By Rabbi Baruch Davis, Emeritus Rabbi, Chigwell & Hainault United Synagogue
Wedding bands often energetically sing “Mareh Kohen”, a particularly lively and joyful song, the words of which we recite during Mussaf on Yom Kippur. Mareh Kohen, The Appearance of the (High) Priest, is a poetic song that describes, with many beautiful allusions, the radiant appearance of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) as he emerged from the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, to the throngs of people waiting for him in the Temple Courtyard.
Only the Kohen Gadol was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctuary of the Temple, and only on Yom Kippur. He spent a week in solitude preparing for this most aweinspiring of occasions, upon which the fate of the nation rested. The tension was palpable as he disappeared from the view of the watching crowds and conducted the threefold confession ceremony, for himself and his family, for his fellow Kohanim, and then for the people as a whole. If the Kohen Gadol did not perform the service correctly, with the proper intention, he might not emerge alive.
Rabbi Sacks, in his Yom Kippur Machzor (p.901) quotes from the book of Ben Sira (circa 2nd century BCE): “How glorious he was, surrounded by the people, as he came out of the house of the curtain. Like the morning star among the clouds… like the sun shining on the Temple of the Most High, like the rainbow gleaming in splendid clouds…”
The sense of exhilaration felt by the crowd at that moment on Yom Kippur was the joy of being at peace with God and with each other, achieved by the Kohen Gadol on their behalf. The people were ‘with him’ in their hearts and minds as he performed the service, and were greatly relieved and happy at the successful outcome. The essence of the day, kaparah (atonement), and being at one with God, had been achieved. To quote the opening words of Mareh Kohen: “Truly how majestic was the High Priest as he came out of the Holy of Holies in peace, unscathed”.
The excitement that the people felt is hard for us to imagine today and, indeed, the liturgical pieces that follow Mareh Kohen contrast the joy of the Temple era on Yom Kippur with our sadness that we no longer have it ourselves.
However, the act of the Kohen Gadol entering the innermost sanctuary of the Temple has its parallel – in ourselves. On Yom Kippur, from the moment we enter the shul at Kol Nidre, we are granted the opportunity to remove ourselves from our everyday lives. Our shared sanctuary, the shul, provides the time and space and a variety of moods in the services for us to enter our own inner sanctuaries. Just as the Kohen Gadol said confessionary prayers, so do we. And, like the Kohen Gadol, we too can emerge radiant, with feelings of reconciliation with God and our fellow human-beings.