Judaism is built on great moments. Everything begins with a spoken word from Hashem. Light, darkness, life, death. The world as we know it, and the march of the Divine will, began in this moment of Creation. As time went on, moments continued to occur. A young Avraham, hearing the call of Hashem, finding purpose and being a trailblazer for Judaism. A burning bush as Moshe looks on, listening to a call from God. A sea, at one point unbroken, splitting so that a whole nation could cross through. All of these moments serve as the backbone for our belief, the way we conduct ourselves, and the ways we live.
There’s a challenging question that stems from this concept. It’s been quite some time since the sea split, since the bush burned, since Avraham Avinu first heard the call. These moments, as awesome as they are, can easily slip into the distant past in our minds. How does a modern Jew translate these moments and their importance into an ongoing continuity?
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks discusses this question in his book, Ceremony and Celebration: Introduction to the Holidays. It’s critical for us in modern times to turn these moments and their importance into a cycle, a recurring ceremony to which we constantly find ourselves returning. We need memory and ritual. As Rabbi Sacks puts it, “You reenact history by writing it into the calendar.” He notes how the term ‘Luach,’ ‘Calendar,’ also means a tablet. We take what we learned from the Aseret HaDibrot and solidify it in the calendar, as well as in the tablet of our hearts. When a moment such as Moshe’s descent from the mountain with the second Luchot occurs3, it isn’t meant to be a one-time happening, but rather an event that is repeated in a certain way every year. In this vein, having Yom Kippur as an annual event makes complete sense.
The idea of structure, of an annual moment, doesn’t require a prophet; setting the moment as a precedent that is meant to be repeated requires a priest-figure, namely a Kohein. In contrast, the prophet doesn’t work in the realms of this sort of structure. Rabbi Sacks adapts an idea from Max Weber4, saying that the Kohein stands for the structure of a moment, a “routinization of charisma.”
The first Yom Kippur was from Moshe Rabbeinu, not a Kohein. It was an overpowering moment, one of those moments that changed everything. But, as described in VaYikra Perek 16, the following annual celebrations of Yom Kippur required the work of a Kohein Gadol, or in that specific case, Aharon.
The switch between the First and Second Yom Kippur involved a switch from Moshe to Aharon, from prophet to priest. The way that those two figures stand in the Jewish community, both pillars of faith and strength, are radically different. The prophet works best in the moment, being a part of stories that the Jewish people reflect on for centuries. The Kohein works best outside of the moment, literally structuring the way that the Jewish people reflect. It’s important to understand the role of both of them in our lives, and both are worth recognition on Yom Kippur.