom Kippur comes in.

On Yom Kippur, the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies. This is a special environment, and enetering at the wrong time caused the deaths of Aaron's two sons:

And God said to Moses: "Speak to Aaron your brother - he shall not come at all times into the Sanctuary (the Holy of Holies) within the curtain, in front of the cover that is on the Ark, so that he should not die; for in a cloud will I appear on the Ark-cover. (Leviticus 16:2)


In order to understand the significance of entering the Holy of Holies, we have to understand how we ourselves are put together.

The human soul has five levels, of which the lower three are connected to our physical realities. At the core of our being we have a neshama which is always connected to God, to an extent that it is difficult to tell where the divine presence ends and the person begins. This neshama is connected to our ruach, our spiritual selves, which in turn is connected to our nefesh, the life force that burns within us and is the engine that drives us.

As the Holy of Holies in the Temple is the place that the Shechinah inhabits, the High Priest who enters this sanctuary on Yom Kippur, enters it on the level of neshama.

The point of life is self-definition. Were we aware of ourselves on the level of neshama, and were we conscious of our connection to God, the point of our lives would be quite clear to us. We wouldn't be at all confused as to why we exist and what we are supposed to do with our lives. But the point of life is to live with free will, and therefore such soul-consciousness is ordinarily withheld.

Instead, we are torn between our raging life force, our nefesh, and the awareness of our spirituality, our ruach, and this conflict creates within us a confusion as to who and what we are. This confusion is the source of our transgressions, and is the dilemma that forms the backdrop against which we exercise our free will.

Of the neshama, we are ordinarily totally oblivious. Thus, we are always engaged in the battle of self-definition, and we can never attain total resolution.

Stepping into the Holy of Holies eliminates the confusion and provides total clarity of vision as to the source of our being. But to enjoy such clarity runs contrary to the purpose of life in this world, and thus to enter the Holy of Holies is to step out of life as it must be lived in this world. When Aaron's two sons took this step, they terminated the point of their existence here.

And yet, such clarity is a necessary part of the existence of every Jew. We must be able to obtain an occasional glimpse at our origins, otherwise the accumulation of the errors of existence will move us steadily further and further away from our origins until the way back is so unclear that it is impossible to attain. That would also serve to eliminate the point of our existence, because when we totally lose the ability to find our way back to our origins we also lose our free will.


That is why God gave us Yom Kippur. On this one special day, God allowed us to step out of our ordinary selves and gave us a glimpse of our true connection to Him, and allowed our representative, the High Priest, to become self aware on the level of neshama. This allowed us to return to our origins, to temporarily resolve our conflicts, and to be able to push out the things separating us from God.

Now we can easily comprehend the difference between the confession of the penitent, and the confession we utter on Yom Kippur. In the confusion of ordinary life, when we are not self aware on the level of neshama, changing of character and self-definition is an extremely difficult process. To attain the levels of sincere regret and firm resolution never to return to past misdeeds – the necessary concomitants of all character change – are extremely arduous tasks. Therefore, teshuva is extremely difficult to attain, and the penitent must reach very lofty spiritual levels on the basis of his own efforts.

On Yom Kippur – when we are offered a glimpse of our origins and the confusion of self-definition is largely eliminated – the rejection of all our negatives becomes a matter of course. We are able to push out all our sinful activities as being truly unreflective of our true selves, because we are provided a glimpse of who we really are. Thus the confession of Yom Kippur is simply that we have sinned. We regret our inequities and can truly resolve never to return to them not through our own efforts, but through the clear vision of ourselves that the holiness of the day provides.

Isaac's twins, Jacob and Esau, attained this total clarity of self-definition on their own, through freedom of choice. Jacob defined himself as a neshama – a wholesome man, totally consistent and whole and free of contradictions. Esau declared, "Look I am going to die," thus openly defining himself as a creature of this world only, a man of the field.

During the rest of the year we lose the clarity of vision that allows such sharp definition, but on Yom Kippur, this original distinction between Jacob and Esau reestablishes itself. This then is the secret behind the idea of the "scapegoat."

The loss of the Temple and the sacrifice of the "scapegoat" does not mean that we have entirely lost Yom Kippur. But as we inhabit a world of action rather than spirit, we are always hampered by an inability to translate our thoughts into deeds. Today, Yom Kippur still helps us to attain the spiritual level of true teshuva.

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