Preparing for Yom Kippur: 40 Days of Repentance, Part 1
How would you characterize the month of August? How about September? Or January? Just like the Gregorian calendar in which each month reminds us of the season and a mood, the Hebrew sages have determined the spiritual seasons of the year.
The Hebrew month of Elul is considered the start of the “Season of Repentance.” This season extends 40 days, from Elul 1 to Tishrei 10, the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). www.hebrew4christians.com explains one of the events that set the stage for this season:
“According to Jewish tradition, then, the month of Elul represents the time that Moses spent on Sinai preparing the second set of tablets after the idolatrous incident of the Golden Calf. Moses ascended on Rosh Chodesh Elul (“Head of the Month of Elul”) and then descended 40 days later on the 10th of Tishri, the end of Yom Kippur, when the repentance of the people was complete. The month of Elul therefore, represents the time of national sin and forgiveness obtained by means of teshuvah (repentance) before the Lord.”
We read about Moses’ three trips up the mountain in Deuteronomy 9 and Exodus 32-34. During the month of Elul is Moses’ third 40-day trip. After the first trip up the mountain and the incident of the Golden Calf, God told Moses:
“I will send an angel ahead of you; and I will drive out the Kena‘ani, Emori, Hitti, P’rizi, Hivi and Y’vusi. You will go to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I myself will not go with you, because you are such a stiffnecked people that I might destroy you on the way.” (Exodus 33:2-3)
After Moses’ third 40-day stay on Mt. Sinai during Elul, God tells him,
“Here, I am making a covenant; in front of all your people I will do wonders such as have not been created anywhere on earth or in any nation. All the people around you will see the work of Adonai. What I am going to do through you will be awesome! Observe what I am ordering you to do today. Here! I am driving out ahead of you the Emori, Kena‘ani, Hitti, P’rizi, Hivi and Y’vusi.” (Exodus 34:10-11)
So, what changed? Complete repentance.
Repentance from Idolatry
I’m sure you could say, “I’ve already repented of every bad thing I’ve ever done. I don’t keep idols around or hang out with people that do.” I know – that’s what I thought.
Idolatry is a harsh word. We think of statues, maybe figurines or good luck charms. Maybe we think of rain dances or blood rituals or even sorcerers, fortune tellers or superstition. Those could all be part of it. The Hebrew word for idolatry most commonly used in the Bible is “Teraphim” meaning a household idol.
And then there’s repentance, also not a popular word. It sounds like doing penance – denying ourselves because we’ve been bad. Or it assumes we’ve done something wrong that we’re going to have to stop doing. I actually found it to be more than that. Stopping the action is just the beginning of the good stuff, and it’s not as hard as we think once we really understand it.
In my experience, I can hardly separate idolatry and repentance, because the further I go with repentance, the more areas of idolatry I find. Every time I find an area of idolatry, I go through the process of repentance. I’ve learned that it’s an ongoing process of discovery and realignment.
The second commandment is about what we call idolatry. “You are to have no other gods before me.” Deuteronomy. 5:7-10
At that time it was common to have several gods – gods for rain, gods for fertility, gods for healing or crops. We know that these Israelites grew up with Egyptians who had 10 gods.
But idolatry can take many forms. It can be anything that we put our trust in besides God, anything we rely on for our security besides God. These are the things that have the power to pull us away from God, or cause us to follow our own path to get what we think we need. Here’s how I summarize it:
Anything we put our faith in either in addition to or instead of God is idolatry; when we start trusting in the resource instead of in the Source.
It may be your income, the approval of your spouse or family, your savings account or emergency supplies – whatever areas of your life that you depend on to see you through.
I’m not recommending we do away with those things, but we have to keep them in proper perspective. God is our only source; He’s the one that provides all those things to us. Deuteronomy 8:18 says, “You are to remember Adonai your God, because it is he who is giving you the power to get wealth.”
When we give the resources equal or greater consideration than the Source of those resources, we’ve just crossed the line into idolatry. The second commandment to put no other gods above YHVH is about depending on Him as our first and only source of everything we need.
In Hebrew the word is “Teshuvah.” Shuv means to turn. It’s the picture of making a u-turn, seeing your sin and going in the opposite direction. But I’ve found that I can repent in my mind and actions, and still hold onto it in my heart and my will.
Complete repentance has to go beyond quitting something. It’s quitting because you are now aligned with God’s will. Whatever you were doing or wishing for is now immaterial and obsolete, because of what you now see God is doing. But we have to be willing to stop holding on to these things in order to follow His will.
This is why idolatry and repentance are inseparable. Idolatry is holding on to something for your security, repentance is letting go of that with your actions and your heart – and instead, holding on to only God and his path.
