Yom Kippur, Collective Atonement and What I Learned from the Hebrews

Thing I Love About BYU # 337: My Ancient Near Eastern Studies professors - especially Don Parry and Stephen Ricks - are engaged with the students and genuinely joy in helping us to find ourselves within the context of the Hebrew world. (...not to mention that I have serious Gospel crushes on these spiritual giants.)

That being said, last Sunday was the end of Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of Atonement. Brothers Parry and Ricks held a fireside on the east lawn of the Provo Temple at sundown to discuss the hows, whens and whats about this most high holiday. I recently shared a great post about Yom Kippur, Atonement and relation to God from the Exponent.

The Cliff's Notes of the hol(y)day: Yom Kippur is the highest Jewish holy day of the year, wherein the high priest enters the holy of holies and sacrifices for the intentional sins of the individuals in the community. The rest of the year, unintentional sins could be atoned for in two ways: individual sins could be atoned for by each individual through sacrifice at the laver of washing in the outer court of the tabernacle/temple. Unintentional community sins (those sins that only the community could commit collectively, like accidentally practicing a festival on the wrong calendar day) are atoned for by a priest in the holy room (not the holy of holies).

The process for the repentance of unintentional sins makes sense; it's a very latter-day Greek point of view. I sin, so I'm responsible for my sins, so I will individually atone. But this idea of communal atonement made for the most offensive of sins - those which we willingly and knowingly commit - has always been a bit...ambiguous to me. I just couldn't fully comprehend communal repentance for individual sin.

But then, Brother Ricks explained that in Hebrew thought, the individual's identity was tied closely to the community in which they are in context. So, when someone asked 'who are you?', their answer would be something to the effect of 'I'm of the chosen people.' or 'I am of the tribe of Ephraim.' Following this line of thought, a person's sins were not personal, they were a reflection of the contextual group. Something to the effect of some from the camp of Israel have sinned, therefore the camp of Israel is polluted. And so, on the day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, the sins were viewed as communal and thus communal repentance was the bridge to forgiveness and cleansing from pollution incurred throughout the previous year.

Okay, so we're not the ancient Hebrews. We don't practice a single day of Atonement each year. We don't create a scape goat and sacrifice animals. So what, then? So what?

Well, I found myself thinking "What if I viewed my sins as both individual and communal?" I couldn't help but ponder the implications of regarding my sins as affecting not only my status as a faithful daughter of God, but also the status of my community within the world. Would I act differently? Would my ability to withstand temptation be bolstered if I considered my fellow Latter-day Saints before the commission of a sin? Would my repentance feel more authentic if, during the repentance process, I repented for any misgivings I may have caused about my Church and the Gospel standards for both those within and without the Church?


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