What Does Yom Kippur Have To Do With Megillat Esther?
What Does Yom Kippur Have To Do With Megillat Esther?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
In Acharei Mot, we learn about the priest’s Yom Kippur service in the Tabernacle. But there’s something very interesting about the language used to describe this section — it’s strikingly similar to the story of Megillat Esther. What does Yom Kippur -- with its themes of repentance and closeness to God -- have to do with Esther? Join Rabbi Fohrman and Rivky as they re-examine these two texts, and never think Acharei Mot or Megillat Esther the same way again.
Rabbi Fohrman: Hi everybody. This is Rabbi David Fohrman.
Rivky: And this is Rivky Stern.
Rivky: Yeah. I can't wait. Thanks for having me back.
Rabbi Fohrman: We were just talking actually about some user reaction to our Shemini Parashah which I think was personally, a real thrill to be able to do it together. We were looking at intertextual parallels in Parashat Shemini that brought us all the way to the very end of Tanach to, of all things, the Book of Esther. What I have in mind to do with you in Acharei Mot is try to explore a tantalizing epilogue to our Shemini podcast here that seems to be lurking in Acharei Mot. So are you up to that?
Rivky: I can't wait. I think it's really crazy how there are Purim and Esther reverberations all throughout Tanach and it's really exciting to see these here.
Rabbi Fohrman: To put it differently, in this case since Esther comes later, there are – Esther is surveying as a kind of summation of a lot of themes in Tanach and a reverberations – in this case of themes in Vayikra. The point is the same. You'd never expect to find it in the Book of Esther.
If I kind of quizzed you and said, you know, what's the last thing you'd think you'd hear about in the Book of Esther? It'd be Parashat Shemini and Acharei Mot. Right?
Rabbi Fohrman: So if you look at Acharei Mot itself, the reason why I'm interested in it is that Acharei Mot, to some extent, is a kind of epilogue to Shemini, to these themes of the shiv'at yemei milu'im. You look at Parashat Acharei Mot, in the beginning and say what's it really about? It's about the Avodah (service) of Yom Kippur and if I would to say to you, Rivky, free associate. Give me a little Rorschach test. I'm going to say something and you give me three or four themes that you think relates to it. Are you ready? Yom Kippur Avodah.
Themes Related to the Yom Kippur AvodahRivky: Blood, my first thought. Let's see, number two is I think, Kohen Gadol (High Priest). Right? It's not something that I, Rivky, participate in. It's really something that the High Priest does on behalf of me.
Rabbi Fohrman: Give me one more thing.
Rivky: I think the last thing would really be Beis Hamikdash (Temple). Right? It's not something that, nowadays, we spend a lot of time on Yom Kippur in shul, in our Mikdash Me'at, but back then the entire thing took place in the Temple. Those are my three, Rabbi Fohrman. How did I do?
Rabbi Fohrman: So you think about blood. You're thinking about the Temple. You're thinking about the Priest. Maybe you're even thinking about forgiveness. You're thinking about all of these themes; sins and washing them away. And yet, that's not the way the Torah itself introduces the service of Yom Kippur. It actually, of all things, takes us back to Shemini. It takes us back to the days of the dedication of the Tabernacle itself.
Look at how it begins. Because if I were beginning the Yom Kippur Service, I would have talked about – there's going to be this thing and it's Yom Kippur and it's going to have this special avodah, this special service and it's going to be so great. It's going to give you forgiveness from all your sins and here's how you do it. That's how I would have started. It's not how the Five Books of Moses starts. Look how the Five Books of Moses starts.
The Yom Kippur Avodah in the Bible"Vayedaber Hashem el Moshe acharei mot shnei bnei Aharon." I'm reading now from just the very beginning of the parashah, Perek Tet-Zayin, Chapter 16, Verse 1 in Leviticus. God calls to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, "b'karvatam lifnei Hashem vayamutu," in their coming close before God and their dying and what does God say after the death of the two sons of Aaron?
