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To Fast or Not to Fast… Think about This

Yom Kippur, unique among the Jewish holy days, lacks its own culinary customs. Aside from the break-the-fast, which though historically was done without fanfare but now might even be catered affairs, Yom Kippur is the only major holy day not tied to food. Jews fast for the 25 hours.  At least most Jews do.

Should you fast?  Why bother? What is the meaning of the fast?

It is about Getting into the Fast Lane 
for a More Meaningful Holy Day

Michelle and I have noticed that in preparing for visits by my parents, we talk little with my folks about the places they would go or the things they would do. However discussions about food consume inordinate amount of time and attention. What will we eat? Where will we eat? This we talk about. Should we go out to dinner or will Dad cook up one of his gourmet dishes? Before one sumptuous multi-course meal ends, we are caught up discussing what we would eat next. Michelle and I just laugh because this food fetish is played out in similar ways at her family gatherings. Ah, the ties that bind.

Still, as humorous as these discussions are, they border on discomfort. Why are we all so obsessed with food? And why does this obsession seem so Jewish? Just to raise that question is to invite a din of jokes: “What else do Jews do but eat?” We are obsessed as people with food: whether by the minutea of keeping Kosher, or by our passion for the unkosher delights of Chinese food.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, author of Dawn to Earth Judaism, suggests that this focus on food is very Jewish. Nearly every Jewish holiday involves the consumption of food. On Passover, we gather and pray around a dinner table, eating foods to symbolize our exodus to freedom. Shabbat begins with a family sit down dinner and does not conclude until a seudah shleesheet, a third meal before sundown. Hanukkah has its latkes and sufganiot (donuts), Purim has its hamantaschen, and Shavuot has its dairy (or in our tradition, sumptuous cheesecake). We eat to usher the New Year and Rosh HaShana. We eat to end Yom Kippur. In fact, many Jews define themselves in relation to the food they eat. “I keep Kosher”, “I eat treif”. “I’m a bagels and lox Jew.”

Rabbi Arthur Waskow notes that Jews can trace back to our Biblical beginnings. Many cultures have a tale of the first rebellion, the first painful crossover into making a painful history. In some, like the Greek mythic tales, it is an act of murder. Or sex. Or stealing fire. Or creating knowledge. But of all possibilities, what did Jewish culture choose as the symbol for beginning history? Eating. Did the fruit-eating episode from the Garden of Eden myth focus our anxiety about the world on food? Or did the reality of our everyday lives give shape to the myth? We may never know. What we can conform, however, is that behind the jokes we tell today there is a delicious reality of long ago: that food was simultaneously so important and so problematic to the ancient Israelites that they gave it a central place in their culture and that they gave it publicly, clearly, consciously rather than covered and uncovered by jokes. They created what Rabbi Waskow calls “a sacred history of food”.

Given all this focus on food in Judaism, doesn’t it strike you as ironic that on one of the holiest days of the year, Yom Kippur, we Jews are told to reign in on this natural impulse to eat? Doesn’t it seem preposterous that the people who brought compote to the new world should be expected to fast? Rabbi Harold Kushner, author Why Bad Things Happen to Good People series of books, jokes that if the message of the free market economy is that there is no free lunch. the message of Yom Kippur is that there is no lunch.

Why do we fast on Yom Kippur? I suspect that many of us, those who will observe the day-long fast on Yom Kippur and those who will excuse themselves from it, misunderstand the reasons. We don’t fast to make up for all the self-indulgence we permit ourselves during the rest of the year. If that were the reason, we would have to fast for much more than one day to do that. And we don’t fast so that God will see our discomfort and feel pity for us and grant our prayers. This was the mistaken understanding of the people who confronted the prophet Isaiah in the Yom Kippur Haftarah portion, who said “What’s the matter with God? We’ve fasted all day, we’ve bowed our heads like a tree in a storm, we’ve made ourselves miserable. Why hasn’t God answered our prayers?” When you think of all the people who are really suffering in the world, who are starving and dying, how could it ever have occurred to us that God should have to make something up to us because we’ve skipped lunch? No, the purpose of our fasting is not to send a message to God, but to deliver a message to ourselves.

Rabbi Harold Kushner suggests that fasting exercises our soul. Let me explain. The relevant passage in the Torah says v’initem et nafshoteichem, which in the 16th century King James Bible translation was rendered “you shall afflict your souls.” That is, we fast to make ourselves suffer because that’s what we deserve. That may have been the theological outlook of 16th century England, but I’m not sure that was what the Torah had in mind. Modern scholars take the words v’initem et nafshoteichem to mean “you shall restrain your instincts, you shall practice self-control.”

