Before and Within

A strange Yom Kippur story was told by Rabbi Ishmael, a High Priest of the 2nd Temple:

Once, I entered before and within (the Holy of Holies) to offer the incense and I saw Akatriel Yah, the Lord of Hosts, sitting on his throne, high and exalted and he said to me:  “Ishmael, my son, bless me…”

Long before Rabbi Ishmael, in the days of the 1st Temple, the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur by way of a door built into a cubit-thick wall. Beyond that door, in the innermost holy space, stood the Ark containing the ten commandments—rock solid presence, stone witness to the ancient, sacred story.

In the rebuilt Temple of Rabbi Ishmael, the structure and furnishings of presence and witness had changed. No cubit-thick wall could be safely built to the new soaring height of the 2nd Temple. There was no door to sharply mark “in” and “out;” only a cubit wide memory of a wall between two curtains that the sages called in Greek, traksinconfusion.  Was this the innermost cubit of outer holiness or the outermost cubit of inner holiness?

In Hebrew, the sages called that transition cubit before and within. The Hebrew phrase, lif’ney v’lif’nim, rises from a single root, p-n-ymeaning both inward and outward, both before and within. More than a location, this cubit was a state of consciousness, of imagination. Am I before, am I within? Am I in both places at the same time?

In the Temple of Rabbi Ishmael, no stone wall stood before the holy of holies; no Ark and no stone tablets rested within.  Curtains captured transition space; the innermost place was filled only by that which the High Priest brought with him—incense, awareness, and imagination.

I saw Akatriel Yah, the Lord of Hosts, sitting on his throne

Perhaps his imaginings rose like the cloud of incense. Perhaps thin light from the overhead workers’ access crowned the rising cloud and the Divine Crown—Akatri-el—took the shape of the “Place” as the sages called God. Here, perhaps, incense took shape and shape took on a startling voice:

Ishmael, my son, bless me

In the inner room, it was not Rabbi Ishmael’s petition before the lone Judge that broke the silence. Rather, it was the unexpected plea from within—from a lonely God.

The very structure and location of an inner, inner room proclaimed and protected God’s aloneness; this Rabbi Ishmael knew from before. God’s aloneness was his explicit destination on Yom Kippur. Loneliness, on the other hand, he did not expect. Perhaps, along with the cloud of incense, Rabbi Ishmael found within only that which he had brought. Perhaps in the place of aloneness he recognized that loneliness and the yearning for another’s blessing is even a Divine need. Imagine that the High Priest brought a place deep within to the Place, deep within!

There is no longer a Temple or a High Priest. But the Israeli poet, Rivka Miriam, is certain that there is still an inner room and that each of us enters it—but only at the time of greatest need:

And in the inner room we keep Moses’ heaviness of mouth
Isaac’s weak eyes, and Jacob’s dragging leg.
And when war stirs us, it is to the inner room we go
to examine them closely.
For each one who goes out to battle wraps himself in just these.

(Click here for Talmudic story and Rivka Miriam poem in Hebrew and English)

Rabbi Ishmael and all who enter the inner room stand before the treasured images of vulnerable heroes:  aloneness, halting speech, declining vision, limping gait.

On Yom Kippur, the war that stirs us is that of turning such vulnerability into value.

With or without a Temple, the year must begin in the Holy of Holies. It is precisely here—before and within the Place—that we keep our images and release our imaginings in their presence. We grow and flourish precisely here, at the intersection of before and within.

This entry was posted in Blessing, Days of Awe, Holidays, Poetry, Talmud. Bookmark the permalink.

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