Yom Kippur: New Garments

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph LoevingerTorah Portion: Yom Kippur

And Aaron shall go into the Tent of Meeting, take off the linen vestments that he put on when he entered the Shrine, and leave them there. (Vayikra/ Leviticus 16:23)

L’Shana Tovah!

I hope everybody who has been celebrating this past week had a Rosh Hashanah of great joy and learning. The holidays continue with Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement, an ancient observance yet with a direct line of connection between the practices of our Biblical ancestors and contemporary Judaism.

The Torah tells us more about Yom Kippur than it does about any other holiday; the entirety of Leviticus 16 is a description of the priestly ritual of atonement. The Kohen Gadol, or High Priest, made offerings on his own behalf, on behalf of his family and the entire people Israel, and at one point during his service enters the innermost part of the ancient sanctuary in a purification ritual, symbolic of the atonement of the people themselves. At that point, as we learn in verse 23, above, he has changed out of his fancy golden garments and put on plain linen clothing, but after this awesome time  in the drama of the day, he takes off the plain clothing, bathes and puts on the majestic garments again.

The ritual is complicated and the Torah’s description of it is not entirely clear, which is why there is an entire book of the Talmud, Yoma, largely dedicated to explaining just this one day and its order of service. At the moment, though, let’s just consider the image of the High Priest changing into plain linen garments for the most spiritually charged moment of the day, when he went into the innermost holy place, on behalf of the people, and stood there in that spot where the Divine Presence was experienced as immanent. At that moment, standing before the Divine Presence, the High Priest wasn’t dressed like the spiritual leader of the people, but just as a humble servant. It was a moment when outer trappings didn’t matter; what mattered in that moment was reverence, focus, humility, integrity and awe.

Note also one small detail from verse 23, above: when the priest leaves that inner Holy of Holies, he takes off the linen garments and “leaves them there.” Our friend Rashi offers a teaching that he didn’t re-use those plain linen garments from one Yom Kippur to the next. This in turn suggests that the rabbis understood that experiences of humble yet transcendent spirituality are fleeting and entirely dependent on openness to the moment- you can’t pray this year’s Yom Kippur prayers with last year’s problems.

For us, “going to the inner sanctuary” on Yom Kippur is a personal process of turning inward and finding our moral center, our truest voice and humanity; again, this can’t happen if we depend solely on the liturgy, ritual, or pageantry to bring us there. We need, like the Kohen Gadol, to be simple, humble, aware and present in our desire to make amends and grow better in the coming year- we can’t recycle that awareness, but must, like the priest’s garments, make our experience new again every year.

Wishing you a joyous Yom Kippur of deep learning and fellowship,


PS- for a wonderful meditation on the meaning of faith at this time of year, see my friend and teacher Larry Troster’s most recent article on the Huffington Post. Highly recommended !

1 Comment »

  1. Judy said

    I really enjoy your commentary – I wish it came earlier in the week (a day or two). I prefer to print a few divrei Torah and read them over Shabbat (or chag), but because erev days are often stressful at work and I’m trying to get ready, I don’t catch them until after – and because of that, I read only about half of them. They’d be really great a bit earlier. thank you

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