My translation from Ruth Calderon’s
Hashuk, Habayit, VeHalev: Aggadot Talmudiot (Keter, 2002)
The sanctuary is silent. All alone, Rabbi Yishmael crosses the twenty-two cubit distance between the antechamber and the altar. Further and further inside, beyond the curtains that are always drawn, as if walking through water and coming ever closer to its source. He has already immersed himself five times in the ritual waters, and his body is as soft as a freshly-laundered garment. Now, dressed in four articles of clothing like one of the regular priests, he is conscious of his exposed forehead, which is usually covered with the gold plate bearing the words “holy to the Lord.” In his hands is a firepan made of beaten gold containing finely-ground incense. Its smell enters his nostrils and the smoke rises like a pillar, parting the hallway before him. The smoke from the incense trembles and then is still, like a solid black candle.
His mind is filled with thoughts of the cows, rams, and sheep that passed before the priests in the evening in preparation for the sacrifices. He thinks of the Jerusalem elders who came to make sure he stayed awake all night, as was the custom. Their voices can still be heard in his ears, like the roar of a distant ocean inside a conch shell. His ears are no longer his; his eyes are no longer his; his sleep is no longer his. His whole body has become a sacred vessel. When he parts the last curtain, he can feel the tautness of the string that is tied around his right ankle. This is the string with which the other priests will drag out his body, should anything go awry in the Holy of Holies.
The inner sanctum is filled with the smell of the past. Yishmael has never been able to describe what it is like to his family at home. It is a different space than anything he has ever seen before. He walks inside, his heart quaking with each step. He can feel his own death like a ghostly presence. Dizzy and exhausted after a night of no sleep, he feels the weight of the day’s labors on his shoulders. As if performing the steps of a complicated dance, his minds runs through the morning immersion to the confessional beside the sacrifical cow, and from there to the lottery box where the goats were designated—one for God and one for Azazel, and then to the cliff where the latter goat was sent off into the wilderness, and then another confession and sacrifice and another collection of blood in a bowl, followed by the removal of the firepans.
Although he is alone in the Temple, he feels beleaguered by the priestly elders who seem to be peering at him with expectant eyes, measuring each step he takes and each wave of his hand. He is seized by a sense of fear: What if he is not worthy? What if he makes a mistake? His mouth is filled with the words of the confessional prayer: “I have strayed, I have sinned, I have transgressed before you, I and my household. Because on this day I will atone for you to purify you of all your sins. You shall be purified before God.” He remembers his hands resting on the head of the cow and the shudder that ran through the animal’s body, its sharp smell, its vigor and strength. He had leaned with all his weight on its great back, trying to lose all his anxieties and doubts in the warm flesh.
The names of the various types of blood used in sacred worship are as strange to his ears as song lyrics in a foreign tongue: Blood of the skin, blood of the soul, blood of the essence. The meaning of these terms eludes him, though he has memorized what he must do: “The firepan is in his right hand and the spoon is in his left hand, until the high priest comes between the two curtains which separate the Holy from the Holy of Holies, which are a cubit apart. He walks between them until he comes to the northernmost part. Then he turns and faces south, and walks to his left along the length of the curtain until he reaches the ark.” He can recite these words by heart, but they do not seem to accord with the dark hallway in which he finds himself. Where is the ark? He steps through the thick darkness into the Holy of Holies.
Yishmael senses a presence, as if someone is watching him. He stands in place enveloped in the smell of the incense, his eyes gradually adjusting to the darkness. Someone is sitting there. Is there someone else in the sanctum? Did he make a wrong turn? His heart flutters as if caught in a trap. He suddenly does not feel like the high priest, on whom all of Israel’s hopes are bent; he does not even feel like an ordinary priest, or like a regular human being.
From behind the pillar of smoke, he sees light.
“Achteriel Yah Hashem Tzvaot,” his lips murmur.
Across from him is a high and lofty throne. Should he prostrate himself before it? He dares to raise his eyes. The face of the One seated on the throne appears as if a storm is passing over it.
“Yishmael my son, bless me.” He is been addressed by name, as a man addresses his fellow. “Yishmael” – prounounced just as his mother would say it. “My son.” This is a face-to-face encounter, filled with grace, like a meeting between father and son. But bless me? What could that mean?
Yishmael does not understand what the man seated on the throne wants from him. The sound of his voice and the words that he speaks do not accord with his expectations. For a moment he fears that a foreign god has penetrated the inner sanctum and has sat upon the throne. After all, it was a well-known principle that heavenly beings never sat down. But then the seated presence calls him by name. In that moment Yishmael divests himself of his role as high priest, and becomes only himself. He listenes. He tries to overcome his fear and his preconceived notions. He wishes to be fully attentive, freed from his anxieties.
Suddenly he understands. Yishmael is filled with blessing, and he is ready to bestow blessing on others. The words come to him with love: “My it be Your will.” The words follow one another without any effort on his part, like a person praying for the well-being of a friend. “May it be Your will that Your mercy conquer Your anger, and that Your mercy overcome Your stern attributes.” He enjoys this newfound generosity of spirit. He is happy that he wants to bestow goodness. He glances at the seated presence with a tinge of embarrassment, aware that he is saying the right thing.
He continues, “And may You behave toward your children with the attribute of mercy. And for their sake, may You go beyond the boundary of judgment.” The seated presence nods graciously. Yishmael no longer doubts himself. He knows what to do next. He comes to the ark and places the firepans between the two cloths. He stacks the incense on the coals and the whole sanctum is suddenly filled with smoke. He exits and then enters an outer chamber and prays a short prayer, so that he would not upset the people, who would begin to worry about what happened to him in that most holy of chambers at the holiest time of the year.
Truly, how splendid was the appearance of the High Priest when he exited the Holy of Holies in peace, without any harm.
This story is based on a sugya from Brachot 7a, translated here:
Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha said:
Once I entered into the Holy of Holies
To burn incense in the Inner Innermost sanctum
And I saw Achteriel Yah Hashem Tzvaot
Sitting on a high and lofty throne of compassion
He said to me: Yishmael my son, bless me
I said to him: Master of the Universe
May it be Your will that Your mercy conquer Your anger,
That Your mercy overcome Your sterner attributes,
That You behave toward Your children with the attribute of mercy,
And that for their sake, You go beyond the boundary of judgment.
He nodded to me with His head.
And this comes to teach us
That the blessing given by an ordinary person should never be taken lightly.