Kol Nidre 5780
Temple B’rith Kodesh
Rabbi Rochelle Tulik
Will you fast this year?
I mean, it’s kind of just what we do. On Yom Kippur we fast. If we don’t do anything else all year round - what are the three big observances? Latkes, seder, and fasting on Yom Kippur. Growing up, this was Judaism for me. Friends and family gathered around menorahs, everyone’s cousin’s first drunk experience after the fourth cup of wine, and the Yom Kippur fast. Ask the most secular Israeli in Tel Aviv and the one “religious” thing they do all year long is fast on Yom Kippur.
But it’s a real question.
Will you fast this year? There’s still time to decide - you probably just had dinner; you might not even be hungry yet.
Tradition teaches that we are supposed to fast in order to bring ourselves closer to God. Through the abstention from food, our spirits can focus more. When we aren’t focused on food, we can focus on prayer. When we aren’t consumed with our physical needs, we can consume our souls with the work of teshuvah and deep introspection. Because the purpose of the fast is not to simply deprive yourself of food. The purpose of the fast is to move beyond yourself. To ultimately share your good fortune or good intentions with the greater community.
Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs described four reasons for fasting:
Fasting as penance:
We punish ourselves for the wrongs we have done and the good we have failed to do. Self-affliction can be an act of affirming our sincerity.
Fasting as self-discipline:
Lack of self-control can lead to sin so fasting helps us demonstrate discipline over our actions. In this way, self-discipline leads to self-improvement.
Fasting as a means of focusing on the spiritual:
It is said that on Yom Kippur Jews are compared to angels who spend the whole day engaged in prayer, contemplation, and worship. Angels do not need physical sustenance so when we fast, we connect to our spiritual essence.
Fasting as a means of awakening compassion:
When we know what it means to go hungry, our hearts are more fully moved for those who suffer. It is the difference between sympathy and empathy. When we can walk in someone’s shoes, we can more fully understand them and be moved to help them.
Think about times you’ve fasted. When you fast do you think only about how hungry you are? Or do you think about how grateful you are that you’re only hungry that day? When you fast, do you think about how long the services are taking? Or do you think about what kinds of services you can provide to those in need?
Fasting is a way to connect to all other Jews on Yom Kippur. A shared experience. This is meaningful and can be a strong communal motivator. However, on an individual level, fasting should push us. To fast on the Day of Atonement is an act of solidarity with the suffering of the Jewish people. Through fasting we are drawn closer to all who live lives of deprivation.
In Monroe County, approximately one in eight people is food insecure. One in eight. 12% of Monroe County doesn’t always know where their next meal is coming from, doesn’t have access to healthy food, regularly goes to sleep hungry. Statistically that means there’s a likely chance that there are people even in this room tonight who don’t get to choose each Yom Kippur to fast.
Our tradition teaches that the fast is a way for those of us with more, those of us in a place of privilege, to, if only for a day, truly empathize with those who have less. But our faith demands more of us than twenty-four hours of abstinence from food. It demands that upon the completion of our fast we will turn back to the world prepared to act with love and compassion. In this way fasting touches the biological as well as the spiritual aspects of our being. We connect with the suffering of others so that we can commit to helping alleviate the suffering of others.
But what if you don’t fast? What if you can’t fast? What if you just shouldn’t fast?
How can you make the day meaningful without the self-affliction, self-discipline, communal experience of the fast?
The truth is, only those who are healthy enough - physically and mentally - are expected to fast. For women who are pregnant or nursing, individuals with medical conditions that require regular meals, and the infirm, fasting is actually forbidden. Our tradition gives the highest importance to life - if the fast would endanger someone’s life, it must not be observed.
For individuals struggling with or in recovery from an eating disorder, the fast presents a unique challenge. Rather than finding purity or spiritual growth through denying themselves food (an element of the sickness that can quickly lead to relapses or dangerous spirals), *eating is actually the vehicle to higher connection. Eating on Yom Kippur becomes a holy act - an act of teshuvah.
And for the elderly, again, fasting is not required. One of the great challenges of aging is all the changes. As we age, we have to acknowledge there are certain things we can no longer do. For some people, this includes fasting. And the shift from fasting to not fasting can cause emotional trauma. Again, just as I stood here ten days ago and said, it’s okay, let me tell you - IT’S OKAY. Above all else, our tradition values life. Choose life and live. If fasting will endanger your life, YOU MUST NOT DO IT. Even if you’ve been doing it your whole life.
The bottom line is this: Yom Kippur is so much more than a fast. It is about focus. About intention and attention we give to our lives and our actions.
The Haftarah portion we’ll read tomorrow morning from the prophet Isaiah provides us with the ultimate goal of our fast. The people cry out, “Why, when we fasted, did You not see? When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?” And Isaiah responds, speaking for God, “Is such the fast I desire, a day for people to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes?” No, the prophet continues, “No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness and injustice, and to let the oppressed go free. 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 them, and not to ignore your own kin.”
The prophet Isaiah is showing us that abstaining from food by itself, if it does not lead to real teshuvah, real commitment to tikkun olam, will not bring God’s blessing.
Yom Kippur is the moment in Jewish time when we dedicate our mind, body, and soul to reconciliation with our fellow human beings, ourselves, and God. We commit to self-reflection and inner change. The fast on Yom Kippur is intended to help us do just that. But the fast is merely a vessel – a suggested path we can take to deeper introspection and self-assessment. Our tradition tells us that fasting on Yom Kippur provides the key to our inner awakening; the key to enabling us to change. But it is not the only key.
If you fast, consider that the pain of your hunger is a reminder, your soul’s cry to look at yourself honestly and commit to something. Will you focus only on your hunger and immediate discomfort? Or will you use the fast as a time for honest self appraisal and self searching. Will you try to look at yourself the way God sees you? Will you use your pain, your hunger, to really understand where you are in life? Will you like what you see and if not, will you commit to a change? If you do not fast this year, remember that Yom Kippur is a day for self-assessment, not just self-denial. Tomorrow we’ll read from Isaiah the cries of our people to God. They cried out from the midst of their fast and asked, “Why don’t you hear us God?” God’s reply tells them their fast was empty and meaningless – that the fast God wants is one where we commit to change; commit to making a better world around us and making ourselves the best we can.
Will you fast this year? Whatever you decide, whether fasting or not, remember what Yom Kippur stands for. Remember what this day is all about. As we all move through the day, let us focus our thoughts not on physical hunger and pain, but on the pain and hunger of the world we live in. Let us not ignore the pain but acknowledge it and face it. This year, may we have a meaningful day, a day dedicated to true teshuvah, renewal, and growth.
A blessing as we enter Yom Kippur - whether fasting or not.
Rofeh khol basar / Healer of all living creatures: I thank You for the breath that is in me for the community of Israel that lives for the possibilities of today and tomorrow. May this day of Yom Kippur be for me as you intended; May it be dedicated to You, to T'shuvah — to the Renewal and Restoration of my Relationship to You, to Others, and to Myself.