Where am I? This is a question we may often ask ourselves, especially in our troubled and busy world, where it is so easy to lose our marks and to feel overwhelmed by all kinds of pressures. Terrorism, xenophobia, populism, environmental threats and wars all around the world might make us think that we live in a very dark place – and we may feel anxious about how things will evolve in the future. We may feel an urge to act and at the same time we may feel paralysed because everything is moving too quickly, too intensely.
Our lives may seem all the more like a maelstrom because we have to play different roles in different settings. Sometimes, the frontiers between these roles and our inner being may become blurry. When the functions that we perform in specific settings replace totally our inner being, then we are lost to ourselves.
Such a loss seems to have happened to Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihou, who brought a fire before God which was not asked of them. It seems that they were so full of their new function as priests that they abused this role. Then, they did not present themselves before God as themselves, but only as priests, as if this new function had invaded their inner self and smothered it. Their death may symbolise that they were not able to connect anymore to their authentic being.
To avoid losing ourselves in the maelstrom of life, we need sometimes a Shabbat shabbaton – that is to say, a day when we cease all activities and extract ourselves from the world. On that day, we focus on asking ourselves who we really are and where we are in our relations to ourselves and to others. The Torah asks us to pressure our soul. The word used to say “pressure, mortify” in Hebrew has the same root as the verb “to answer”. Another meaning of this root is “to sing”. These two meanings imply the idea of expressing oneself. Then, it seems that when we mortify ourselves in Yom Kippur, the goal is to exert pressure on our soul as to get deep answers to our fundamental questions: Who am I? Where am I?
When we make these responses arise from the depths of our heart and direct them to heaven, we may feel not only a deep connection to ourselves, but also to God.
Indeed, all these thoughts which arise can be paralleled to the incense that the High Priest was offering on the golden altar in the Temple. This altar was in the inside of the Holy of Holies, contrary to the altar of copper, which was in the outside and was used for the sacrifices and oblations. It seems to me that these altars had two distinct functions: the sacrifices brought to the altar of copper were making us reflect on our actions and how to improve them, whereas the incense offered on the inner golden altar constituted a reflection on our inner authentic being.
The incense that was offered on the golden altar at Yom Kippur had to be intensely ground, so as to become extremely thin. The person who was grinding it had to speak at the same time, “because the voice is good for the herbs”. Speaking to ourselves helps us to grasp our inner genuine essence, symbolized by this extremely thin incense.
Performing this process allows us to find a deep connection with God. It is said in our parashah that God was revealing himself in a cloud above the sanctuary. Later, we are told that the smoke produced by the combustion of the thin incense formed a cloud that covered the sanctuary. Then, it seems that a connection is being made between God and our inner soul, when we are standing before him at Yom Kippur and are grinding ourselves, so as to let our authentic being arise at the surface of our consciousness.
When we have succeeded in connecting to our authentic being, we are able to locate ourselves better in the world and in our relations to others. We become able to analyse our deeds and identify our failures. Once we are sincerely willing to get rid of our bad instincts, two possibilities are offered to us. The first one is to work on them so as to turn them into positive deeds. This may be symbolised by the goat offered to God: we kill the goat and offer it on the copper altar, thus we sanctify it. We recognise our faults and we erase them from our hearts, but by the process of sanctification we make the resolution to turn them into good deeds. For example, a robber, after having put his robber’s instinct on the altar, shall try to give to charities; the liar will try to say the truth instead of lying.
But everything cannot be sanctified and turned into good, because reversing bad deeds into good ones may seem too much at this stage of our life. But at least, we can stop doing bad deeds. This attitude may be symbolised by the goat that is sent to Azazel: we get rid of all the bad things we do not want to do anymore, but we are not yet ready to actively perform good deeds instead.
Then, we become able to follow the behaviour that we feel God wants from us – whatever meaning we attach to the notion of God. This may be the reason why a full list of ethical and moral precepts is given in parashat Kedoshim. After having undergone the atonement process described in parashat Aharey Mot, we become confident in ourselves and in our ability to improve our behaviour. We are also more aware of our limits, our different roles in the world, and the borders we have to maintain between our different functions and relationships. Then, we become fully able to act.
Student rabbi Iris Ferreira
 Siddur Petah Eliahu, 20th edition, p°111 ; taken from Talmud Yerushalmi, Yoma chapter 4.
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.