A Perfect Time For A Do-Over


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 7:21 p.m.
Torah: Leviticus 16:1-20:27
Haftarah: Amos 9:7-15 (Ashkenaz);
Ezekiel 20:2-20 (Sephard)
Havdalah: 8:23 p.m.

This week’s double portion of Achrei Mot/Kedoshim begins with God speaking to Moshe after the death of Aaron’s two sons, and then instructing Moshe and Aaron about the procedures surrounding Yom Kippur.

This section (which we read on Yom Kippur) explains the special service performed by the High Priest, the Kohen Gadol in the Jerusalem Temple. While performing the daily rituals, and some of the Yom Kippur service, the Kohen Gadol would wear wore Bigdei Zahav, gold vestments. However, when seeking forgiveness for the Jewish people, the Kohen Gadol would change into Bigdei Lavan, white linen vestments. Rashi explains elsewhere that it would have been inappropriate to approach God while wearing gold, as it would only serve as a reminder of the sin of the Golden Calf. Instead, by donning the white linen, the Kohen Gadol would be a visible symbol of forgiveness and be reminiscent of the angels surrounding God who, we are taught, wear white linen.

But it wasn’t only that the High Priest had to repeatedly change his clothes. One of the additional requirements was that these garments had to be newly made for him every year. After he took off his white vestments, they were put away and never used again. On the surface it seems so extravagant. Imagine buying an expensive suit for winter but instead of saving it from one year to the next, you always bought a new one each winter. Why would the Kohen Gadol not be able to save his vestments from year to year?

Rabbi Mordechai Gifter, the late rosh yeshiva of the Rabbinical College of Telshe in Cleveland, explained that the Kohen Gadol had to get new clothes because Yom Kippur could not be entered carrying last year’s sins, last year’s problems, last year’s garments. What had happened in the past year had to be left behind. It couldn’t be re packaged and used again; because those vestments represented last year’s failing, last year’s challenges. Each Yom Kippur had to be the start of something new. The tradition to wear white on Yom Kippur emanates from this parsha, symbolizing the commitment to start each year fresh without last year’s “spiritual wardrobe.”

A story is told of the country peasant who came to the big city for the first time. He saw that he was dressed very shabbily, with a worn out suit while everyone around him was nicely dressed. So he went into a men’s store and bought a new suit. He went home, tried it on and saw that it didn’t fit. He returned to the store and complained to the clerk: the suit you sold me doesn’t fit. The clerk began to laugh and said, of course it doesn’t fit. You put the new suit on over your old suit.

We have to take off our old clothes before we put on the new ones. We can’t begin a new year without a new outlook. We have to remove last year’s old habits before we can change into a new wardrobe of more mitzvoth and values.

But here is the rub. We are already at the midpoint of 5773. Yom Kippur 5773 is long behind us and Yom Kippur 5774 is not for another 6 months. So, in essence, this parsha seems misplaced smack in the month of April (Iyar). Nevertheless, upon closer examination, its message is a very timely one.  In just a few days we will be observing Pesach Sheni. In the times of the Temple, Pesach Sheni allowed anyone who was unable to bring the Korban Pesach, due to spiritual impurity on Passover, to bring it a month later. Today in the absence of the Temple, Pesach Sheni becomes then the perfect metaphor of the joy of second chances.

We always should have that second chance, the opportunity for a do-over to improve ourselves, to try to work on our spiritual lives and perfect that which needs to be made whole. If we failed on Yom Kippur to work on all of our shortcomings, the symbolism of this parsha reminds us that the gates of repentance are always open. If we missed a chance on Pesach to rid ourselves of our spiritual chometz, along comes Pesach Sheni and says here is the holiday of second chances.

As we have begun to finally see spring arrive, we know that soon it will be fashionably correct to wear white. This parsha provides a visceral reminder that white is not just for the Kohen, not just for Yom Kippur, not just to wear at a seder, but actually is something we can embrace as part of our spiritual wardrobe, available to wear every day of the year.

Dr. Adena Berkowitz is a founder and scholar-in-residence at Kol HaNeshamah in New York, and visiting lecturer at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah rabbinical school.