To grasp the meaning of the Kohen Gadol’s avoda on Yom Kippur, we must understand that there are two levels to God’s governance (hanhaga) of the world: 1) governance through justice, which corresponds to yiḥud taḥton; 2) governance through unification, which corresponds to yiḥud elyon. (See above, 2:8 n. 4; 7:12; 6:4.) God’s governance of the world through justice is expressed in the laws of reward and punishment He embedded in the world, under which both the natural and spiritual worlds operate. Just as one who neglects to work becomes poor, so too, individuals and communities that choose evil are punished in this world and the next. According to these laws, it seems, at first glance, that human beings are irredeemable, since as a rule they tend to follow the evil urge. Even if there are righteous people, power is generally concentrated in the hands of those who crave power and money, following their evil impulses. It seems that there is no way to redeem the world from suffering. Death, which destroys every living being, will ultimately destroy the world as well.
Yet there is a higher, hidden way that God governs the world: through unification. This means that God directs all the world’s progress and processes for the good. Goodness will ultimately come even from the evil intentions and actions of despots and other wicked people. This form of governance exists by virtue of Israel, who are bound to God in an eternal covenant, and whose innermost desire is always to improve the world. It is thanks to this mode of divine governance that redemption is assured, as stated in the Torah and the Prophets. However, this hanhaga is hidden and can work only through the hanhaga of justice. Accordingly, how redemption will take place depends on the choices made by Israel. If they choose goodness, redemption will come quickly and painlessly; if they choose evil (God forbid), redemption will be delayed and accompanied by terrible suffering.
Because the hanhaga of unification is hidden, it is revealed in the Kodesh Ha-kodashim, a place beyond place, whose very existence within the physical world is a miracle. This is the reason one may not enter there. Moreover, an attempt to enter it without permission is fraught with risk, because one who connects with this exalted level is prone to thinking that since all is anyway for the best, it is unnecessary to choose good and overcome the evil impulse. In the dazzling light of the Kodesh Ha-kodashim, one may find justification for pursuing his impulses, claiming that everything is for the best and for the sake of heaven.
Only the Jewish people collectively can connect to God’s hanhaga of unification, since this hanhaga operates in the world through klal Yisrael, in that all their troubles and suffering cultivates and reveals additional principles of the Torah. However, this is an incomprehensible secret, which is revealed gradually, over the course of time. Therefore, only on the holy and awe-filled day of Yom Kippur, when the Jews abstain from melakha and detach from everything related to this world – eating, drinking, washing, applying cream, wearing shoes, and engaging in marital relations – was the Kohen Gadol able to reach such a lofty level that he could enter the Kodesh Ha-kodashim on behalf of the nation. From there, he was able to draw down purity and atonement for any impurities that may have contaminated the Jewish people superficially. This enabled every individual to repent fully, and thus all Israel could merit a good year, and the world could proceed toward redemption.
Although the Temple no longer exists, all these exalted properties persist in a scaled-down form, through the sanctity of the day, fasting, and prayers.
Ramḥal describes the Kodesh Ha-kodashim as “the place of the powerful light and the tremendous blessing.” Its measurements “extend from the beginning to the end and from the end to the beginning, with twenty [amot] in each direction, so the dimensions of this chamber were twenty by twenty. When we add twenty and twenty, we get forty, which hints at the minimum amount of water required for a mikveh – forty se’ah” (Mishkenei Elyon, ch. 3). In other words, the Kodesh Ha-kodashim purified the Jews like a mikveh. Compare R. Akiva’s exposition in the Mishna, “Happy are you, Israel – for before Whom do you purify yourselves and Who purifies you? Your Father in heaven, as we read…‘God is the hope (mikveh) of Israel’ (Yirmiyahu 17:13). Just as a mikveh purifies the impure, so too, God purifies Israel” (Yoma 85b). Even though we no longer have the Temple, the intrinsic power of Yom Kippur is comparable to the Kodesh Ha-kodashim, while the fasting and praying are comparable to the Kodesh.