The first section of Parashat Acharei-Mot outlines the avodat Yom Ha-kippurim – the special service to be performed by the kohen gadol in the Beit Ha-mikdash each year on Yom Kippur. The Torah commands, “And no man shall be in the Tent of Meeting when [the kohen gadol] comes to bring atonement in the Sanctuary until he leaves” (16:17). This means that during the Yom Kippur rituals, when the kohen gadol entered the kodesh ha-kodashim (the innermost sanctum of the Temple), nobody was permitted to be present inside the Beit Ha-mikdash (though people were allowed to be present in the courtyard outside the Mikdash – Yoma 43b-44a).
The Talmud Yerushalmi, in a famous passage (Yoma 5:2), comments that this refers even to the angels. At the time the kohen gadol entered the inner chamber of the Temple to perform the Yom Kippur rituals, even angels were barred from the Beit Ha-mikdash. When the Torah says that “kol adam” – “any person” – may not be present in the Temple at this time, the Yerushalmi establishes, it refers even to angels.
The Yismach Moshe (Rav Moshe Teitelbaum of Ihel), commenting to Parashat Re’ei, offers a meaningful insight into the significance of the Yerushalmi’s remark. The Beit Ha-mikdash is often referred to as “Beit Ha-bechira” – the building of “choosing.” The simple explanation of this name, as the Yismach Moshe notes, is that the Torah refers to the Beit Ha-mikdash (numerous times throughout Parashat Re’ei) as “ha-makom asher yivchar Hashem” – “the site which the Lord shall choose.” The name “Beit Ha-bechira” thus refers to God’s having chosen this site as the place of His “residence” on earth. However, the Yismach Moshe adds that on a deeper level, this name may also point to the human being’s choice to draw close to God. The kohen gadol’s entrance into the kodesh ha-kodashim on Yom Kippur represents the pinnacle of the human being’s quest for closeness with the Creator, and for this reason, the Yismach Moshe explains, the angels are excluded from the Temple grounds at this time. The special relationship with God signified by the kohen gadol’s service in the inner sanctum is something which the angels cannot ever achieve, because they have no free choice. Closeness with the Almighty is experienced through the process of bechira, by choosing proper conduct over improper conduct, by making what is often the excruciatingly difficult decision to forego on one’s instinctive wishes and desires for the sake of serving God. This experience is therefore unique to human beings, who must wage an internal struggle and make the choice to enter the “kodesh ha-kodashim” – to live a life of devotion to the Almighty. And thus the Beit Ha-mikdash, the symbol of our close relationship with God, is called “Beit Ha-bechira,” the place of “choice,” because our relationship with the Almighty depends on our willed decision to build such a relationship.
The Yishmach Moshe references the Yerushalmi’s remark also in a different context – in discussing the symbolic significance of Yaakov’s dream of a ladder extending from the ground to heavens, on which angels traveled upward and downward (Parashat Vayeitzei). One explanation suggested by the Yismach Moshe is that the dream symbolizes the Beit Ha-mikdash, the Temple on earth with is linked to the “Mikdash shel ma’ala’ – the “heavenly Temple.” The angels are seen traveling back forth from one Mikdash to the next, but Yaakov beheld that “hinei Hashem nitzav alav” (Bereishit 28:13) – God was alone with Yaakov, without the angels being present, symbolizing the kohen gadol’s private communion with God in the kodesh ha-kodashim.
Yaakov beheld this dream as he was forced to flee from the comfort and security of his saintly parents’ home and live with his wily, corrupt and pagan uncle, Lavan. He was being shown that even under these circumstances, he can reside in the “Mikdash,” he can live a life of sanctity, because such a life depends purely on “bechira,” on one’s personal choice, as evidenced by the angels’ exclusion. Whatever our circumstances are, we can make the decision to devote ourselves to the Almighty and live in the “kodesh ha-kodashim,” experiencing the comfort of closeness with the Creator. We must never assume that our situation prevents us from entering the “Mikdash,” from living lives of spiritual devotion, because the “Mikdash” depends solely on “bechira,” on our will and resolve, and not on any external factors or conditions.