On Yom Kippur, as each person seeks atonement, we are instructed to do so collectively.
Our western world is geared towards individualism. We speak of my church, my community, my calling, or my roles in life. While there is nothing wrong with this, it is the lens by which we read the Scriptures, often without realizing it. Yet, a beautiful aspect of traditional or biblical Jewish culture is the true sense of family, shared responsibility and togetherness.
That is one of the treasured reminders in Yom Kippur.
The biblical holiday of Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, is the most sacred day of the year in the biblical calendar. Even today in Israel, everything stops to remember the day. Major roads are blocked off and shut down, allowing families to walk and ride bikes down the middle of otherwise busy highways.
On a personal level, some will try to make things right in a strained relationship, ask for forgiveness or extend it when necessary. It’s amazing to see a city or nation all but shut down with the intention of trying to extend or seek mercy for their wrongs, even if much of it is inspired by tradition. It’s a unique and significant sight.
Biblically, it was a little more serious.
The consequences of working that day would permanently cut off the offender from Israel. It’s also the one day a year that God mandated a fast for everyone. Yet most importantly, on this day the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies to offer an atonement or a covering for the sins of Israel. It was to be honored throughout the generations.
It was vitally important to the Lord for this day not to be taken lightly. While much is often said about the atonement and its legitimate need, it is also important to recognize whom the atonement was made for. This was not for individual sins but for the entire nation.
Several times we see this collective atonement is clearly stated in Leviticus 23. Verse 16 says that atonement was made for the “uncleanness and rebellion of Israel, whatever their sins have been”. Verse 17 tells us that Aaron is making “atonement for him, his household and the whole community of Israel”. In verse 21, the priest was to “confess over it [the goat] all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins…” Verse 34 says “Atonement is to be made once a year for all the sins of the Israelites.”
It was about the nation, not about the individual.
It was understood that if you were a part of Israel, you shared the guilt and could not separate yourself individually. In Jewish culture, it was understood that if someone had sinned in some way, although you weren’t personally involved, you were still guilty because you are a part of the community, and you let it happen on your watch. There was no picking and choosing. We are all responsible and all share a part.
This community and togetherness theme is the language of much of the Scriptures and the church, especially when it comes to sin and need for atonement. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). We are to bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2). Love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8).
Sure, we can separate ourselves from messy situations or from family sin issues, even accurately insisting we are blameless. But what we are really doing is removing ourselves from our role in the community of believers.
Yet, Yeshua chose just the opposite of separation.
As the perfect sacrifice, Isaiah 53:12 says he “was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sins of many…” The only One who truly was blameless and didn’t need atonement or a sacrifice, He chose to be in this mess with us as if He did. If we are going to be like Him, how much more should we embrace our place with our brothers?
Regardless of who did what, we need to be carrying each other’s burdens, walking together, forgiving, extending grace and fully receiving God’s atonement and perfect sacrifice.
We are all guilty as the rest and all need a sacrifice. Regardless of our upbringing, nation or social status, the ultimate question for every human will be “How will you handle your failures and sin? Who will cover them and make it right?” As a people, we all need it. This is the message of Yom Kippur.
Thankfully, the perfect sacrifice has been made once and for all, in Yeshua the Messiah. While this does ultimately fulfill the requirement for sin, God’s Yom Kippur instructions remain. Leviticus 23:31 “This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live.” God’s intention was that forever we would have an annual reminder to stop and humble ourselves, address our shortcomings, and celebrate His complete atonement and sacrifice.