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Purifying the Holy of Holies?

by Yehoshua Metzinger


When Yom Kippur is mentioned in the Bible, it is called the "Shabbat Shabbaton", literally the "Shabbat of Shabbats". Both the Torah portion of Emor and of Acharei Mot describe Yom Kippur. In parashat Emor, Shabbat Shabbaton is referred to in the masculine (i.e. "hoo") and is the ninth day when the People of Israel are commanded to afflict their souls. In parashat Achrei Mot, Shabbat Shabbaton is referred to in the feminine (i.e. "hee"), and observance of Yom Kippur is called an "eternal statute".

It seems that the description of Yom Kippur as an "eternal statute" would be more appropriate in parashat Emor, where the laws of holidays, observed in all years, even in exile, are discussed. Parashat Acharei Mot deals mainly with the laws of the priests, which are applicable only when the Beit Hamikdash is standing. Parashat Achrei Mot also speaks about the cleansing of the Holy of Holies from the impurities of the People of Israel. But, given its level of holiness, why would the Holy of Holies require cleansing at all?

To begin to answer these questions, one must first consider the purpose of mitzvot in causing the soul to ascend to higher levels. Every Jew is required to fulfill all 613 mitzvot, even those of priests (Kohanim). Since not everyone is a priest, the soul must complete these mitzvot through a succession of gilgulim, or incarnations. If a soul misses one mitzvah, it misses a "garment", and is therefore incomplete. In prayer, we say "the soul you have given me is pure", indicating that the source of the Neshama is "Purity", a level of illumination and clarity. Later, when the soul is separated from its root and is enclothed within a body, it is given mitzvot to perform so that it can ascend to the level of "Holiness", which is higher than the level of "Purity", its source. The level of Holiness, associated with the priests, can be reached through the completion of mitzvot, which provide all the garments and bring the Neshama to a level higher than Purity, associated with the Levites.

Holiness comes from the Infinite Light, Blessed be He, which reaches the world in the form of light which goes through a series of contractions. One form of this light is "encompassing light" ("or makif") which nourishes things from above but is not grasped by them. One example of encompassing light is the way in which the Shechina exists wherever there is a minyan, allowing the prayer to reach its destination more effectively. This encompassing light does not dwell within the minyan, but surrounds it with energy. Another kind of light, or vitality, enclothes itself within something and gives it energy. The Ten Utterances with which G-d created and sustains the worlds are enclosed within the worlds to give them vitality. The actual speech descends and encloses itself within Creation. G-d, however, is above these levels of encompassing light and limited light; His essence is never encompassed by anything, which is the reason He never changes. Man changes because his body is affected by the influence of his Neshama, and the Neshama changes because it is enclothed in a body.

The way in which vitality descends is similar to the way speech becomes separate from thought. The words a person speaks become entities on their own and are separate from their originating thought. The letters of thought, however, stay within the thought. In the lower realms, things such as speech seem separate from their source. In the higher realms, it is clear that separation from the Infinite Light does not exist, and everything is nullified to this source. The level of Purity, where the souls originate, is at such a level where there is nothing but light and clarity. If there appears to be darkness, it is only because the intensity of the light makes it into darkness. The limited light and the soul that descends into the body come from this level, but there is no comparison between the limited light and the encompassing light, just as there is no comparison between the encompassing light and the Infinite Light. The original source of light can only exist in the world as an illumination of an illumination, or a reflection of a reflection, otherwise it would overpower creation itself.

This is why the angels say "Holy, holy, holy"; when they comprehend how far the Infinite Light appears from where they are, they say "holy" three times to draw the light into the three lower worlds. The "holy" that draws down the light is spelled with a vav, since the vav represents this action, corresponding to the limited light. When "holy" is spelled without the vav, it is like the encompassing light that stays above the worlds.

