I’m still trying to figure out how a holiday like Yom Kippur made it past quality control.
It started out simply enough—let’s have one day on the Jewish calendar dedicated to atonement for all of the previous year’s misdeeds and transgressions. Since it needed to convey a sense of gravitas, the Torah decreed that on this day, Jews would need to “afflict their souls.”
That could have taken many forms—I feel afflicted if I turn on Fox News—but things soon took an unexpected turn. Apparently, some sadistic rabbis got together and decided that afflicting our souls meant no eating or drinking for the duration of the holiday. You gotta hand it to those guys—they knew how to hit the Jews where it counted.
Fast forward a couple thousand years, and I wonder if we’ve lost the point of fasting on Yom Kippur.
Rather than an important facet of Yom Kippur, the fast itself has become the objective of the day. It’s interesting that among North American Jews, there are three rituals throughout the year that are widely observed, irrespective of level of observance or synagogue affiliation: having or attending a Passover Seder, lighting Chanukah candles, and yes, fasting on Yom Kippur. There is a perception that if you simply make it through the 25 or so hours without eating or drinking, you’ve accomplished the goal of Yom Kippur.
Fasting takes up most of what we discuss on Yom Kippur—who can bravely make it through and who will fail miserably by having to eat something. And kids—who should not be fasting at all—often try to see how long they can go without food. More seriously, there are elderly people who insist on fasting and skipping necessary nutrition and medication.
Leading up to this day, we commonly wish each other “an easy fast.” Wouldn’t it make more sense to hope for a grueling and gut-wrenching fast? After all, this is the way that we’re supposed to afflict our souls. Put another way—if there was a pill that you could take just before Yom Kippur that would prevent you from ever becoming hungry or thirsty over the course of the following day, would you take it? Why bother fasting at all if you’re hoping to have an easy time of it?
Because of this apparent disconnect between the act of fasting and the actual theme of Yom Kippur, some people have instead begun to wish each other “a meaningful fast.” But I think an even better goal is to have “a useful fast.”
Seen in this light, fasting is merely one of the tools that we have in order to fulfill the act of atonement and change. When we fast, a few things happen:
First, we decide for one day that we’re not going to concern ourselves with mundane subjects like what’s in the fridge and figuring out what we’re having for lunch. We don’t need to look at the clock and worry that we won’t get home from temple in time to eat. For one day, there’s something even more important that we have to take care of.
Next, we express the seriousness of our intent to engage in self-reflection and atonement. We literally put our words of prayer where our mouths are, causing ourselves some mild physical discomfort (and if it’s any more than that, then you should not be fasting).
But maybe most importantly, fasting is an act of empathy. It’s humbling. In a time and place where none of us ever go without food, there’s one day a year when we go to bed hungry, forcing ourselves to realize that this is the constant reality for so many adults and children. We know that if we just stick it out, we’ll soon be able to break the fast (usually by eating an entire day’s worth of food in one hour), a luxury not shared by so many unfortunate people.
So for this Yom Kippur, I wish all those who choose to go without food, whether it’s for one meal or the entire duration of the holiday, a useful fast. Let it move you out of your comfort zone, a wish expressed more than 2500 years ago by the prophet Isaiah, who had no problem calling out the hypocrisy of fasting if it didn’t lead to further action:
Is this the kind of fast I desire?
A day of merely depriving one’s body?
Is not the fast that I desire
the unlocking of the chains of wickedness,
the loosening of exploitation,
the freeing of all those oppressed,
the breaking of the yoke of servitude?
Is it not the sharing of your bread with the hungry,
the bringing of the wretched poor into your home,
or clothing someone you see who is naked,
and not hiding from your kin in their need?
Whether literally doing without food and drink, or as a metaphor for positive change as Isaiah suggests, may you have a useful fast.