This post is essentially the message I gave on Yom Kippur 2020. It’s probably a little more fleshed out than I was able to present in person. Fasting has a way of making the head a little foggy. Nevertheless, the heart and soul of the message is the same: humility.
Let’s first start by reviewing the applicable portions for today’s readings. First, from Leviticus 23:
26ADONAI spoke to Moses, saying: 27“However, the tenth day of this seventh month is Yom Kippur, a holy convocation to you, so you are to afflict yourselves. You are to bring an offering made by fire to ADONAI. 28You are not to do any kind of work on that set day, for it is Yom Kippur, to make atonement for you before ADONAI your God. 29For anyone who does not deny himself on that day must be cut off from his people. 30Anyone who does any kind of work on that day, that person I will destroy from among his people. 31You shall do no kind of work. It is a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings. 32It is to be a Shabbat of solemn rest for you, and you are to humble your souls. On the ninth day of the month in the evening—from evening until evening—you are to keep your Shabbat.” (TLV) [Emphasis mine]
Note for a moment, that there are two things the people are supposed to do on this day: refrain from all kinds of work, and “afflict” yourself. The different way it’s worded in the TLV is a bit odd. The NRSV reads, “you shall deny yourselves,” “practice self-denial,” and “you shall deny yourselves.” The ESV reads “afflict” in all three places, while the NASB reads, “humble” in each place.
The disagreement here is based on the Hebrew word anah (ענה) which is used in all three places. The ESV goes for a more strictly literal rendering of “afflict” while the NASB goes for the alternative “humble.” The NRSV, seeking to be a little more modern, uses “deny.” The TLV, oddly enough, incorporates all three. While I can’t comment on their translation decisions, I’m willing to bet they wanted to incorporate all the facets of the word into their translation.
For our purposes though, what we find is this: we are to humble ourselves, or quite literally, make ourselves lowly. Now this doesn’t explicitly mean to fast, as people have been prone to pointing out recently. And I agree, it does not, at the surface level, command us to fast. Though I would pose a question to the reader at this point: how does one “afflict” himself, Biblically-speaking? How would one even know where to understand what this sort of “affliction” is supposed to mean? Taking from Isaiah 58 (which I believe speaks specifically of Yom Kippur), we find the connection being made to fasting.
[Derailing for a moment, the following is something that I was compelled to add while writing this, and was not part of the message I gave in person to our fellowship. Specifically it looks at fasting and its relation to Yom Kippur]
In context, Isaiah 58 paints the picture that the people of Israel were treating Yom Kippur mechanically. That is, that they honored God with their lips, but their heart was far from Him. Sound familiar?
And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men, 14 therefore, behold, I will again do wonderful things with this people, with wonder upon wonder; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden.” (Isa. 29:13-14 ESV)
We find something similar in the opening chapter of Isaiah:
11For what is it to Me—the multitude of your sacrifices?” says ADONAI. “I am full of burnt offerings of rams and fat of fed animals. I have no delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs or he-goats. 12When you come to appear before Me, who has required this at your hand— trampling My courts? 13Bring no more worthless offerings! Incense is an abomination to Me.
Why was the Almighty mad? Did He hate the Feast days? Certainly not. After all, according to His own word in Lev. 23, they are HIS Feasts. Rather, He hated what Israel had done to them. They were treating it as though they could live and do whatever they wanted, as long as they appeased Him with sacrifices and the mechanical keeping of the Torah. If I were a bit more cynical, I'd say this is a sobering indictment about the state of the Torah-Observant movement as it is presently, as well.
Now to Isaiah 58:
3“Why have we fasted. yet You do not see? Why have we afflicted our souls, yet You take no notice?” “Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and exploit all your laborers.
So let’s wrap this part up. We see, again, that YHWH does not hate His own commandments. Rather, He hates what they did with His commandments. They took His commandments (which, if a man does them, he shall live [Ezekiel 20; Leviticus 18]) and turned them into a systematized religion. It’s why He says, “this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men.”
They didn’t fear Him out of desire for a relationship with Him, but rather they did so because they taught it as a matter of religion. This is exactly what Yeshua admonished the Pharisees for in Mark 7 and Matthew 15. Not for keeping the commandments, but for turning them into something they weren’t supposed to be.
[Getting back on track now with the message from Yom Kippur]
So in Isaiah 58 we see a connection between “the fast” and “afflicting your soul.” Another common thing taking place today in Synagogues and fellowships around the globe, is reading the book of Jonah. This may seem kind of odd at first. But the picture begins to get clearer once you get into the text. In short, Jonah depicts repentance, and that on the national level. And what did the people of Nineveh do when they repented?
5Then the people of Nineveh believed God and called for a fast and wore sackcloth—from the greatest of them to the least of them. (Jonah 3:5 TLV)
Fasting is markedly linked to repentance, and that of course is related to Yom Kippur. But beyond just fasting, again, the Torah states that we must “humble” ourselves. Now I do believe fasting is part of Yom Kippur, but I don’t think it is the biggest piece. Rather, humility is. That’s the bigger lesson. We are supposed to humble ourselves. And we find the example of what this looks like directly in the Torah itself, and followed on into the Gospels, and the Epistles.
3“In this way shall Aaron come into the Sanctuary: with a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering.
The normal garments of the High Priest were made to resemble royalty. Blue, gold, gemstones, a crown of sorts, the High Priest would no doubt have looked like a king to the average person, on any given day. Yet not on Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur he wore plain, simple linen. No bright blues, no gleaming gold. This one day a year, the one time that the High Priest would go before the presence of YHWH, he wore plain, simple, modest, humble garments.
