Yom Kippur, the ‘holiest’ day of the Jewish year. Millions of Jews worldwide get dressed up in white or their best attire and sit together in synagogue, hungry, lamenting all the bad things we have done as a community of flawed individuals. When the average person is asked about Yom Kippur, fasting is first on their mind. Fasting has become a central tenet of Yom Kippur practice, but what is a fast and why do we do it?
Three of the most common modern arguments for fasting include: Through the act of fasting we cleanse our bodiy and soul; we keep ourselves focused on prayer and are not distracted by food and the socializing that comes with it; and we make ourselves suffer, inflicting a small amount of the pain on ourselves that we have inflicted this year on others. *
Unfortunately, for most people fasting as it is practiced today proves antithetical to its goals. Instead of cleansing our bodies, for many it is an unhealthy practice fogging the mind and weakening the body. The act of not eating, while it keeps us from ritual meals that dominate most Jewish holidays, distracts most of us to the point where hunger and not eating becomes the main elements of Yom Kippur, the opposite of a tool for focus. Finally, one could argue that the act of inflicting pain on oneself is not a goal of Yom Kippur, but that by this day in the Jewish ritual cycle we should be learning from our mistakes and looking forward to new actions in a new year.
Ever since Yom Kippur first emerged from being a purely priestly holiday, the Jewish masses have been missing its point. In fact our ancestors who created the Yom Kippur service, included a reading from the book of Isaiah where he laments the Jewish people for their misplaced energy on Yom Kippur, encouraging them to pursue a more forward thinking approach.
In Isaiah 58:3, the people ask G!d “Why did we fast and you did not see? Why did we afflict our souls and you did not know?”
G!d’s response is clear, and even though every Jewish community across the world, reads it aloud every year on Yom Kippur, millennia later we still have not heard G!d’s call. “Behold on your fast day you seek personal gain and extort all your debts. Because you fast for grievance and strife, yet strike each other with a wicked fist; you do not fast as befits this day, to make your voice heard above? Would such be the fast I choose, a day when humanity merely afflicts himself?
“Surely this is the fast I choose: To break open the shackles of wickedness, to undo the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free and annul all perversion… Break bread with the hungry and bring the poor into your home; When you see a naked person, clothe him.
“Then your light will burst out like the dawn and your healing will speedily sprout… Then you will call and G!d will respond. You will cry out and G!d will answer ‘Hineni, I am here!”
This Yom Kippur, volunteer, donate & mobilize
Volunteer – spend the day at a food bank, shelter or stuffing envelopes for an important cause. Skip synagogue and pray through your actions.
Donate – What do you have that you no longer need? What canned food around your house will never be eaten? And most importantly, what can you ‘sacrifice’ personally, financially, etc., that can benefit others greatly?
Mobilize – If you are going to synagogue, talk about the Occupy Wall Street protests and police oppression in New York, the cuts to social services, high unemployment and poverty across North America and the world. Mobilize your community for social, economic and environmental change.
No matter whether one eats, prays, sleeps or volunteers on this important day, may we all strive to find a better path personally and communally this Yom Kippur.
* Other explanations for fasting on Yom Kippur include: We don't eat or drink because we are plugged into the highest essence of our being on that day, which is angelic and therefore we don't even need to eat. We are engaging in a process that if continued would kill us. So we get an actual physical experience of a process that leads to death and reminds us of mortality.