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September 22, 2012 by William H. Scarle, Jr.

Last week I began some thoughts on Rosh HaShana with words from the Spiritual “Steal Away;” “The trumpet sounds.”  This week I want to introduce some thoughts on Yom Kippur with lyrics from “Soon I will be done with the troubles of the world;” “Goin’ home to live with God.”   Here is the problem.  No one can live with God unless their transgressions, their moral debts, their sins are “covered.”

The word in the Hebrew Bible usually translated “atonement” is “kippur,” and it means “covering.”  “Atonement” is a manufactured English word made up of the two words; “at” and “one.”  The idea is that that which was separate is now brought together.  Since God is “holy” (Hebrew “kodesh”), or morally separate from humanity, which is not holy, bringing them together will involve some strategy to “cover” mankind’s moral debt.

“Kippur” is an uncomplicated word.  The cap that many Jews wear to cover their heads is called a “kippa.”  The lid of the Ark of the Covenant is usually translated “mercy seat.”  However, the Hebrew word is simply “kippot.”  But, for an uncomplicated word it presents an absolutely unique concept in terms of the world’s religions.  Most religions simply hope God will ignore their sin if they simply observe the right rituals or do the right things.  The idea that their transgressions are a debt that has to be covered and cannot be ignored is not appealing.

To illustrate this more common attitude I often tell the story of a man who goes to the bank and borrows a thousand dollars, which he is unable to repay since the ordinary expenses of life keep coming.  He finally hits on a solution.  He will go the bank and borrow another thousand dollars and pay back the loan.  Clearly the bank will not consider the debt covered.

Yom Kippur (Covering Day) is the most important of the biblical holy days outlined in Leviticus 24 and celebrated by Israel for over 3000 years.  This year it falls on Wednesday, September 26, beginning at sunset the evening before.  It is a fast, described in Leviticus as a day of self-denial.  It reaches back to Temple times when the High Priest of Israel entered the Holy of Holies in the Temple and sprinkled the blood of the sacrifices on the “Kippot,” or the Mercy Seat, to cover the sins of the nation.  The life of the sacrificial animals was substituted for the life of God’s people in a temporary arrangement to cover their trespasses of the commandments.  The need for repetition of the fast and the sacrifices witnessed to its temporary nature.

It is not the purpose of this brief article to discuss the provision God makes in his mercy to cover the sins of the penitent.  It is enough to point out that biblical faith takes sin quite seriously.  It cannot be avoided or disregarded.  All transgression of the commandments is counted by God, and must be “covered.”  There is no tolerance of sin with God.  This leads to a high moral standard in both individuals and in societies.  America was founded on such a moral standard.  If it erodes the consequences will be evident in social disintegration.

In 1988 Karl A, Menniger wrote a book entitled “Whatever Became of Sin?”  Yom Kippur reminds us that it is still with us and needs to be dealt with if our culture is to survive.  “Righteousness exults a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people (Prov. 14:34).”

(Bill Scarle can be contacted at