The Torah in Parashat Acharei-Mot outlines the special service which the kohein gadol would perform each year in the Beit Ha-mikdash on Yom Kippur, to earn atonement on the nation’s behalf. This marked the only occasion when a human being was permitted to enter kodesh ha-kodashim (the innermost sanctum of the Temple), as the kohein gadol would enter the chamber to offer incense and then sprinkle blood from the special atonement sacrifices offered on that day.
The Torah commands (16:17) that when the kohein gadol enters the kodesh ha-kodashim on Yom Kippur, no person is allowed to be present inside the Temple. The Talmud Yerushalmi (Yoma 5:2), interestingly enough, comments that even angels were not permitted to be in the Mikdash at that time. The Yerushalmi thus questions on this basis the testimony of Shimon Ha-tzadik, who served as kohein gadol in the Second Temple for many years, that an angel-like being accompanied him each year when he entered the kodesh ha-kodashim on Yom Kippur.
What might be the meaning of this concept – that angels were not permitted in the Beit Ha-mikdash as the kohein gadol entered the innermost sanctum on Yom Kippur?
Rav Yissakhar Dov of Belz suggested that the Yerushalmi was emphasizing that angels could not be present in the Beit Ha-mikdash at this time because only a human being is capable of beseeching God for atonement on the people’s behalf. The kohein gadol, himself a flawed human being, and someone who, like all people, had endured the rigors and challenges of life, was qualified to stand before God representing the nation as they stood in judgment, and plead that they be forgiven. Angelic beings, who are free from human vices and from the complexities of this world, are in no position to defend us before the Heavenly Tribunal. And therefore, as the kohein gadol enters the kodesh ha-kodashim to ask God to forgive His nation, no angels are permitted to join him.
The kohein gadol’s entry into the inner chamber on Yom Kippur marked the moment of greatest sanctity, when a human being experienced the closest possible encounter with God. Rav Yissakhar Dov of Belz teaches that at this holy moment, the kohein gadol was the one best equipped to advocate on behalf of the nation’s sinners. Spiritual greatness should lead us to be ever more sensitive towards, and understanding of, other people’s faults and mistakes. Intuitively, we might have assumed that when a person reaches the “kodesh ha-kodashim,” attaining especially high spiritual levels, he naturally becomes less sympathetic to other people’s failings. In truth, however, to the contrary, spiritual achievement should increase a person’s love, concern and respect for all his fellow Jews, including those who have not achieved what he has. It should lead him to empathize with their struggles rather than condemn their wrongful behavior. Strengthening our relationship with God must result in a stronger bond with other people, and a stronger desire to defend them and advocate on their behalf.