Image: Sunrise over earth, in space. (kimono/pixabay)
The story that follows is an amalgam of several stories I could tell. All the names have been changed, and the setting obscured. If you are an old friend and wondering if this is your congregation, the answer is maybe and probably not.
Once upon a time, there was a student rabbi leading Yom Kippur services. As the day went on, a little drama developed.
First, seventy year old Dora fainted. She had been fasting from food and water, and it got the best of her. Her daughter called 911, because it seemed Dora had both heart trouble and diabetes. After the EMT’s took Dora to the hospital, the student rabbi ditched the topic she’d planned for the afternoon colloquy and instead started a conversation about fasting.
She began with the teaching that pregnant women and sick people are exempt from the fast. There’s a commandment called lishmor haguf, “protecting the body,” and it commands us not to endanger our bodies. Some people cannot safely fast. Then she opened it up for questions and discussion.
It turns out that Dora was not alone in her determination to fast whether it was good for her or not. Person after person stood up, paid a bit of lip service to the idea of not fasting, and then proceeded to tell about the worst Yom Kippur fast they ever survived – and soon the student rabbi realized to her horror that it had become a contest. Each person who stood up tried to top the story before, until ninety-something Mike talked about how he fought in a WWII battle on a Pacific island all day and all night – and since it was Yom Kippur, he took not a single sip of water.
The student watched the faces of those she knew were not fasting, and they would not meet her eyes. They felt shamed by the stories of Yom-Kippur-valor, shamed and set apart. Later private conversations confirmed it: more than one used the word “wimp” to describe themselves.
Folks, the original point of fasting was to atone for our sins, to mortify our bodies – to remind us that someday we will die. The sages did not teach this to us so that we could show off, or display our piety, or for a contest about who’s the toughest or who’s the most fragile.
If fasting is going to hurt you, don’t fast. And perhaps – just perhaps – there is something you can do that’s better than forgoing food and drink. Listen to the words of the prophet Isaiah, and make your plans for this Yom Kippur:
Cry with full throat, without restraint; Raise your voice like a ram’s horn! Declare to My people their transgression, To the House of Jacob their sin.
To be sure, they seek Me daily, Eager to learn My ways. Like a nation that does what is right, That has not abandoned the laws of its God, They ask Me for the right way, They are eager for the nearness of God:
“Why, when we fasted, did You not see? When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?” Because on your fast day You see to your business And oppress all your laborers!
Because you fast in strife and contention, And you strike with a wicked fist! Your fasting today is not such As to make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast I desire, A day for men to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush And lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, A day when the LORD is favorable?
No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness, And untie the cords of the yoke To let the oppressed go free; To break off every yoke.
It is to share your bread with the hungry, And to take the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, to clothe him, And not to ignore your own kin.
Then shall your light burst through like the dawn And your healing spring up quickly; Your Vindicator shall march before you, The Presence of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then, when you call, the LORD will answer; When you cry, He will say: Here I am. If you banish the yoke from your midst, The menacing hand, and evil speech,
And you offer your compassion to the hungry And satisfy the famished creature— Then shall your light shine in darkness, And your gloom shall be like noonday.— Isaiah 58: 1-10