Yom Kippur in the Sinai wilderness—Moses returns to the top of Mount Sinai for a second time after the sin of the golden calf, and he remains there for another 40 days and 40 nights. He pleads for forgiveness on the people’s behalf. He beseeches and implores God, he pours out his soul, he exhausts all arguments and all prayers. Finally, God relents and appears to Moses in the figure of a prayer leader, covered in a tallit, and teaches Moshe to recite the Thirteen Attributes of God: “Adonai, Adonai, God, merciful and compassionate, patient, abounding in love and faithfulness, assuring love for thousands of generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and granting pardon.” Whenever Israel sin, let them turn to Me with these words that describe my essence and I will forgive them. Then God says: “I have forgiven, as you have asked.” Moses comes down from Mount Sinai, his face radiant, bearing the blessing of God’s forgiveness. It is the 10th of Tishrei, the day of Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur in the Temple in Jerusalem—the kohen gadol (High Priest) enters the Holy of Holies after days of meticulous preparation. In his heart he carries the memory of Moses at the top of Mount Sinai. He asks for forgiveness for himself, his family, his priestly tribe, and for the whole community of Israel. His heart beats hard with anticipation and with fear. What if this time God does not forgive? Would the people be able to bear the enormous weight of their transgression? Can life even go on in the absence of forgiveness? The kohen gadol beseeches and implores God, he pours out his soul. He emerges from the Holy of Holies, majestic his appearance, radiant his face. He has achieved atonement for himself and his people, and he blesses them for the new year.
Yom Kippur—here and now—we enter the synagogue and, in the midst of community, we seek to access a space inside our heart of intimacy with God. We are all in this together, and we all carry the memory of Moses atop Mount Sinai and of the kohen gadol entering the Holy of Holies. We beseech and implore, we confess, we invoke God’s mercy and compassion, God’s love and forgiveness. We try again and again. We don’t quite understand how this whole ritual works. Will it be sufficient to lift the weight of our guilt? Is forgiveness possible? Is transformation possible? The Gates of Prayer close, the long day passes like a shadow. We have poured out our souls. A weight has lifted. Our faces are radiant. Let the new year and its blessings begin.
Gemar Hatimah Tovah,
Rabbi Roly Matalon