Yom Kippur: How Physical Denial Leads to Spiritual Revival

“It is a day of sabbath rest, and you must deny yourselves; it is a lasting ordinance.” 

— Leviticus 16:31 

This Wednesday at sundown, my family and I will join Jews across the world to observe the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. We will observe this special day with a 25-hour fast, prayer, and reflection. On this particular holiday, the Bible instructs us to “deny ourselves.” This refers to five specific restraints: we do not eat or drink, wash our bodies, beautify ourselves with creams and cosmetics, engage in marital relations, or wear leather shoes. 

But how does denying ourselves contribute to the purpose of this holy day? The common denominator of all these activities is that they are physical pleasures rooted in the material world. The goal of these restrictions is to take our focus off the material and remember that we are spiritual beings at our core. All year long, we become distracted and confused by the material pleasures of the world. 

On Yom Kippur, we deny our bodies so that we might indulge our souls. We remember that the body is temporary while our soul is eternal. We remember that material objects are a means to spiritual achievements, and not ends in and of themselves. And we see life for what it truly is — an opportunity to grow our souls by serving God and contributing to His purposes.

The best way to understand the necessity of denying our physical selves is by taking a look at how, as a society, we have become totally engulfed by material belongings. An interesting study was conducted where a sampling of people was asked the following question: Assuming the cost of living remained the same in both scenarios, which would you prefer — To earn $100,000 while everyone else around you made $50,000, or to earn $200,000 while those around you made $400,000?

Which would you choose?

Rationally, it makes more sense to choose the latter option so that you would be earning twice as much as in the first option. However, the study found that a majority of people chose the first option, opting to earn less just so that they could have more than others. The study’s findings indicate that envy and materialism are major problems in our society. The multi-billion-dollar advertising industry has turned the 10th commandment, “You shall not covet,” into the opposite governing principle of “you must covet,” and that idea has enveloped us.

Thank God for Yom Kippur.

The ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are also known as the Ten Days of Repentance, and they correlate with the Ten Commandments. Each day allows us to work on one of the commandments. So, for example, on the two days of Rosh Hashanah, we focus on the idea that there is only one God (first commandment) and that we will worship no other gods (second commandment). Yom Kippur correlates with the 10th commandment, “You shall not covet.”

The Jewish sages teach that the commandments are listed in order of the easiest to the most difficult to obey. The commandment to not covet what others have demands that we control not just our actions but also our feelings and desires. However, while it may not be easy, learning not to want what others have is the secret to a happy life.

On this day, we put physical pleasures aside and focus on what will truly make us happy: a spiritual and meaningful life. We choose prayer over food. We choose to commune with God rather than engage in drinking. We don’t wear luxurious leather shoes, as a sign of all people being equal. We leave our fancy jewels at home. We return to the idea that wanting what others have is not only a sin, but also a recipe for an unhappy, unfulfilling life. There is no end to wanting; it’s a bottomless pit we can never fill.

Today, let’s think about what we have and what we need to fulfill our personal purpose in life. Let’s resolve to stay focused on our own life and stop looking at what other people have. Let’s remember that true joy is to be found in God, so let’s recommit to making Him the focus of our lives.

Yael Ecksteinis the president of the International Fellowship of Christian and Jews. As President of The Fellowship, she also holds the rare distinction of being a woman leading one of the world’s largest, religious not-for-profit organizations, having raised $1.8 billion — mostly from Christians — to assist Israel and the Jewish people. She is the author of the newly released “Generation to Generation: Passing on a Legacy of Faith to our Children.

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