"Daber el Aharon achicha", speak to Aaron, your brother, "v'al yavo b'chol eit el Hakadosh," let him not come in all the time into the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum, "m'beit laparochet," inside the curtain, where the Holy of Holies is "al p'nei hakaporet," in front of the covering of the ark, "asher al ha'Aron" that's on the ark, "v' lo yamut," because I don't want him to die and therefore let him not come at all times into this place, "ki b'anan eira'eh el hakaporet." It's such a dangerous place because in a cloud, I, God, appear over the kaporet, the covering of the ark. So this is a place in which transcendence is imminent and which God is there in the world and it's dangerous for human beings to counter.
Therefore, "B'zot yavo Aharon el hakodesh", only through this shall Aaron come into the Sanctuary. Once a year shall Aaron come into this Holy of Holies and he should do it this way, "b'par ben bakar," and then we get into the whole Avodah, the whole special service of Yom Kippur.
Look at how counterintuitive that is. I mean, that has nothing to do with Yom Kippur, the way you and I would think about it. We're not talking about sin, washing away sin and I'll tell you how special this service is. We're talking about the milu'im, those days of milu'im, those days in which the Tabernacle was first consecrated and something terrible happened. Two sons of Aaron died and that forms the backdrop. Tell Aaron the following; that he should not come into the Holy of Holies all the time so that he would risk death. Tell him this, after the deaths of the two sons of Aaron, who in fact died because of an improper approach into the Holy of Holies. Tell him this is how you enter the Holy of Holies. So strangely and fascinatingly, the Yom Kippur service is actually being seen primarily as the way in which the consecration of the Sanctuary could be redone in a successful way. And that's so counterintuitive.
Rivky: Yeah. I mean, I think that's interesting. That was my first instinct also. We saw Nadab and Abihu as really a failed approach to God, a failed approach to the service in the Tabernacle. And this seems to be the way that God says to Moses, hey, I know that one went poorly, but here's a way in which we can do it and it's going to be a successful way in which you enter the Tabernacle. And, Rabbi Fohrman, I know I'm being a little presumptuous, but that seems to me also, very clearly, you know, I'm primed for it. But just like Vashti and just like Esther. Am I on the right track there?
Rabbi Fohrman: You are totally channeling my thoughts. Because Shemini, was connected as we saw, was connected to Esther. What we saw in Esther, was that there were all these parallels to what happened in Parashat Shemini and, particularly, there was this encounter with the king that went poorly. If you paid attention to those intertextual parallels, you found that right in the beginning of the Megillah, in Chapter 1, there is a queen that is called upon to come into the inner sanctum of the king and she won't come. So it's the, sort of, inverse of the Nadab and Abihu story. In the Nadab and Abihu story they were not called –
Rivky: Right. They came when they were not called.
Rabbi Fohrman: – and they came improperly. And here the inverse of that is Vashti is called and she refuses to come and that's where all those language parallels sort of appear in the Megillah, taking us back to the Nadab and Abihu story. So as Rivky is intuiting, if the Nadab and Abihu story had a replay, or has a replay in Vayikra and the replay of it is the intended service of the High Priest on every Yom Kippur, as described in Acharei Mot, the Acharei Mot says that there is a way to do what Nadab and Abihu did correctly and here's what you do. Isn't it interesting that the Megillah also has a way to do what Vashti did incorrectly and here's what you do.
Because Vashti's not the only queen who is called upon to sort of make this approach to the king. There's another queen who finds herself in a very similar place and that is, of course, Esther. There's a moment when Esther needs to make an approach to the king. The funny thing is, if you look carefully at Esther's approach to the king, which is what I want to do with you now, you're going to hear the parallels to, wouldn't you know it, Acharei Mot.
So come with me over here. I'm going to read something in the Book of Esther and you're going to tell me what about it reminds you of the Yom Kippur service, just even the little part that we just read together. So let's just remember what we talked about that we talked about that little introduction, about the death of the two sons of Aaron introducing Yom Kippur service.
Biblical Connections to the Yom Kippur ServiceRabbi Fohrman: Let's go now to Esther's approach to the king and just, kind of, listen for the resonances. I'm reading now from Esther, Chapter 4. Mordechai says, "Esther, you've got to go to the King. We need you. This is the moment you've got to reveal who it is that you really are." And what happens essentially, is that Esther demurs. She's like, "I can't do it. I can't do it because I have not been called into the king's courtyard. If you come into the King's courtyard, and you're not called, you do so that on pain of death. You're going to die." Rivky, what does this remind you of?
