Entering the Holy of Holies

by Rabbi Shefa Gold

(5761, 2000)

Commenting on the Avodah service of Yom Kippur, Art Green says,

"Since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, prayer has taken the place of sacrifice, but that does not imply that sacrifice was abolished when the sacrificial rite went out of existence. Prayer is not a substitute for sacrifice. Prayer is sacrifice. What has changed is the substance of sacrifice: the self takes the place of the thing. The spirit is the same... The word is but an altar. We do not sacrifice. We are the sacrifice. Prayer is a hazard, a venture of peril. Every person who prays is a kohen at the greatest of all temples. The whole universe is the Temple."

The climax of the ancient Yom Kippur ritual was when the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies, came out and spoke The Great Name. That moment was powerful. It was the transformative moment for our people. The sense of purity and renewal was so dramatic, such an ecstatic sense of relief and possibilities was unleashed.... that at some point the leaders instituted the custom of reading the sexual prohibitions on Yom Kippur afternoon.

Before the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies, he would make atonement for himself, for his family, and for his community. You had to enter empty-handed, all your baggage checked at the door.

The Holy of Holies is the place between Life and Death.

Each of us is the High Priest bidden, on Yom Kippur, to enter... To leave our ordinary lives - by praying all day by fasting from food, drink, sex, washing, and wearing leather and enter into a timeless and placeless realm. This act was essential to the well-being of each individual and for the people as a whole. It was essential then and it is essential now. So how do we do it? And what is the Holy of Holies?

In exploring this question, two childhood memories emerged for me.

The first was when I learned about molecules. I was fascinated and intrigued by the microspopic world that I had overlooked. And I had a revelation which was more like a theory that I kept to myself but always wondered about. My theory was that God existed at the center of every molecule as an infinite light that was continually shining out from that center, giving substance and color and being to the visible world.

The second childhood perception and theory was about time. I had this idea that there were cracks between moments, and if you fell through one of those cracks, you would experience the infinite. I tried to sense those cracks and was fascinated by an exit from the flow of time, a taste of the never-ending, but I was also afraid that if you entered, you might never get out. I felt invited but terrified.

"Prayer is a hazard, a venture of peril."

The entrance of the High Priest into the Holy of Holies was a perilous journey. A rope was tied to his feet, in case he didn't survive and had to be dragged back into this world.

Each of these mysteries that I experienced as a child was a hint that the infinite lay hidden within this finite world.

The entering of the Holy of Holies was facilitated by 3 sacrifices: for oneself, for one's family and for the entire community. To touch the infinite we sacrifice our smallness, the attitudes and actions that are squeezed out of a narrow perspective: our judgements, fears, pride, grudges, our attachment to a rigid identity. That is the price of admission. It seems, for the viewpoint of personality, like Everything. From the soul's viewpoint, it is the sacrifice of limitation.

"We are the sacrifice".

We release our grip on the finite dimensions of self and lay them on the altar of the word - this is what I like, what I don't like, who I am, what I'm capable of, these are my opinions. We surrender everything upon the word of prayer.

"The word of prayer is but an altar."

Upon that altar we place our lives. And face our Deaths. Standing between Life and Death in the Holy of Holies, affords us a rare perspective. From this place of The Between, our priorities are transformed.

Each time a close friend of mine dies, I am pulled into that Between, and I return vowing to love each moment, vowing not to waste my time worrying, vowing to know each day as precious.

Don Juan tells Carlos Castaneda that Death, sitting on his left shoulder, is his most powerful teacher.

Yom Kippur introduces you to your own Death - the only one who knows you well enough to remind you what you are missing, who can teach you the preciousness of each breath. As we stand between Life and Death, a cord of love ties us to this world (just as the High Priest was tied), and that cord which connects us to our loved ones and to the finite situation of our lives, is ready to reel us back in if we venture too far into the arms of Death. Death is present in order to wake us up and send us to our vitality.

I return to my childhood visions on this Holy Day, knowing that I was probably right. The Holy of Holies that we, as High Priest, are commanded to enter, is at the center of every molecule in the Universe, and it is in the infinite space between moments.

"Every person who prays is a kohen at the greatest of all temples. The whole universe is the Temple."

The Torah portion that we'll read today says of the Mitzvot, the principles that connect us to the infinite,

"It's not far off....not in Heaven... not over the sea....It is something very close to you."

Perhaps God is so close that she fills the infinite space between moments. And shines out from the center of each and every molecule. So close that we continue to overlook him, searching the Heavens, sending messengers over the seas to bring him back to us.

Perhaps this finite world that we know is just an elaborate frame... just a dwelling place for the Divine Presence... (who invites us within to receive that Presence, that transformative light.) and what we sacrifice on the altar of prayer is our obsession with the packaging, so that finally we can encounter what’s inside it all.



Rabbi Shefa can be reached by email at: Shefa@RabbiShefaGold.com

Rachmiel O'Regan can be reached by email at: CDEEP@RabbiShefaGold.com

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