Yom Kippur
For the week of September 18, 2010 / 10 Tishri 5771
Torah: Vayikra / Leviticus 16:1-34;
Bemidbar / Numbers 29:7-11
Haftarah: Isaiah 57:14-58:14

Where Does God Live?

For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: "I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite." (Isaiah 57:15; ESV)

This verse is taken from the special Haftarah reading for Yom Kippur (English: The Day of Atonement), which begins this year on Friday evening, September 17. One of the main distinctives of this holy day is the call to purposeful humbling of ourselves before God. Traditionally this is accompanied by a full day of complete abstaining from food and drink as well as certain comforts and pleasures. The references to humility and fasting found later on in the Haftarah makes it most fitting for this occasion.

The need to humble ourselves before God is not simply a religious requirement designed to satisfy the rituals of a religious holiday. According to the verse quoted, humility is an essential ingredient in experiencing a right relationship with God.

According to this verse God has two places where he lives. The first is completely beyond human comprehension and experience. According to Isaiah he is "high and lifted up", signifying his distinction from the human earthly sphere of life and his authority over the universe. He also "inhabits eternity", meaning that his existence reaches from the infinite past to the infinite future, and he is not confined to time restraint as we are. "His name is Holy" signifies that his character is absolutely morally pure and perfect. He is distinctly himself and cannot be affected by anything outside himself.

But God doesn't only live beyond our reach; he says through Isaiah that he also lives "with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit." While the rituals of Yom Kippur are designed to get in touch with what it means to be "of a contrite and lowly spirit", God's dwelling with us is not based on a one-day performance, but rather on an ongoing attitude of heart and life.

What does it mean to be "of a contrite and lowly spirit"? The Hebrew word for "contrite" is "da-ka'", meaning "to be crushed." "Lowly" in Hebrew is "shefal'", refers to something being lower than something else. "Spirit" in Hebrew is "ru'-ach", and can mean "spirit," "wind," or "breath" and refers to our life source. To be "of a contrite and lowly spirit" therefore means to accept that we are not self-sustaining beings, but rather needy creatures in the sight of God. Only God alone is self sustaining, high and lofty, perfect and pure. We are dependent on him and accountable to him. Those who are of a contrite and lowly spirit are those who recognize their continual need for God and for his direction. Having no confidence in themselves, their humility is evident in their ongoing openness to God and his word.

This doesn't mean that the contrite and lowly in spirit are pushovers, passive, or depressed, because, as we read, God revives them. The Hebrew word for "revive" is "cha-yah'", meaning to give life. Without God's presence, we are lifeless. But when he lives in us, we can really live. But for him to live in us we need to stop pursuing life on our own terms and instead allow God to direct us however he wishes.

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