“This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves and not do any work —whether native-born or a foreigner residing among you.” — Leviticus 16:29
A note to our readers: Today at sunset marks the beginning of the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Because it is a non-working holiday, these devotions were prepared for you in advance.
A story is told about the grandson of a great rabbi who came to his grandfather in tears. The young boy was playing hide-and-seek with his friends when it was his turn to hide. He found a good hiding place and waited and waited, but nobody came to find him. After a long time, the boy came out of his hiding spot and found that his friends had gotten distracted by another game and forgot all about him. He cried to his grandfather, “I hid, but no one looked for me!”
Upon hearing his grandson’s words, the rabbi’s eyes filled with tears as well. He said, “That’s how God must feel, too! He is hiding in our world, just beneath the surface. But we are too distracted to look for Him! God wants us to seek Him and find Him, but people are so busy that they forget all about Him!”
On Yom Kippur, the Bible instructs us to “deny ourselves.” In the Jewish tradition, this refers to five specific restraints: we don’t eat or drink, wash our bodies, beautify ourselves with creams and cosmetics, engage in marital relations, or wear leather shoes. Why are these denials an integral part of this holy day?
One reason for these restraints is so that we can focus on the goal of the day: To connect with God, regret our mistakes, and regain clarity on our lives. All yearlong we are distracted by the physical pleasures of the world. On Yom Kippur, we take away those physical impediments so that we are forced to focus directly on our lives. We can’t hide behind a good latte or a new pair of shoes. We see life for what it is – a chance to serve God and do good. We remember that God is present in all ways and at all times, and we remember to seek Him out.
In Israel, there is a term of endearment that has always spoken to me. Both secular Israelis and observant ones alike use the term neshama whether talking to a stranger, a relative, or close friend. It means “soul.” What a beautiful way to refer to each other! We are souls and we inhabit a body the same way that a person drives a car. We are not our car and we are not our bodies; we are souls. On Yom Kippur, we remove the physical distractions and remember who — and what — we really are.
During this week, let’s focus on God and let our physical nature take a back seat. Consider how we can reveal more godliness in our lives and live a life that fills our souls.