Try to imagine you have a room in your house that you leave locked all the time except for one hour each year.
In that space, you must keep an item, something that represents who you are, who you aspire to be, something that if it became lost – you could not imagine living without it.
Take a moment to picture that space. And more importantly, take a moment to picture what is inside it. Is it one thing? Many things? Is it something that is tangible or something that is intangible?
In the opening verses of our Torah portion this week, God instructs Moses to instruct his brother Aaron how to enter the Holy of Holies, the space in the Mishkan and Later Temples where we find the Ark of the Covenant. The High Priest only enters this space once a year on Yom Kippur.
God says, “Be’zot yavo Aharon el Ha’kodesh…” Be’Zot is a strange word here, meaning ‘with this’, or ‘in this way’ or ‘thus’. ‘In this way’ Aaron shall enter the Holy Place.
Our ancestors noticed this word and suggested that since it is an unexpected word here, then the explanation for this word is also beyond its literal reading.
The Gematria, the numerical value of Be’zot, is 410, equivalent to the number of years the first Temple stood.
The most Holy site for the Jewish people contained within it the most Holy object. For the Jewish people at that time, the Temple and the Ark were like the Holy Places in our homes and the Holy Items in our homes that we envisioned a few moments ago.
However, by the end of the 410 years, the Ark was gone. And we have no idea where it is.
(“Then it shall come to pass, when you are multiplied and increased in the land in those days,” says the Lord, “that they will say no more, ‘The ark of the covenant of the Lord.’ It shall not come to mind, nor shall they remember it, nor shall they visit it, nor shall it be made anymore.(Jeremiah 3:16))
When the exiles returned and built a smaller 2nd Temple, there was no Ark inside it. When Herod raised a hill in Jerusalem and one of the most glorious Temples in the ancient world on that hill, there were priests and sacrifices, Levites singing song to the pilgrims, but not Ark.
The Holy of Holies was empty and still the priest went in once a year to seek atonement and forgiveness for the entire people.
And so, I share that when I tried this exercise, I saw nothing in the once a year space. I saw the people I love, and, I saw myself.
I believe this is what the priest saw as well, or at least what he projected. He saw the faces of every Jewish soul and asked God for mercy and forgiveness on their behalf.
It was a chesed shel emet he did, an act of complete loving kindness, because without the Ark it was an even greater act of faith. Nothing tangible. No spot above the holy winged beings carved on the cover where the sins were collected.
And when we think of Aaron this way – it makes it easier for us to understand why Aaron is called a ‘rodef shalom’ one who seeks peace – He puts his life on the line in an act of complete giving on behalf of millions of people he doesn’t know and may never meet.
Aaron’s example reminds us how important chesed is, loving-kindness, how fundamental are gentleness, empathy, listening, self-reflection and humility. Without these things, we risk falling into the same trap Aaron himself did at Mount Sinai when he helped create the golden calf. In that moment they placed things first instead of people. They danced around an idol – an idol made up of ‘stuff’ of ‘things’. They needed reassurance from something they could see and touch, except, in the end what glittered was not gold, and it was melted down, and it disappeared.
Let’s make that room we envisioned. And let’s visit it more than once a year. Actually, let’s live in that room, but why? The ‘why’ is that when the rest of the house falls down or disappears, when we don’t recognize who we are or why we are, when it’s too painful to pray or when we do celebrate and the celebration gives way to ‘real life again’ – this room, this space, will still be there and strong, a source of hope because it contains only what’s most important to us and nothing else.