We are asked to fast on Yom Kippur not to afflict ourselves but to glory in the fact that we are human. We can do what no other living creature on the face of God’s earth can do; we can say No to instinct. We can be hungry, but we choose not to eat. We can be angry, but we do not strike out. We can be sexually attracted but we restrain ourselves. No other species can do that.

When you think about it, how much of the suffering in today’s world is caused by people who cannot say “No” to instinct? The man or woman who eats too much or drinks too much or takes drugs, and hates him or herself for it. The person who is hurt or angry, and just wants to go out and hurt somebody to get even. The basically honest person who has access to other people’s money and cannot resist taking some of it for him or herself. And when these people try to excuse themselves by saying “what do you want from me; I’m only human,” Judaism’s answer is “to be human means precisely to be able to say No to temptation, to instinctual drives.” Human nature is different from Nature. In the world of Nature, if you’re hungry, you eat. If you’re sexually aroused, you mate. If you’re stronger, you take what you want. But in the world of human nature, you control your instincts, they don’t control you. That is why the Jewish religion is so supportive of 12-step programs. People in need turn to God for help controlling their natural instincts.

You might think of it this way: there may come a time in your life when your future happiness will depend on being able to say No to something very tempting. It may be a shady business deal; it may be an illicit sexual involvement. Whatever it is, you will know that it is wrong but it will be very tempting. If all your life, you have had no experience saying No to temptation, if all you life you have been told that if you want something, you can have it, what are the odds you will get it right now when so much is riding it? But if your experience as a Jew has been a whole series of moral calisthenics, exercises in overriding instinct, what does that do to your chances of getting it right? So we jump into the fast lane, we fast on Yom Kippur, to teach ourselves that we can do it, that it is not that hard to say No to instinct and to learn that “I am human” is not a confession of weakness but an affirmation of real strength.

A second reason to fast involves death and rejoicing. A paradox, no? People ask me how I am able to officiate at funerals regularly without becoming depressed. I answer that I am terribly saddened by the loss of life, even in cases when I did not know the deceased. In fact, I often shed tears when the circumstances of death hit close to home. Yet I have found that the responsibility of ushering others though the valley of the shadow of death yields an unintended, joyous benefit. It constantly reminds me about how precious life and love ones are. After every funeral I try to clear the air with those whom I am in conflict and I make a point to say “I love you” to my family and friends. So paradoxically funerals help me rejoice at the richness of my life. V’eizeh hu asher? Who is a rich person? asks our tradition? HaSamay-ach b’chelko “The one who is happy with his or her portion.”

Fasting on Yom Kippur, teaches my friend Rabbi Ramie Arian, forces us to confront the reality of our death and to rejoice in God’s forgiveness. Yom Kippur is the day on which we ask ourselves, as it were, “if I were to have died today, how would I measure up? How would I be judged?” Fasting is one of several rituals that help us get into the mindset to face this question, by imaginatively pre-enacting our own deaths. Other Yom Kippur customs — refraining from wearing leather, refraining from shaving or washing and wearing kittel — echo mourning customs. Through fasting, we face our own deaths in order to appreciate our lives and ultimately to make changes necessary so that our lives will become more worthwhile.

The late Rabbi Pinchas Peli, a Jerusalem-based Torah Scholar, observes that while eating, tasting delicious foods, touches us on a personal experimental level, it must not remain a trip of “self purification.” This final reason for fasting is one of the oldest. In the Haftarah portion we read on Yom Kippur, The people ask, “Why should we fast if the Eternal God never notices? Why should we go without food if God pays no attention?”

The prophet Isaiah reminds us that the purpose of the fast is to call on us to fulfill our obligations to society and that the way to get closer to God is by caring for people. “In the Haftarah, God says to them: “The truth is that at the same time you fast, you pursue your own interest, and oppress your workers. Your fasting makes you violent and you quarrel and fight. Do you think this kind of fasting will make me listen to your prayers? When you fast, you make yourselves suffer, you bow your heads low like a blade of grass and spread out sackcloth and ashes to lie on. Is that what you call fasting? Do you think I will be pleased with that?”

The kind of fasting I want is this, God says: Remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free. Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless and the poor. Give clothes to those who have nothing to wear and do not turn away from the needs of your own kin.” Fasting is important explains the prophet. But fasting must be accompanied by changes individual and societal behavior for it to have any meaning.

It is Yom Kippur. We gather together for a day of self reflection and renewal. We will search our souls and examine our deeds to assess how we have measured up to all that we could be. Our tradition teaches that this is hard work. Our tradition demands that we make changes. Our tradition offers rituals, including fasting to help us jump start this spiritual quest. On Yom Kippur Jews pray and on Yom Kippur Jews fast. Why not try it? Or try it again? Make Yom Kippur meaningful this year slow down and try to enjoy life in the fast lane.

G’mar Chatima Tova – May you be sealed for a blessing in the Book of Life.


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