What Does Self-Denial Mean in the Bible?

Achrei Mot, this week’s Torah portion, is largely about Yom Kippur, the holiday that is generally deemed the holiest day of the Jewish year. We are beckoned by our covenant to serve God, to live as God expects, and to come and dwell near God. This day is a day for return, a day that we dedicate to turning from waywardness and back to God, a day calling for at-One-ment.

What is the main requirement of Yom Kippur, and what is its purpose?

The principal requirement is self-denial, which is mainly manifested through fasting for the day. It also includes prayer and meditation, and refraining from other pleasures.

At a deeper level, what does “self denial” require of us? I want to make the case that the denial of self goes to “giving up ground,” metaphorically, giving back, with regret, atonement, and change, what we’ve inappropriately expropriated from God and others in how we’ve lived.

As to God, we expropriate the ground God has given us in our lives when we stray to the worship of other forces, loss of faith, despair, loss of hope, diminished integrity or wholeness, loss of belief in the ultimate triumph of good or at least our commitment to the good.

We’ve been created to be God’s partners in building the world. God values justice, righteousness, fairness, and mercy; and, so, God wants and expects us to value these things as well, especially in our direct encounter with others in our lives. Spreading God’s sovereignty on earth and serving God in the world require that we act out of love of God and love for our fellows. When we act against these expectations, we expropriate for other ends the time and space God has given us to pursue these ends.

Self-denial may ritually be acted out in fasting on the day, but isn’t the important part that we pull back on our ego, on our self-interest, on our having acted or taken in a way that goes beyond what’s right or ours? The denial that is expected of us, I would suggest, is to give up from what we’ve wrongfully done, first with each other, and then we can turn back and be restored to our God.


One thought on “What Does Self-Denial Mean in the Bible?

  1. Sandy, I really like this one. it clarifies for me a frame of mind about service and contribution that I realize I am not always as clear about as I aspire to be.


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