What do You want us to understand from this?
How do we distance ourselves and draw near in this pain?
We want to live with You
And not to be aloneומה אתה רוצה שנבין מזהאיך מתרחקים ומתקרבים בכאב הזהרוצה לחיות אותךולא להיות לבד-Ishai Ribo’s “Keter Melucha”
The opening Mishna1 in Masechet Yoma teaches us that the Kohen Gadol was to be quarantined for seven days prior to Yom Kippur. The Mishna describes his daily schedule for those seven days, stating that he is even given a place to sleep in the Lishkas Parhedrin, which is located in the vicinity of the Beit HaMikdash.
Why seven days? What is the source for this seven-day quarantine? Reish Lakish2 understands that this mandated quarantine comes from Kabbalat HaTorah. The Torah states:“וַיִּשְׁכֹּן כְּבוֹד-ה’ עַל-הַר סִינַי, וַיְכַסֵּהוּ הֶעָנָן שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים; וַיִּקְרָא אֶל-מֹשֶׁה בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי, מִתּוֹךְ הֶעָנָן.”
“The Presence of Hashem rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud hid it for six days. On the seventh day He called to Moses from the midst of the cloud.”
Reish Lakish understands that this verse is meant to teach us that prior to Matan Torah, Moshe was commanded to be quarantined for six days and then he was to go up the mountain on the seventh day3. Just as Moshe was quarantined on top of Har Sinai for seven days in preparation for Kabbalat haTorah, so too the Kohen Gadol must be quarantined for a week prior to his service on Yom Kippur.
On one level, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveichik4 understands the comparison very simply. The “prisha/separation” gave a heter, permission, for the Kohen Gadol to enter the Kodesh haKodashim, the Holy of Holies. Moshe could not ascend Har Sinai, which had a temporary status of Kodesh haKodashim, without first waiting for seven days in isolation.
However, the Rav goes one step further, quoting the Gemara in Yoma, which states that the purpose of the prisha, quarantine, is for purity, for tahara purposes. Rashi explains, “the Kohen Gadol isolates himself before Yom Kippur in order to not become haughty, overbearing, not be involved in frivolity, and therefore he will begin Yom Kippur with a renewed yiras shamayim, awe of Heaven.” The Rav felt Rashi gives us a deeper understanding of Reish Lakish. The role of the quarantine was not only to keep the Kohen Gadol and Moshe Rabbeinu pristine from impurities, but it also served as a catalyst for self-reflection, introspection and evaluation.
As we find ourselves in the middle of Aseret Yemei Teshuva, we need to ask ourselves and discuss with our families what and how our time in quarantine has caused us to change and grow.
We have been physically separated from our friends, loved ones, community, schools, shuls and places of work. We have been isolated, lonely, scared and sometimes uplifted. As the Israeli singer Ishay Ribo asks in his song Keter Melucha, which he wrote in response to corona, “Hashem, what do You want us to learn from this? What do You want us to understand from all of this?” I ask you to take advantage of Yamim Noraim 5781. Use them not only as a moment of reflection to ask ourselves what our takeaways are from last year, but to make real commitments of change to our lives. Take advantage of Yamim Noraim 5781. Shana means year; it comes from the same shoresh as l’shanot, which means to change. Our world has clearly changed from last year, but can we? On this Yamim Noraim and this year, let us not let change happen to us; let us be the catalyst for change to bring stability, vision and clarity to our lives despite the world around us.
Rabbi Andrew Markowitz is Congregation Shomrei Torah's senior rabbi.
1 Yoma 2a
2 Yoma3a, Shemot 24:16
3 The Gemara writes that for Yom Kippur, an extra day is added to account for the possibility that the Kohen Gadol would encounter a dead body.
4 In Noraos HaRav by Rabbi B. David Schreiber, Volume 6, pages 44-49