3 Challenges for Yom Kippur: A Reflection on Justice and Holiness


This evening Jewish people all around the world will begin fasting as they celebrate Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Much has been written about the sacrifices, the high priest, atonement, and the relationship to Jesus and his fulfillment of this holiday. While both the individual and communal aspects are important, Yom Kippur is not simply about individual penitence before God, but communal repentance due to national failures to live up to God’s standard of holiness. This year, I would like us to reflect together on God’s call to be holy and its inextricable link with justice.

In the law of Moses, we see that Israel’s call to holiness is not just a status, but also a task. When Israel becomes holy, it is to practice God’s holiness, and in order to do this, it must practice justice. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, we see God’s concern at injustice and his punishment when injustice is perpetrated. When God calls us to holiness, he calls us to justice.[1]

Too often, we can allow God’s call to justice to go unanswered. Most of us are in comfortable positions, and it is difficult to make changes. American philosopher and theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff reflects on justice in conflict situations and how we can see calls for “good overwhelming the just, and benevolence and the appeal to love being used as instruments of oppression.”[2] The powerful often say “We are good people; if you just behave, we will give you most of what you are asking for. Oppressors do all they can to prevent use of the category of justice; they do all they can to cast the situation in terms of better and worse rather than justice and injustice, in terms of good behavior and bad behavior, in terms of benevolence.”[3]

It is easy to ignore injustice, but this is not an option for us. In Leviticus 16 we see the regulations for Yom Kippur. One of the stipulations is found in verses 29 and 31, to “afflict yourselves.” Sometimes this is translated “deny yourselves,” yet this does not capture the weight of the verb לענות which is better understood as to cause yourself to suffer, part of which we understand in the weight of the task of self-examination. On this holiday, we are reminded that God calls us to holiness. To get there, to practice justice, we need to look inward, carefully, painfully and critically, see where we fall short of God’s call, and resolve to do differently.

Whether or not you participate in this holiday, I challenge you to consider these three aspects of our responsibility to God:

Recognize the connection between holiness and justice. As you read the Scriptures in your own devotions, be aware of how God calls us to be holy as he is, how he chastises our failures (often in terms of injustices), and how he calls us back to himself, “to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly” with him (Micah 6:8). If holiness and justice are intertwined, what acts of justice should we be performing in our daily lives?
Reconcile with your brothers and sisters before you come to God. When we come before God, remember Jesus’ words, “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24). Before we can come to God and make a sacrifice or ask forgiveness, we first need to reconcile with those in our community we have wronged. What relationships in our lives require reconciliation, forgiveness or repentance?
Remember the needy. God’s command for this extends beyond those in our immediate circle, to those in our religious communities, in our national communities and more. Throughout the Scriptures, we frequently see the injunction to remember the weak and the strangers. In our world, there are many weak and strangers in need. What role do we have to play in meeting this need?

This Yom Kippur, I encourage you (and myself) to engage in a period of reflection. “Afflict yourselves” with the weighty task of self-examination. Let us take time to reflect on how we and our respective nations are treating others.   Are we acting justly?   Could we be considered holy in our actions? If not, let us change our direction and seek ways to practice this. If yes, let us persevere and continue. These actions are not easy, but they are holy, and they are just.

by Salim J. Munayer
Edited by A. Ben-Shmuel

[1] Wolterstorff, Hearing the Call, p. 102.
[2] Wolterstorff, Justice Rights and Wrongs, p. vii.
[3] Wolterstorff, Justice Rights and Wrongs, p. viii.