The Day of Atonement is often viewed as the least pleasant of the festivals of God. It is the only day in the year where believers are commanded to fast, although many will fast at other times for various reasons . Yet when we look at the meaning and layers of the festival, we come to see that there is a specific emphasis on intimacy with relation to this feast. Ministers and other speakers are fond of saying at the Day of Atonement is a day of at-one-ment, to the point where it becomes a cliche that people may avoid paying attention to. Yet, as is often the case, this cliche contains a depth of meaning and multiple layers that is worth examining beyond the superficial level, so that we get the most out of this day. As might be expected, this may be a bit more discussion about intimacy, of a spiritual kind at least, than many people are comfortable with, but if we are talking about being at one with God and with others, it is necessary, however awkward it is, to relate as people with our own experiences and background.
A few days ago, a close friend of mine and loyal reader of this blog asked me a series of questions about the Day of Atonement. Many of those questions related to the meaning of the day, and they were connected in such a way that I felt that this person had not seen the connection between the Day of Atonement and my friend’s own deep longings for intimacy, particularly through open and friendly and compassionate communication. I will admit that I share this own particular longing, as my own search for intimacy in life has been spectacularly unsuccessful, and it ought to come therefore as little surprise that in my own studies about the Day of Atonement I should be struck by the importance of intimacy and its opposite with regards to the ceremonies of this day. While as a child I thought most about food when it came to this day, as I grew older I recognized that the day had a lot to do with community, and as my first Sabbath in the Portland area was on the Day of Atonement in 2012, this day has a great deal of personal meaning concerning the theme of belonging in general wherever one happens to be. Life can be overly symbolic for some of us, which makes it important to tease out the various and multifaceted layers of meaning in our lives.
Let us begin, though, with the most obvious fact about the Day of Atonement, and that is the command made by God that we shall afflict our souls on this day, given rather abruptly in Leviticus 23:26-32. The failure to afflict one’s soul, through fasting as well as repentance, and the failure to cease one’s labors and celebrate the festival with one’s brethren, carried with it the serious consequences of being destroyed and cut off from God’s people. It is striking to note the loss of intimacy that results from the failure to obey God’s law concerning the Day of Atonement. The Passover itself relates strongly to this sense of intimacy and solemnity as well, with the reflection of the death of Jesus Christ for our sins and the footwashing and taking of unleavened bread and wine, acts full of symbolic meaning. In both Atonement and Passover, there is an emphasis on humility, and it is worthwhile for us to recognize that among the chief barriers to intimacy with God and with other people is our own pride, and our lack of attention and care to the needs and well-being of those around us. When we restrain ourselves from eating and drinking for a day, we are quickly reminded of how fragile we are, how limited our strength and power is, and our dependence upon God for our very survival, and that realization can be a great aid in being understanding and compassionate towards the other people in our lives as well.
The emphasis of the Day of Atonement on reconciliation is itself a reminder of intimacy. After all, reconciliation means more than a forgiveness of someone’s past mistakes, but rather means letting them back into your heart, letting yourself be vulnerable with them and open to them once again. That is a great risk. The price of our reconciliation with God was the death of Jesus Christ, symbolized on this day by the sacrifice of the innocent goat chosen by lot for the sins of the people. Even the high priest had to sacrifice for his own sins and the sins of his family and to recognize that he too was not the dispenser of grace to Israel but was himself a sinner in need of God’s grace himself, a reminder we would all do well to have for ourselves lest we be lifted up in our own eyes. To say that reconciliation has been a problem in my own life is a grave understatement. My short and heretofore futile existence on this earth has been full of estrangements. I have gone for long periods without communication with people I wished to be friends with, people I deeply loved, a brother, as well as parents. At times I have been estranged from those I have not seen without any degree of hostility between us, and at other times I have been deeply estranged from those I had to interact with on a frequent basis, without any genuine coming to terms. I lament my own failures and difficulties in this area of life quite frequently, both privately in personal prayer and fasting as well as occasionally in public discussions like this one. I know I am not alone in this struggle, but all the same this day forcibly reminds me of its intensity in my own life.
The Day of Atonement was the one day that the High Priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies to have an intimate conversation and interaction with God at the aptly titled mercy seat. As the high priesthood declined into decadence and corruption during the Second Temple period there are stories that the High Priest had a lengthy cord attached to his body so that if God struck him down for some reason while the high priest was in that Most Holy Place that other priests could drag his body out without suffering penalty for violating the sanctity of that privileged place. It is telling that here too there is a connection with the Passover in that the thick curtain between the Holy Place and Most Holy Place was rent in two at his death, giving believers a greater level of intimacy with God through Jesus Christ, something of great importance to the author of Hebrews.
In stark contrast to this, it should be noted that the absence of intimacy was a matter of equal importance in the worship of Israel on the Day of Atonement. Leviticus 16 gives us a lengthy discussion of the Azazel goat, which is commonly understood in English as the scapegoat, and how the sins of Israel were laid upon this goat and it was taken by a man out into the wilderness where it dwelt far from people. Our sins cut us off from God, and the being upon whom our sins are placed is to be exiled from contact with the community. In later years, according to tradition, this goat was driven off of a cliff to its doom, so that there was no chance that it should return, but the exile of the Azazel goat is perhaps most poignantly to be compared to the exile of the leper who was cut off from society and from intimacy with others because of uncleanness. Here too, Jesus, when He bore our sins during his crucifixion, was cut off by God and lamented, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” a plea of isolation and loneliness that many of us can relate to in the course of our own struggles and our own feeling of being cut of and estranged from God and from those around us. It should be noted as well from Leviticus 16:26 that he who led the goat into isolation in the wilderness was to be separated from God’s people until he had bathed and washed his clothes, so he too had a taste, albeit a brief one, of the isolation which he led the goat into.
If we know and understand the Day of Atonement to be deeply connected with intimacy between a believer and God and between a believer and those around him, what are we to do? How are we to live in such a way that we are able to be reconciled with God and with others, and that we are to build up and encourage godly intimacy with those whom God has placed in our way? How are we to live in such a way that this festival does not become merely a dieting tool of going without food for 24 hours, but rather a day of celebration of our relationships with God and with others, a day that reminds us of the great cost of being at one with others, and about the importance of letting other people inside, even at some risk to ourselves, while also being gracious and considerate with the hearts of those who let us inside of their own lives and feelings. None of these things are easy, some of them for some of us are impossible without great divine assistance. Yet we will have this help if we will ask, and if we will do everything we can to be gentle and considerate and understanding towards others on this most solemn Sabbath of solemn rest, a day of atonement and reconciliation, and an intimate festival of great depth and meaning.
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