Rivky: That God says explicitly, "If you come in when you're not called," He says, "If you Aaron, come in, then you will die. "V'lo yamut," do it the right way so that you do not die.
Rabbi Fohrman: Right. We know death is on the table here. So again, when Esther says, her language is everybody knows, "kol ovdei hamelech v'am hamidinot hamelech yodim," all of the servants of the king know, "kol ish v'ishah asher yavo el hamelech, el hechatzer hap'nimit," anybody who comes into the inner sanctum, "asher lo yikarei," who is not called, who's coming in against the rules, "achat dato l'hamit," they're going to die, the decree against them is that they must die, "l'vad mei'asher yoshit lo hamelech et sharvit hazahav, v'chayah," there's just one way to do it that the king allows and then you live.
That's really exactly the formulation we have in the beginning here, which is, that if you come in any old time, you're going to die. There's one way to do it where you won't die. "Al yavo b'chol eit el hakadosh m'beit haparochet al p'nei hakaporet." You can't just come in any old way, "v' lo yamut". Here's how you have to do it that you won't die. Because it's dangerous. The King is there. "Ki b'anan eira'eh el hakaporet." The divine King is there, while the earthly king is in the palace and if you come into his inner sanctum, you risk death as well.
Now let's keep on reading here in Esther's approach to the King. So what happens? Mordecai hears what Esther says and Mordecai then responds. So take a look at Mordecai's response and listen carefully to it. And again, Rivky, I ask you, what about Mordecai's response also resonates with just those initial first couple sentences that we just read in the Yom Kippur service?
Here's Mordecai. "Vayomer Mordechai l'hashev el Esther," Mordecai then says to respond to Esther, "al tedami b'nafsheich, l'hemaleit beit hamelech m'kol ha'yehudim," Esther, don't think for a minute that you alone will be able to survive the onslaught, taking shelter and refuge in the palace, "im hachareish tacharishi ba'eit hazot," if you remain silent at this time, "revach v'hatzalah ya'amod la'yehudim mimakom acheir, v'at u'beit avich toveidu," we'll all be fine, you will be the one who's destroyed, "u'mi yodei'a im la'eit kazot higa'at lamalchut," and who knows if it was for this moment that you have come into the queen ship.
Again, listen carefully to that language. Is anything that language reminds you about?
Rivky: I think, it's only one word, but I think it's the language of eit (time) because God also says about Aaron "v'al yavo'u b'chol eit el hakodesh," you cannot just enter the Sanctuary whenever you want. The time is very specific.
Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah. Look at that language of time which is exactly the same, but it's not just time, it's time appeared with one word because look how that goes in Verse 2 and contrast it to Verse 3.
Verse 2; "Al yavo b'chol eit el hakodesh," you can't come at any old time to the Sanctuary. Rivky, when can you come according to Verse 3?
Rivky: "B'zot yavu Aharon."
Rabbi Fohrman: Oh, "b'zot yavo Aharon el hakodesh," you can only come with this. You can't come at any old time, instead come "b'zot yavu Aharon el hakodesh." What does that remind you of within Esther? Let me read it to you one more time. Mordecai, "Im hachareish tacharishi," if you keep silent, "ba'eit hazot," if you keep silent at this time so we'll be fine without you and who knows, "mi yodei'a im la'eit kazot," if it was for just this moment. Right? It's the merger of those two words. Isn't that fascinating?
If you go back to the Yom Kippur service, you can't come any old time, "b'chol eit," rather you have to come at a particular time, b'zot. And now the Megillah, seemingly, intentionally plays off of those words; eit and b'zot. Mordecai, talking about the one propitious moment says, you know, normally you can't come, but if this -- a designated moment passes and you don't go, "im hachareish tacharishi ba'eit hazot," not only at any old time, but at this particular time then you've missed your chance, "revach v'hatzalah," we'll be fine, but you'll be the one to die, "mi yodei'a im la'eit kazot higa'at lamalchut," who knows if this was the moment we were all waiting for.
