A common theme that weaves through Masechet Yoma establishes a certain energy in the Beit Hamikdash at all times. Avoda is constantly happening in all corners of the Mikdash and the excitement is palpable. However, this energy seems so contagious and arousing that some kohanim take it and literally run with it (up the altar ramp) and cause harm, ostensibly forgetting that they are racing to do the serious avoda of the terumat hadeshen, and instead getting caught up in the fervor and competition of the race. In response to this, the rabbis institute a lottery system to choose who will complete the removal of the ashes together with other avodot. The reason given in the Mishna (22a) for instituting the lottery was to prevent the harm caused by the racing, but there is a deeper problem here that is not directly addressed in the Mishna or in the Gemara.
The kohanim are so steeped in the fervor and excitement of the Beit Hamikdash and extend their full energy on the physical work of serving Hashem that they seem to have lost sight of their complete role of also spiritually serving Hashem. Yes, the racing had to stop, not only to cease the harmful outcomes, but also so that the kohanim could have the opportunity to refocus their energies onto the spiritual work of avodat Hashem. It seems that this deeper reason is missing from the Gemara.
Perhaps a hint to this reason can be found on 24b where the Gemara asks ?לָמָּה מְפַיְּסִין — why were the lotteries instituted — and then is astonished by that very same question, as it was already addressed in the Mishna. The Gemara goes on to reframe the question as asking why they held four lotteries instead of one big one. Rav Yochanan explains that the reason was כְּדֵי לְהַרְגִּישׁ כׇּל הָעֲזָרָה– in order to create a commotion throughout the courtyard. The many lotteries were a way to add excitement to the activities of the day, just as the race did, but in a more controlled and safe manner.
I would like to suggest that when the Gemara asks ?לָמָּה מְפַיְּסִין?!? לָמָּה מְפַיְּסִין, it is not a mistaken question and does not need reframing. Perhaps the gemara is really questioning why institute the lotteries at all? Yes, it is a quick fix to the competitive nature of racing up a ramp, but is it an appropriate way to address the serious issue of kohanim losing their way? When thinking about it this way, Rav Yochanan’s answer makes more sense. כְּדֵי לְהַרְגִּישׁ כׇּל הָעֲזָרָה might mean more than just stirring up excitement. Indeed there is a need to keep up the frenetic and thrilling feel of the Beit Hamikdash, and using a systematic lottery system may be an effective and safe way to do so. But maybe Rav Yochanan’s use of the word “לְהַרְגִּישׁ” – “to feel”– was not just about stirring up the feelings of excitement and hubbub in the external world of the Beit Hamikdash, but also to awaken the inner world of the kohanim to remember the spiritual importance of their work. Not only to experience the excitement of their external, physical environment, but also to feel– “לְהַרְגִּישׁ” and act upon the inner spiritual nature of their very important Avodat Hashem.
-Shuli Bendheim Steinlauf
Shuli Bendheim Steinlauf is a clinical psychologist who lives in Los Angeles with her husband Avi and their six children. She enjoys learning, reading, volunteering and spending time with her family.