If we continued to read Leviticus 16 we would find the entire process of the day. A sin offering for the priest’s own sin and his household, a sin offering for the people, the confession of all the sins of the nation onto the head of the scapegoat, and so on. But what I want to point out here is that all of this work was performed by the High Priest. None of it was performed by the congregation of the people of Israel. See, Passover was a personal sort of event. You take a lamb for yourself and your household. But on Yom Kippur, the High Priest does all the work. In fact, you are forbidden from working in any way, and you’re required to “afflict” yourself (likely by fasting) such that performing any work would be more difficult than normal. So all the work is done by the High Priest (do you see where this is going yet?).
11But when Messiah appeared as Kohen Gadol (High Priest) of the good things that have now come, passing through the greater and more perfect Tent not made with hands (that is to say not of this creation), 12He entered into the Holies once for all—not by the blood of goats and calves but by His own blood, having obtained eternal redemption.
For many people, Hebrews raises more questions than it answers. But I use this passage simply as evidence that Yeshua is our High Priest. And when it comes to making atonement for us, He did all the work. And that, is humbling in itself. Humility is recognizing you don’t know it all, can’t do it all. We are commanded time and again to humble ourselves, and Yeshua is our example of that.
10Humble yourselves in the sight of ADONAI, and He shall lift you up. (James 4:10 TLV)
Yeshua said, multiple times, that “the last shall be first, and the first last.” And that those who humbled themselves would be exalted; that the meek (humble) would inherit the earth. When we are humble, we are teachable.
9He guides the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble His way. (Psalm 25:9 TLV)
Israel spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness, and what was the lesson God was teaching them?
2You are to remember all the way that ADONAI your God has led you these 40 years in the wilderness—in order to humble you, to test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His mitzvot or not.
[Another little side note there about fasting (hunger) connected with affliction and humbling]
Repentance is humbling. Admitting you were wrong is humbling. In many congregations, you recite the Al Chet on Yom Kippur. If you’re not familiar, I won’t share the whole thing here (though I do advise you to look it up). The Al Chet is a part of the Synagogue liturgy that is recited by everyone, and it is a prayer of repentance, asking for God’s forgiveness for all manner of sins. Those committed knowingly, those committed unknowingly, those committed under duress, those committed by slander, by usury, by theft, by lying, and so on. It’s long, though I suppose not totally exhaustive. One of the things you notice as you recite it, is your sins and shortcomings are brought to mind. You begin to think of things – times where you gossiped or slandered or were unfair in business dealings – that you had not thought to repent for before. And that is humbling.
Now, culturally-speaking, humility in the Ancient world, during the Second Temple era, was not viewed the way we see it today. The following is a quote from the Eerdman’s Dictionary of the Bible, under the entry for Humility:
In the Greco-Roman world many regarded humility as a sign of weakness or even a character flaw; its meanings of “lowly” or “servile” were often used disparagingly. That Christians should view humility as a virtue was therefore quite striking. Paul writes that humility is at the heart of Christ’s character (Phil. 2:3–8; Gk. tapeinós, “lowly,” “downcast”). It is an attitude of Paul himself (2 Cor. 10:1), an attitude of Christian community (Eph. 4:2; Col. 3:12), a fruit of the spirit (Gal. 5:23), which finds its source in agápē (1 Cor. 4:21; cf. 13:4–5). Humility is the appropriate attitude toward God (Jas. 4:10) and toward each other (1 Pet. 3:8; 5:5).
It was counter-cultural in the Greco-Roman world, to consider humility a virtue. Now take note of the following:
3Do nothing out of selfishness or conceit, but with humility consider others as more important than yourselves, 4looking out not only for your own interests but also for the interests of others.
Yeshua, our High Priest, emptied Himself of His former glory, to suffer and die. There isn’t anything I can fathom that is much more humiliating than that. And there is no better example of humility than this.
On a quick personal note, before closing, I’ll say this. Early in 2020, I started praying for humility. I know myself, and I know I have a tendency to be arrogant; prideful. I know this is not the character of Yeshua, and it’s not a trait I desire to exhibit. So I started praying for Abba to make me humble. But in the process, I started to ask: how does that work? I even had a conversation with my wife. “How do you become humble? Do you learn it? Do you, essentially, have to fake it until you make it? Do you just pretend to be humble, and do things in a way that would seem humble, until it eventually becomes part of who you are?” Her response was that humility was learned and not imparted (my words not hers, but that’s her point). And that learning is not something of the head, but of the heart.
Within a month of this, I lost my job (beginning of April, 2020). As of this writing (end of September 2020), I am still unemployed. I hold an Associate’s Degree in Electrical Engineering Technology, and a Bachelor’s Degree in Data Management & Analytics. I have a combined 7 years of experience in software development, project management, and data analysis. So why the heck am I unable to find work? I am intelligent, skilled, and experienced. But this brings me to my point.
This comes back to my prayer. I asked the Father to make me humble, and He has been doing so. Showing me that I am not God, that I can’t do it all, that I still need Him, and ultimately must rely on Him. He shifted my focus off myself and onto Him, because I’ve had to be reliant on Him. And that’s what He did with Israel time and time again: He took away their protection and let their enemies haul them away, oppress them, steal from them. And when they repented and cried out, He answered and rescued them.
Humility is a recalibration of our focus. It removes the emphasis we place on ourselves, and redirects it where it belongs: on the Most High.
I pray this has blessed you today.