The Jewish Heart, “A Sanctuary in Microcosm”

A prominent element of the Yom Kippur service is the Avodah, the poetic description of the tasks of the High Priest in the Beis HaMikdash on Yom Kippur. Recounting the serv­ice in the Beis HaMikdash remains profoundly significant for us, since the offering of a sacrifice was far more than a physical activity. Every activity carried out in the Beis HaMikdash is paralleled within the spiritual sanctuary of every Jewish heart. The physical procedure of offering a sacrifice, for example, is an external manifestation of a certain process of spiritual growth.

Although the sacrifices bore spiritual significance throughout the year, their effect was heightened on Yom Kippur, when they were offered by the High Priest as the emissary of the entire Jewish people.

The service performed by the High Priest comprised two types of offerings: animal sacrifices offered in the courtyard of the Beis HaMikdash, and the incense offering offered in the Sanctuary. The Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban, is derived from the root karov, meaning “close.”1 By offering a sacrifice, a person draws close to G‑d, elevating the natural desires of his animalistic side and bringing them close to G‑d.

The incense offering, however, effects a deeper connec­tion than that created by animal sacrifices. This is reflected in the Hebrew word for incense offering, ketores, which is derived from the Aramaic root koter, meaning “bond.” Through the incense offering, a bond is forged, totally uniting man with G‑d.

Reaching Down to the Lowest Levels

The animals used for the sacrifices in the Beis HaMikdash had to be kosher; i.e., the divine service of the animal sacri­fices could elevate only those elements of creation which are by their nature fit for refinement. The incense offering, how­ever, included musk, a fragrance derived from a non-kosher animal.2 This indicates that the ketores could affect even those elements of creation that ordinarily cannot be connected to holiness.

Furthermore, among the spices included in the incense used for the ketores was chelbenah (“galbanum”). Our Sages3 note that, in contrast to the other spices used for the offering, this spice has an unpleasant fragrance. It symbolizes the sin­ners among the Jewish people: they too are included in the bond with G‑d established through the ketores offering.

In the same vein, the Zohar4 explains that the incense offering was intended to destroy the impurity of the Yetzer HaRa (“the Evil Inclination”). The Sages of the Kabbalah5 note that the ingredients used in the incense offerings total eleven, a number associated with the forces of evil.

A Day When Evil Has No Power

On Yom Kippur, the incense offering was of paramount importance. The spiritual climax of the day, the entry of the High Priest into the Holy of Holies, centered around this offering, which was therefore prepared with special care.6

The central role of the ketores in the divine service of Yom Kippur is, however, somewhat problematic. Noting the numerical equivalents of the various Hebrew letters according to the principles of gematria,7 our Sages8 explain that evil has no power on Yom Kippur. The numerical equivalent of the letters that constitute the word HaSatan (iyav), the Hebrew name for the angel of evil, is 364. There are 365 days in the year. On one day every year, Yom Kippur, Satan has no power.

Why, then, does the incense offering figure so promi­nently in the service of the Beis HaMikdash on the one day when the forces of evil are powerless? One might expect that since the purpose of the ketores was to negate the influence of man’s Evil Inclination, this special emphasis would have been appropriate on any day but Yom Kippur.

Two Differences

This question can be answered by comparing the ketores of Yom Kippur and the ketores as it was offered on all the other days of the year.

On Yom Kippur, the omission of maaleh ashan (a smoke-producing herb) was punishable by death. While this herb also had to be added to the incense offering throughout the year, if it was missing the punishment was not so extreme.9 Furthermore, the incense offering of Yom Kippur was brought into the Holy of Holies,10 instead of being offered on the Golden Altar in the adjoining chamber of the Sanctuary building, as it ordinarily was throughout the year.11

These differences reflect the differing spiritual goals of the two modes of incense offering. Maaleh ashan was included in the incense offering to ensure that the offering would pro­duce a cloud of smoke. The ascent of the smoke symbolizes the refinement of the lowest elements of creation and their elevation to the highest levels.

On all other days of the year this herb was required, but not indispensable, since at that time the incense offering was intended merely to negate evil, not necessarily to transform it. On Yom Kippur, however, all elements of existence, even those on the lowest levels, are elevated and connected with G‑dliness. It was therefore critical that the incense offering of Yom Kippur include maaleh ashan, whose rising smoke reflected this mode of spiritual service.

For the same reason, the Yom Kippur incense offering was brought into the Holy of Holies, the place where G‑d’s Infinite Presence was openly revealed. For only the infinity of G‑d’s essence can bring about a fundamental change in the nature of evil and transform it into a means of expressing G‑dliness.

What is Our Motivation, Love or Fear?

Like all elements of the service in the Beis HaMikdash, the contrast between these two offerings reflects our own service of G‑d: the two kinds of incense offering parallel two kinds of teshuvah, that which is motivated by fear and that which is motivated by love.

Teshuvah motivated by fear involves self-negation; though the penitent may still feel an attachment to worldly tempta­tions, he acts against his will to master his desires because of his fear of G‑d. By contrast, teshuvah which stems from love is a process of self-transformation, whereby a person redefines his basic identity. His striving changes direction. Instead of being centered on fulfilling his own desires, he focuses on cleaving to G‑d and fulfilling His will.

The effects of these two forms of teshuvah differ. As a result of teshuvah motivated by fear, “intentional sins become like inadvertent transgressions.”12 As a result of teshuvah motivated by love, “intentional sins become like merits.”12

Why the difference? — Teshuvah undertaken out of fear merely temporarily negates and overwhelms the power of evil; it does not destroy it permanently. Though the individ­ual experiences regret, he has not eradicated the problem. Within his heart, he still desires the lures of the world, except that he keeps them in check. G‑d responds in a like manner, withholding the consequences of his sins, but not obliterating them entirely.

By contrast, the total transformation of self brought about by teshuvah born of love evokes a corresponding reaction from G‑d. He transmutes our sins, acts of open rebellion against Him, into positive merits.13

A Year of Blessing

During the year, the main impetus for teshuvah is fear. On Yom Kippur, however, the holiness of the day affects every Jew: people feel a yearning to return to G‑d and unite with Him. This feeling is an active expression of teshuvah stem­ming from love. In this way, our divine service on Yom Kippur parallels the effects produced by the service of the High Priest in the Holy of Holies.

When the High Priest completed his service in the Holy of Holies, he offered a short prayer, requesting G‑d’s blessings on behalf of the Jewish people. May our service on Yom Kip­pur also evoke G‑d’s blessings. May we be inscribed for a good and sweet year and may this year include the greatest blessing, the coming of the Redemption.

Adapted from Likkutei Sichos,Vol. XIV,Parshas Vayeilech