When did Yom Kippur first become a day of atonement? It started directly after the exodus from Egypt. G‑d gave the Torah to the Jews at Mount Sinai amidst thunder and lightening and awesome Divine revelations. Our Sages compare that experience to the establishment of a marriage bond.

Afterwards, the Jews sinned, worshiping the Golden Calf. When Moses descended from the mountain and saw what the Jews had done, he broke the tablets containing the Ten Commandments, the testimonial to the Sinai experience. Then for 120 days afterwards, Moses continually prayed to G‑d, asking Him to forgive the people. On Yom Kippur, at the conclusion of this period, G‑d told Moses: “I have forgiven them as you asked,” and He gave Moses the Second Tablets.

Our Sages explained that the original Giving of the Torah was with fanfare, while the Giving of the Second Tablets was a private moment.

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A similar theme is apparent in the Yom Kippur service in the Temple. What was the highlight of that service? The entry of the High Priest into the Holy of Holies. Here again, it was a private moment. Concerning this entry, the Torah tells us: “No man shall be in the Tent of Meeting when he, [the High Priest,] comes to provide atonement.” Our Sages go further, explaining that not even the angels could intrude on this intimate experience. It was a private moment, man being entirely alone with G‑d.

The special nature of this event enables us to understand a unique phenomenon that occurred in the Second Temple. The Romans took control of the Temple and auctioned the priesthood to the highest bidder. The overwhelming majority of the priests who bought the position were not worthy; some were outright sinners.

Now when an unworthy High Priest entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, he would die within the year. Some died immediately — indeed, that was so common an occurrence that a chain was placed around the High Priest’s leg so that if he would die, he could be pulled out without others having to enter the Holy of Holies. Others who possessed certain merits lived longer, but all those who were unworthy would die within a year.

The price the Romans demanded for being appointed High Priest was extremely large. Moreover, the person purchasing the High Priesthood knew what had happened to the High Priest who preceded him — and to the one who had preceded him. Why then was he willing to pay a small fortune, knowing that the position would lead to his death?

The resolution lies in the desire every Jew possesses to come close to G‑d. The knowledge that he could be alone with the Divine Presence and share this closeness was so inspiring that even an unworthy person was willing to give up his life and his fortune just for that one moment.

This is not merely a story of the past. Instead, it is a spiritual reality relived every year on Yom Kippur. The final prayer of the Yom Kippur service is Neilah, which means “locking.” The traditional interpretation is that the gates of heaven are closing and we must hurry to get our prayers in before they and our fates are sealed. Chassidus, however, gives a more positive interpretation, explaining that at this time, each of us is intimately closeted and entirely alone with G‑d.

Yom Kippur should not, however, remain an isolated moment, a spiritual peak unrelated to our ordinary daily experience. Just as intimacy between people should not be expressed merely in brief moments of passion and heightened feeling, the intimacy we share with G‑d on Yom Kippur must be translated into an ongoing relationship that finds expression in our day to day lives.

This point is highlighted by the Torah reading for Yom Kippur which begins “And it came to pass after….” Implied is that we must focus not only on the spiritual highs of Yom Kippur, but also on what will “come to pass afterwards,” integrating our Judaism into the fabric of our daily lives.

Looking to the Horizon

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev once said that there are two days on which it is easy to fast: “On Tishah BeAv (the ninth day of the month of Av when the Holy Temple was destroyed) and on Yom Kippur. On Tishah BeAv, when the Destruction is so palpable, who can possibly eat? And on Yom Kippur, when the holiness is so palpable, who can possibly want to eat?”

Few of us, perhaps, are so sensitive to the holiness of Yom Kippur that we utterly lose all desire for food. Nevertheless, in the unique spirituality of this day we can all hear an inviting overture to the Ultimate Future — when we will live in this world, in our physical bodies, and yet derive our true sustenance from the G‑dly core of our being. In that vein, our fasting on Yom Kippur should be perceived as a taste of a higher reality where physical concerns are no longer our first priority, and our focus is on the spiritual.

The same theme runs through many of the other practices of Yom Kippur. For example, we are forbidden to wear leather shoes on this holy day. Now, where do we find going barefoot considered as part of Divine service? In the Temple. There the priests were not allowed to cover their feet so as not to obstruct their connection to the holiness found even within the Temple’s floor. Similarly, Yom Kippur is a foretaste of the time when the entire world will be revealed as G‑d’s Temple.