It sounds like we might be on for something, but let's now continue and take a look at this and go a little bit further. Let me introduce a third element here. If we talked about the element of death, when you aren't called, that's element number one. Element two, ba'eit hazot. What about element three? Esther then responds to Mordecai and says fine, here's what I want you to do. "Leich k'nos et kol ha'yehudim," get everyone together, "v'tzumu alai v'al tochlu v'al tishtu shloshet yamim," everyone should fast, "gam ani v'na'arotai atzum kein," me and my servants we will also fast, "u'v'chein avo el hamelech asher lo kadat," and that's how I will come to the king when I am not called.
Fasting, while you're coming to the king in a special time. What does that remind you of?
Rivky: That's exactly Yom Kippur.
Rabbi Fohrman: It's exactly Yom Kippur, right? "B'zot yavo Aharon el hakodesh," this is how Aaron has to come. She comes fasting, just as Aaron was fasting. Plus, what is she wearing? Read a little bit more, go into, we were looking at Verse 3, Rivky. Look at Verse 4; what do we hear in Verse 4 in the Yom Kippur service?
Rivky: "K'tonet bakodesh." Oh, very cool. He has specific clothing that he has to wear.
Rabbi Fohrman: Oh, he does, doesn't he? Very special clothing and if you remember back to Shemini what did we hear about the clothing of the High Priest? What do they remind you of? In the palace, they are the clothing of royalty. They're the clothes of royalty. Now, what does Esther have to wear when she goes into the king?
Rivky: Esther wears specific clothes of royalty.
Rabbi Fohrman: Exactly. "Vayehi bayom hashlishi," the verse says. It's the beginning of Chapter 5. "Vatilbash Esther malchut," you can't come to the king if you're not wearing your special clothes.
Now, I want to just point out to you, Rivky, we've had four parallels now before Esther going – when Esther's going into the king taking us back to the Yom Kippur service and it's not just that there's four general parallels, they've actually proceeded in order. The first issue is Esther's fear of dying because people might die, followed by the ba'eit hazot notion. That no, there's a specific moment that you could come, followed by fine, I'm going to go and this is how I'm going to go and followed by and I'm going to be wearing these clothes.
Well, those four parallels happen in order in the Yom Kippur service. First, the issue that if you don't come in on the right time, if you come in all the time, you can die; element number one. Then there's a special moment, b'zot, this is the moment that you could come not b'chol eit but b'zot; the eit hazot connection. Then Aaron's coming into the Sanctuary, "yavo Aharon el hakodesh," element number three he's going to come in presumably fasting and then element number four, "ketonet bakodesh yilbash," he's going to be wearing a special clothes just like Esther.
It's, kind of, remarkable here. Do the parallels continue? Well, let's see if we can find a fifth. Here, Rivky, I want you to keep on, sort of, reading and now go to the next verse. Verse 5 and Verse 6 are the beginnings of these offerings. Aaron's going to come "V'hikriv Aharon et par hachatat asher lo," he's going to come and he's going to be coming with this, sort of, sin offering. What does that remind you of, that language and idea, "V'hikriv Aharon et par hachatat asher lo," the first thing Aaron has to do is bring a personal sin offering.
Well, if you think about it, what's really the first thing Esther has to bring? Is there anything that would be analogous to the personal sin offering for Esther?
Rivky: I think, I mean, this might be a stretch, but I think that's Esther herself.
Rabbi Fohrman: Explain.
Rivky: Because when she enters the room, she doesn't know, she's scared. The king might say to her what are you doing? You were not allowed in this room without permission, off with your head, you're dead, you're done. But what she does when she enters that room, the king raises his scepter and then she, herself, enters the room. She can only enter once she knows that she is accepted.
Rabbi Fohrman: And that seems to be the acceptance, as it were, of the sin offering. And now look at the language of it back in Verse 2. And when the king saw Esther he reaches out with his scepter, "asher b'yado vatikrav Esther vatiga b'rosh hasharvit," and she draws close and touches the scepter. That's when the king accepts her as she is even though she's going against the law. That language vatikrav is a perfect echo of "v'hikriv Aharon et par hachatat asher lo" that he's coming with this sin offering.
