A funny thing happened this past Friday night when I was praying in front of the Ark.
It was during the Barchu, which is the first time in the service when I face the Ark, or the Aron HaKodesh. As we were singing the yai lai’s, I couldn’t figure out why it seemed so dark. Did we forget to turn on the lights above the Ark? I looked up. No, they were on, as was the Neir Tamid, the Eternal (except when the bulb is out) Light.
And then I realized that the High Holiday parochet (curtain) had been taken down and replaced with the regular one. The High Holiday parochet is white and translucent. The light in the Ark shines through it and the Torahs can be seen. The regular parochet is also beautiful but is heavy and opaque. After a month of standing in front of the High Holiday parochet, the darkness I was feeling was a result of no longer bathing in the light of the Ark and the Torahs while I prayed.
As soon as I realized that, I felt a sense of loss. I felt shut out from that special and holy place. And I found myself thinking about the Cohein Gadol, the High Priest in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, who was only allowed to enter into the Holy of Holies – the innermost sanctum of the Temple – once a year on Yom Kippur. This is how the Cohein Gadol must have felt after Yom Kippur, I thought. After being allowed into sacred space, there is a sense of sorrow in having to be distanced from it again. The Cohein Gadol would have had to wait a whole year before feeling connected to that most sacred of spaces again, just as I will have to wait a whole year before I can pray in the light of the Ark again, and be able to see the Torah scrolls without pulling back the parochet. On the High Holidays, it feels like I, too, am able to enter the Holy of Holies – that the whole community is able to, in a sense, since all of us can see into the Ark in a way we normally cannot.
As I swayed to the rhythm of the Bar’chu – the Call to Worship – and thought about all of this, I wondered: How can we keep that special feeling of holiness with us throughout the year? If we can’t be inside the Holy of Holies, how can we keep the feeling of that sacred place inside of ourselves?
The cycle of the year takes us away from the sanctity of the High Holidays and then brings us back again, but each day should have elements of holiness, even if they are not “Holy Days”. Each moment our lives should be infused with holiness. We need to be able to carry sacredness in our own inner sanctums, and not wait for Yom Kippur to return to us again before feeling connected to God and to one another.
As my lips spoke the ancient words of prayer I was reminded that I was speaking holy words, enacting holy choreography, singing holy music, and leading a sacred community through sacred rituals. Every time we pray, every time we stand together before the Ark, we are engaging in holiness. We don’t have to be inside the inner sanctum to know it is there. We don’t have to wait for the lights to shine through.
We can shine our own lights out for others. We can be the holiness we need.