It was Yom Kippur eve and everyone was in shul waiting for the Alter Rebbe to give the signal to begin the Kol Nidrei service. The Rebbe was wearing his kittel, the special Yom Kippur robe, and had lifted his tallis over his head. The entire congregation had their eyes focused on him, watching him while he stood absorbed in thought.
Suddenly, the Rebbe removed his tallis and his kittel and strode quickly out of the synagogue.
Stunned, the chassidim remained in shul, waiting for him to return. They waited 10 minutes, 20 minutes, half an hour.... Where had the Rebbe gone? Why on the holiest day of the year was he not in the synagogue?
Finally, after more than two hours had passed, the Rebbe returned. He hurriedly donned his kittel and his tallis and gave the signal for the prayers to begin.
Later, the chassidim found out where the Rebbe had gone. On the outskirts of Liadi, there lived a young woman who had just given birth. Her husband had traveled away on business and she was left alone with the newborn. Her neighbors had all gone to shul and there was no one to tend to her.
It was cold. There was no wood in the house to make a fire. She did not have the strength to chop firewood and bring it in from the forest, and so she and her baby were huddling under the covers. She had not been able to cook any food before the fast and therefore she was hungry.
When the Alter Rebbe entered her home, he immediately took an ax and went out and felled a tree. He then chopped off the dried branches, making them small enough to serve as firewood, and carried them into the home. He kindled a fire and prepared soup for the woman. Only after she had eaten did he return to the synagogue.
Why did the Rebbe violate the laws of the holiest day of the year? And why did he violate them himself? There is no question that if he had told anyone else to do what he did, they would have gladly done his bidding.
There is something dearer to G-d than Yom Kippur, and that is the life of a Jewish person. When the life of a Jewish mother and her child were at stake, the Alter Rebbe did not think for a moment of the holiness of the day. He went right out to save the woman.
On the other hand, it must be emphasized that of all the people in the town, it was the Alter Rebbe who appreciated the woman's need. It was his holiness that sensitized his perception and enabled him to realize her dire straits.
This week's Torah reading describes the sacrificial worship carried out in the Temple on Yom Kippur, but it prefaces that description with an allusion to the death of Aaron's sons, Nadab and Avihu.
Why did Nadab and Avihu die? The Torah relates previously that they entered the Holy of Holies with "a strange fire that G-d did not command them [to bring]."
Now on Yom Kippur, the High Priest would enter the same sacred place, the Holy of Holies. And so, the Torah warns him not to repeat the error made by Aaron's sons.
What was the mistake of Aaron's sons? They sought closeness to G-d and were willing to give up everything, even their lives, to achieve that. The Or HaChayim, one of the classic commentaries on the Torah, explains that their death did not come as a punishment. Instead, their souls appreciated the G-dly light manifest in the Holy of Holies and clung to it. Their desire for G-dliness was so great that their souls simply expired.
This was the error that the High Priest was to avoid on Yom Kippur. Although he would enter the Holy of Holies and come face to face with the Divine Presence, he was warned to keep in focus that the intent of his service was life in this world, not a bond with G-d in the spiritual realms. Rather than seek out closeness with G-d, his purpose in entering was to evoke atonement and blessing for the Jewish people as they exist in this material realm.
What is the core of the issue? Aaron's sons sought their own spiritual satisfaction; what was gratifying for them. The High Priest, on the other hand, is a servant, carrying out G-d's will, aware that what G-d desires is not a bond with Him in the spiritual realms, but rather the observance of His will and His mitzvos in this material world.
Similar concepts apply with regard to the ultimate, desired state of existence. Maimonides maintains that the ultimate is the spiritual world of souls, the afterlife. All material existence, even the heights to be reached in the era of the Redemption and the era of the Resurrection, he maintains, is secondary to the G-dliness to be experienced when the soul leaves the body.
The sages of the Kabbalah, the Jewish mystic tradition, differ and maintain that the ultimate state will be the Resurrection of the Dead. Souls that have enjoyed spiritual bliss in the afterlife for thousands of years will descend and live again in a material body. For G-d's essence is invested in this material world, and it is through life in this world that the most encompassing bond with Him can be established.