There might also be another element of sin which is, if you think about it, there's a little deception going on here and it's been going on here at Esther. If there's any sort of sin in Esther, which Mordecai is saying look it's time to come clean before the king. You know, what might that sin be? Esther has been hiding something and maybe she should, maybe she shouldn't, but she hasn't been straight with the king about who she is. Well, she's coming close to, kind of, make that big reveal. You have to understand who I really am and if you think about all of us –
Rivky: Right and that also feels just like Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur we are opening ourselves up to that complete honesty. We say God, you know, we have that relationship and this is me; you know I'm sorry and I, maybe I failed in a lot of ways but this is me and still want that relationship with You. Can You still accept me? Can I be honest with You and can You still love me?
A Deeper Understanding of the Yom Kippur ServiceRabbi Fohrman: To me, Rivky, that's one of the, like, the main take-aways here. It's showing you what in essence the sin offering is really all about. It's that we present us to the king as we really are. Yom Kippur's the moment where we can just say look, we might be dressed up in all these royal clothes, but inside is just a fragile human being with his sins. I have to come to you with who I really am and You just have to accept me and we wait for the king to give us the scepter and to be accepted. It's what Esther's doing now with the king and it's what we all do; what the High Priest does on our behalf.
If you think about it, Rivky, just to close out the parallels here I'll leave everybody with a little bit of a challenge as you think about it because I don't know what all of this means, but one thing which I think is special is, well, first of all, if you think about, the High Priest has more than one request. He has a personal request which is for personal wrongdoing and then a national request. He's asking for everyone, for the people to all be saved and not be destroyed. What about Esther?
Rivky: Yeah, that's exactly what she does. She first says look, this is me, this is who I am, I know I'm sort of breaking the rules right now and then she goes into and I need you to save my people. Don't just save me, right, you can just save me, if you want. I'm your wife that would be understandable, but save everyone. That's that powerful, national request.
Rabbi Fohrman: Exactly and isn't it fascinating, in light of all of this, that our Sages tell us something about Purim, don't they? They tell us that there's another holiday, kind of, like Purim and what is it?
Rivky: Yom Kippurim.
Rabbi Fohrman: Yom Kippur is a Yom Kippurim, a day just like Purim. Maybe we're starting to understand how. If you think about it, what are the two holidays that have a goral, a lottery, associated with them?
Rivky: Yeah. That's sa'ir hachatat and sa'ir la'azazel. Where the Torah tells us about these two different goats and there's a lottery that determines what happens with the two of them. The same way in the Purim story we have this goral, we have this lottery that Haman uses to determine when we're going to be killed.
Rabbi Fohrman: That's right. Is the lottery somehow between these two animals in the story of the Yom Kippur service, does it find an echo in the lottery of the Purim story itself? How is it that Purim plays out more completely as a Yom Kippur story? There's a lot more to be said here. One of these days, Rivky, I think you and I are going to be destined to do a course on this. Maybe next Purim we'll take these themes and see if we can run with them a little bit more.
I wanted to just at least tease some of this with our listeners in parashah. It feels to me like Acharei Mot is not just a sequel to Shemini, but it's a sequel to Shemini fascinatingly in an intertextual parallel way. That the intertextual parallels of Shemini, taking you all the way to the Megillah, also have their sequel. That Vashti's failed approach just like Nadab and Abihu now has an echo and Esther's successful approach and just as Acharei Mot, the Yom Kippur service becomes the epilogue to Nadab and Abihu, Esther's approach becomes the epilogue to Vashti's and becomes the kind of paradigm for a new kind of lottery and a new kind of expiation for sin. At the very end of the Megillah, that's somehow as these echoes are major courts of the Yom Kippur itself.
Rivky: Wow. It's pretty incredible the elegance of the way these texts interact are really mind-blowing and they really as you were, sort of, building your case I really had chills. This is really incredible so thank you so much for having me on and thank you all so much for listening.
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Thank you all so much.
Rabbi Fohrman: See you next week, folks. Bye-bye.