The Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning is the biblical version of Yom Kippur. You may not recognize it, for it’s certainly not our Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur as described in the Torah was primarily a purification ritual for the sanctuary and the altar, which included the ceremony of the scapegoat intended to cleanse the people of sin.
Near the end of the Torah reading, after the description of these unfamiliar rituals, we find this: “And this shall be to you a law for all time: In the seventh month, on the 10th day of the month, you shall practice self-denial, and you shall do no manner of work.” (Leviticus 16:29)
This looks a bit more familiar. The rabbis interpreted “you shall practice self-denial” (or, in earlier translations, “you shall afflict your souls”) to mean the five things that are, to this day, prohibited on Yom Kippur: eating and drinking, bathing, sexual relations, wearing leather shoes, and anointing one’s body.
There are several explanations for these prohibitions. Some suggest that we deny our physical appetites on this day to remind ourselves that these are the things most likely to lead us to sin. Others suggest that on this most holy day we should present ourselves, as much as possible, like angels who have no need for physical gratification.
The point, though, is not that the physical is bad or sinful, but that our physical needs and desires must be — and can be — controlled and directed to the pursuit of holiness.
Still, we live in a very different society from the one in which these rules were promulgated, and so it is both appropriate and helpful to find new interpretations that speak to us today.
For example, wearing leather shoes was originally prohibited because they were once a luxury item, much more comfortable than the available alternatives. Of course, today most of us are much more comfortable in our canvas sneakers or Crocs than in our leather dress shoes, particularly on a day that involves a lot of standing. So some offer this explanation for avoiding the wearing of leather: On the day we come before God to pray for life and mercy, it’s inappropriate to do so wearing the skin of a living creature killed for our benefit.
So too we might understand the prohibition of eating and drinking as a way to make us more conscious of those who are hungry — not only in the Third World, but in our country and even in our own communities — so that we may be inspired to offer what help we can.
A day without bathing might remind us of the need to use our natural resources carefully and wisely.
The prohibition on sexual relations might focus our attention on the way sex is used to sell everything from cars to cola and how the pervasiveness of sexual innuendo and imagery is affecting our children (and adults).
Of course, anointing — the common ancient practice of oiling the body — isn’t something we see much today, but we might consider it akin to using cosmetics and consider how many foolish and even dangerous things we do for the sake of vanity.
The rituals described in the Torah were tremendously important and meaningful for our ancestors. Our Yom Kippur practices have changed, but that’s no reason we should find them any less meaningful. This day can teach us so much — we just have to be willing to listen and learn.