Including the Left Hand in the Avodah on Yom Kippur

וְלָקַח מְלֹא הַמַּחְתָּה גַּחֲלֵי אֵשׁ מֵעַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ מִלִּפְנֵי ה' וּמְלֹא חָפְנָיו קְטֹרֶת סַמִּים דַּקָּה וְהֵבִיא מִבֵּית לַפָּרֹכֶת

He shall take a shovelful of fiery coals from atop the Mizbeyach that is before Hashem, and two handfuls of finely ground incense, and bring it within the Curtain. (16:12)

The Mishnah in Maseches Yoma[1] relates that the Kohen Gadol would enter the Kodesh Hakodashim carrying the shovel with the coals in his right hand, and the ladle with the two handfuls of ketores in his right hand. The Gemara elsewhere notes that this represents a unique situation in the Beis Hamikdash. As a rule, avodah is only valid when performed with the right hand. The one exception is our case of Yom Kippur, when the ketores is brought in with the left hand.[2]

What is the significance behind the left hand being included in the avodah of Yom Kippur specifically?

The Meshech Chochmah explains that the right side represents the person’s intellectual faculties, while the left side represents the more natural part of his makeup. This is the meaning of the statement in the Gemara, “Regarding one’s desire, his child and his wife, the left hand should push them away and the right hand should bring them close.”[3] This means that when it comes to one’s basic and natural needs, he should push away the left side, not allowing his natural faculties to engage in these matters entirely unchecked; rather, it is the right side that should bring them close, his involvement with them should be guided through wisdom and higher perspective.

For this reason, the avodah in the Beis Hamikdash is only ever performed with the right side, for it is specifically one’s higher faculties of wisdom and reason that are appropriate to involve in the Divine service that takes place there. The exception to this rule is Yom Kippur. On that holy and sublime day, through the fasting and other abstinences from physical pleasure, the person becomes detached from and elevated above his base physical existence, becoming likened to an angel. In this lofty state, even the “left side,” i.e. his natural physical existence, becomes elevated to become a worthy participant in the avodah of the day.[4]


 Avodah in the Holy of Holies and the Haftarah for Yom Kippur

One of the distinguishing features of the avodah of Yom Kippur is that certain parts of it are performed in the Kodesh Hakodashim, as detailed in our chapter. The Meshech Chochmah explains that the reason avodah is not generally performed in the Kodesh Hakodashim is because the various sections of the Mishkan correspond to the different levels of existence:

·      The outer sections of the Mishkan correspond to the lower levels of existence, where man indeed can have input; hence, avodah is performed there.

·      The Kodesh Hakodashim represents the higher levels of existence – directly emanating from Hashem Himself – which are not influenced by man. Accordingly, avodah is not performed there, reflecting the idea that Hashem Himself does not receive or benefit per se from man’s actions.

In light of this idea, it would seem that there should never be any avodah in the Kodesh Hakodashim. And yet, once a year, there is. The Meshech Chochmah explains that the inner avodah on Yom Kippur is essentially an expression of Hashem’s humility, allowing for it to appear that He is in fact impacted and influenced by man’s actions.

Indeed, he states that this is the very idea behind the choice of haftarah for Yom Kippur morning, taken from chapter fifty-seven of Yeshayahu, which begins by saying, “כִּי כֹה אָמַר רָם וְנִשָּׂא שֹׁכֵן עַד וְקָדוֹשׁ שְׁמוֹ מָרוֹם וְקָדוֹשׁ אֶשְׁכּוֹן – For thus said the exalted and uplifted One, Who abides forever and Whose name is holy, ‘I abide in exaltedness and holiness,’” and then states, “וְאֶת דַּכָּא וּשְׁפַל רוּחַ לְהַחֲיוֹת רוּחַ שְׁפָלִים וּלְהַחֲיוֹת לֵב נִדְכָּאִים – but I am with the despondent and lowly of spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the despondent.” The very same humility being expressed in these opening words is embodied in the unique avodah of Yom Kippur in the Holy of Holies. Support for this idea comes from the Gemara in Megillah[5] where, immediately after prescribing the above section in Yeshayahu as the haftarah for Yom Kippur morning, it cites the statement of R’ Yochanan: “Wherever you find the greatness of the Holy One, Blessed is He, there you find His humility.” As a source for this idea in Neviim, he cites our verse. The Meshech Chochmah suggests that by citing this comment of R’ Yochanan at that juncture, the Gemara is indicating that Hashem’s humility is the theme behind the choice of that chapter as the haftarah.[6]

[1] 47a.

[2] Menachos 25a.

[3] Sotah 47a.

[4] From Meshech Chochmah to Vayikra 14:15.

[5] 31a.

[6] Based on Meshech Chochmah to verse 1. It is worthwhile pondering why Yom Kippur was chosen more than any other day as the one on which Hashem’s humility is expressed. Perhaps it is because the very essence of the day – pardoning the Jewish people for their sins – is an act of profound humility, whereby Hashem foregoes the affront to His infinitely exalted greatness and grants atonement. Indeed, perhaps there is an accompanying message for the Jewish people themselves, among whom perhaps pride and hubris may be significant impediments to them doing teshuvah and asking for forgiveness. Perhaps the humility of the Divine On High can be met with a little humility from us down below.