Adding Good Deeds to Ritual
By Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
This week we read two parashot, Acharei Mot and Kedoshim. In the beginning of the first one we find the ritual of Yom Kippur. Indeed, it is the same reading we read on the morning of Yom Kippur.
One of the first instructions for Aaron, the priest, about the Yom Kippur ritual is this, “With this shall Aaron enter the Holy: with a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering” (Leviticus 16:3). In the original Hebrew text, the first word, b’zot, “with this,” looks redundant. The verse seems to be saying that on Yom Kippur Aaron will have to enter the Holy with “this”, and “this” being the ram for a burnt offering. Since there are no redundant words in the Torah for our sages, different explanations have been given to the appearance of this simple word in this verse.
If you are open to a little bit of simple math, I want to show you an explanation that concludes with a very meaningful lesson. As stated above, this verse is part of the section we read on Yom Kippur. On this day (and on Rosh Hashanah) we pray the powerful poem Unetane Tokef, where we read that “penitence (or repentance, teshuva), prayer (tefillah), and righteous acts (or charity, tzedaka) avert the severe decree.” The rabbis explained that we need to follow these three actions to improve our decree using three synonyms: Fast (tzom), Voice (kol), and Money (mamon). And now the math: if we apply gematria and sum up the numerical value of each letter of these three words, it turns out that the three of them have an exact numerical value, 136. And if you sum up all of them together, we get 408, which is exactly the numerical value of the word zot, “this,” that appears as redundant in our verse.
What do we learn from all of this? That even for the High Priest, on the holiest day of the year, when he appeared before God in the Holiest of Holies bringing the prescribed offerings: repentance, prayer, and charity constituted the best arguments he could use to supplicate for his people, his family, and himself. Furthermore, when the High Priest was able to bring “this,” meaning the repentance, prayers, and charity of his people, then God was more likely to forgive the sins of the people of Israel.
The lesson seems to be that even the best observed religious ritual will not be enough if we fail to add our best spiritual resources to it, including repentance, prayer, and charity. Good deeds are the best jewels we can wear when we want to show ourselves!