As stated above, to bring the soul to the level of Holiness, one needs to perform mitzvot which are considered as garments of the soul. Although we are commanded to do the same 613 mitzvot, throughout the gilgulim, different souls have acquired different numbers and qualities of garments. This is why a person's days are of a specific number, according to what kind and how many garments the person needs to acquire through keeping mitzvot. When a person performs a mitzvah, he needs to focus his intention on his innate love of G-d so he can elevate his soul to a level of Holiness. The mitzvot we do throughout the week have the greatest potential for elevation to the level of Holiness on Shabbat, which is called the "Holy Shabbat". Shabbat is the time when malchut, or kingship, occupying the lowest level, is elevated to the level of Holiness, just as all six days of the week are elevated on the seventh. During the six days, the world was created and is sustained by the Ten Utterances. On Shabbat, these Ten Utterances are brought to the higher level of thought (chochma). This is why the Zohar recommends purifying oneself in a mikva on Shabbat Eve; from a level of purity, one can more easily reach the level of Holiness on Shabbat.

Israel receives its vitality from the Torah, and when the mitzvot are fulfilled, Israel can rise to a level above the Torah. But when there is a transgression, even of a postive mitzvah, one acquires a blemish which interferes with the drawing down of the light. This brings the soul down to a level that is below Purity. If the soul, which is no longer in a pure state, is to reach the level of Holiness, it must receive from the level of chochma, beyond Holiness, from the level of the Holy of Holies. To draw from this level, one must concentrate on and desire G-d's essence, especially during the Ten Days of Repentance. The teshuva we do throughout the year is suspended until Yom Kippur, when the light from the level of Holy of Holies cleanses the blemishes in the soul.

The details of the High Priest's service in the Beit Hamikdash during Yom Kippur represent the way in which all the souls of Israel are purified. The High Priest mixes the blood of an ox and the blood of a sheep and sprinkles it against the ark where the tablets are kept. The place in which the blood is sprinkled represents a level of Holiness where the positive and negative mitzvot are combined. The blood itself is the animal soul, or Nefesh, which, when elevated, rectifies worldly desires and sins. The reason this occurs through the Nefesh and not through the G-dly soul is that the G-dly soul does not sin on its own but is brought to a lower level by the Nefesh. However, the animal soul comes from a higher level than the G-dly soul, higher than daat.

Animals were created before man, and man must receive nourishment from animals and inanimate objects. The reason for this dependency is that the source of animals and inanimate objects is higher than the source of human beings. Because of this dependency, the elevation of animals and objects brings to mankind a greater potential to rise to a higher level of service. On Yom Kippur, both the blood and the souls of Israel are elevated to the level of the Holy of Holies from which vitality is drawn to repair blemishes and sins.

The sprinkling of the blood represents teshuva, since it causes a unification of the G-dly and animal souls. This is why Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shabbaton; it is the aspect of Shabbat for all the Shabbats of the year. It brings the six days of creation to a higher level, completes purification and teshuva, and causes the revelation of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, the source of forgiveness.

So what is the difference between the way in which Yom Kippur is described in parashat Emor and parashat Achrei? In parashat Emor, Shabbat Shabbaton is referred to as masculine and Israel is commanded to afflict their souls on the ninth day; in parashat Achrei, Shabbat Shabbaton is referred to in the feminine, and observing Yom Kippur is called an eternal statute, without mentioning afflicting the soul on the ninth. The difference lies in the fact that each parasha refers to a separate level of service. If one does not concentrate fully on teshuva and rectifying blemishes during the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, one still receives a degree of purification as the result of the arousal from above, like that which creates a female.

If however, one devotes oneself thoroughly to teshuva in the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, working to repair another aspect of the soul on each day, since each of these days corresponds to an aspect of the soul, the purification one experiences on Yom Kippur is complete, and all judgments are sweetened. This is like the arousal from below which produces a male. Even if one does not prepare for Yom Kippur, but obeys the eternal statute, his soul is repaired. But if one immerses oneself in the act of teshuva during these days, the purification is greater, and it can be said that even the Holy of Holies is purified.


[Excerpted and translated from Likutei Torah of Rebbe Shneur Zalman of Chabad, p.136.]


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