Monday, September 24, 2012

Why I Bother Fasting on Yom Kippur

Not being able to eat food or drink water for twenty-five hours is an arduous task. Fasting is a self-deprevation of some major essentials for the human body. So why is it that when it comes to Yom Kippur, I actually not only bother to fast, but I actually enjoy it? It transcends the reason of "because the Torah (Leviticus 16:29-30) says so."

The primary reason why I use the words "enjoy" and "fast" in the same sentence is that I view Yom Kippur as a "spiritual spa day." Yom Kippur is a day I don't have to worry about the physical. I get to put aside work and even eating in order to be solely focused on the spiritual. Removing the distraction of eating and drinking provides me a day's worth of serious downtime for self-searching and to think about the past year and figure out how I can better myself for the upcoming year without being rushed.

Although I have fasted more than once on Yom Kippur without getting hungry, I also realize that the body is not always resilient enough to handle such self-denial. I find the aspect of self-denial to be another good reason to fast because it reflects the important fact that we are human. We can be hungry and choose not to eat. We can choose to be angry and not lash out. We can have a long day and not lull ourselves into procrastinating. The fact that we can choose to do something like "say no to eating and drinking" shows that we have the ability to resist giving into instinct, which is what makes us human. Humans are the only beings on this planet that can curb appetites and choose discipline over instinct in order to affirm mastery over oneself, and I think that is something worth remembering while fasting.

Based on Jonah 3:10, the Talmud (Ta'anit 22a) reminds us that our actions is what G-d sees when dealing with forgiveness (also known as תשובה). Fasting is supposed to be the means to repentance on Yom Kippur. Judaism is not an aesthetic religion, and it takes the physical and intertwines it with the spiritual. What is hunger? Although hunger is primarily associated with food, hunger is an emptiness that desires to be satiated. When one hungers, they yearn for something that they lack. The idea of inducing hunger is to be able to take that yearning and translate it to the spiritual realm, mainly to crave G-dliness in one's life.

That is an interesting idea. Let's take the idea a step further, as reflected in the Haftarah during Yom Kippur. In Isaiah 58, the Israelites mistakenly think that the purpose of fasting was for the sake of fasting, as if that's what G-d had wanted. In verse 3, G-d chides them for seeking personal day on the fast day. The sort of fast day that G-d wants is well beyond self-affliction. One is supposed to do things such as undo the bonds of injustice, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and actively help with eliminating wickedness in this world, all of which are ethical in nature. From this passage, we learn that the sort of fasting that G-d expects from us is the sort that invokes us to be compassionate and actually care about others because that is what real piety entails.

In summation, the purpose of fasting on Yom Kippur is twofold. The first is to get your spiritual house in order. But even getting your spiritual priorities in sync still require a purpose for doing so in the first place, and that is to be a compassionate, sympathetic individual who does acts of loving-kindness (gemilut chasidim). To be able to internalize and actualize these ideas is why I ultimately make the decision to fast on Yom Kippur.

גמר חתימה טובה!

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