Where Idolatry Hides
In my experience with these two, I’ve found four areas where idolatry hides in my life. You may think of your own as I review these. The first one for me is…
I’m the type of person that has to be on a plan, making progress, working toward something – preferably something big that changes the world. It can be a good way to live, but I often feel like I’m not doing enough, not making enough progress, like my actions aren’t having enough effect; I can’t see enough results. I get antsy and wish for more. I start trying to do more, or trying to do it differently, but mainly I get frustrated that things just aren’t the way they should be, and I meddle around trying to change them.
I finally realized that in my case, this sort of discontent was a sin, a form of idolatry – me trying to make things happen in my own time and according to my own expectations instead of seeing what God was actually doing and aligning with that.
Remember when the Israelites in the wilderness asked for meat to eat the second time in Numbers 11? Look at verses 4-6:
“The mixed crowd that was with them grew greedy for an easier life; while the people of Isra’el, for their part, also renewed their weeping and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt — it cost us nothing! — and the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, the garlic! But now we’re withering away, we have nothing to look at but this man.”
They are certainly discontent with what they had. They’re even lamenting not being in Egypt. Wow, do I do that?
Look where their discontent leads them: Verse 30-34:
30 “Moshe and the leaders of Isra’el went back into the camp; 31 and Adonai sent out a wind which brought quails from across the sea and let them fall near the camp, about a day’s trip away on each side of the camp and all around it, covering the ground to a depth of three feet. 32 The people stayed up all that day, all night and all the next day gathering the quails — the person gathering the least collected ten heaps; then they spread them out for themselves all around the camp. 33 But while the meat was still in their mouth, before they had chewed it up the anger of Adonai flared up against the people, and Adonai struck the people with a terrible plague. 34 Therefore that place was named Kivrot-HaTa’avah [graves of greed], because there they buried the people who were so greedy.”
I’ve written a lot about this incident in another post, so I’ll just summarize it here.
There was a reason God laid the quail outside the camp. However, because of their greed, they were not content to only take what they needed for a few days and get more when they ran out. They chose to gather quail for probably 36 hours straight, bring them back to camp and heap them up around their tents. Imagine a month’s supply of dead quail strewn between tents and lining the walkways. Remember, “the person gathering the least collected ten heaps.” What a sight!
Here we see a clear conflict set up by the Israelites’ actions:
- God’s presence is in their camp.
In Deuteronomy 23:15 we’re told:
“For Adonai your God moves about in your camp to rescue you and to hand over your enemies to you. Therefore your camp must be a holy place. Adonai should not see anything indecent among you, or he will turn away from you.”
- God’s presence cannot dwell with death.
A major theme consistent in all the commandments is God’s separation from death. Now, because of their desire for “the good life”, they are living among death, the dead quail. Consequently, God can no longer dwell among them. They’ve chosen to replace His way and commandments with their own. This is what will become of me if I don’t repent of my discontent.
The red flag is in verse 4: “The people renewed their weeping and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat.’” If only.
In what areas am I striving beyond what God has provided? Where am I not quite satisfied with where I’m at, or maybe where someone else is at? Discontent can lead us away from God, away from his presence.
Well, as soon as I saw that I did repent. I stopped trying to change things and get more and do more. But that’s when I learned of another place where idols hide…
Now I had stopped pursuing my “if onlys”, but I found I was still lamenting them. I would think, “I know I can’t, but I wish I could do this or that – no, I need to stop wishing for that and just be happy with what I’m doing. But I’m going to watch for when God opens that door, and I’ll be right there. I’ll stop pursuing it, but I’m still going to plan on it and get ready for it to happen.”
This is what I mentioned earlier. Repentance is not just stopping what you’re doing wrong. God wants to bring me to an abundant land flowing with milk and honey, but I’m longing for meat, fish, leeks, onions and garlic. God’s trying to say, “Forget about those! Where you’re going, you won’t even remember wanting them. Quit longing for Egypt and get on board with my will to bring you into the Promised Land. I’ve got bigger plans than you can imagine.”
This is true repentance – dropping your will and no longer hauling around of your “if onlys”, instead seeking His will and realigning with that.
I asked God to show me what he was doing that I could get on board with. I realized I was missing things God had for me right where I was, while I was looking for what I thought he was going to do and my expectations.
What a relief! Dropping all the “if onlys” I had been protecting and just doing what was in front of me without wishing for more. I’m trusting God not only for the results, but that the results are already having the effect he wants. I’m at peace, joyful, content and not frustrated.
I realized God did not just show me all this so that I can feel better. When I am more aligned with Him, my efforts are more fruitful. I notice I’m more attentive to what I’m currently doing than when I’m wishing for something else. I’m more effective in the situation I’m in.
But all this letting go can bring us to the third hiding place for idolatry…