Fasting for Meaning
Kol Nidrei 5778
When I was seven or eight years old, my grandfather and I had a routine around Yom Kippur: He would take me to the Yom Kippur family service in the morning, and he would still make his standing mid-morning golf game. We both won.
My grandfather did not evade his obligation to be at services over Yom Kippur. He observed the holiday seriously, though in his own way. He attended Kol Nidrei. We went to the family service together. And then, he would come back in the afternoon, staying through the end of Neilah.
He kept this routine even after I had become bar mitzvah and would spend Yom Kippur with the rest of my family in the main service. When he would meet us for the afternoon, I would turn to him and ask, “So Grandad, how’s your fast going?” To which he would reply, “Since lunch? Great.”
In that joke my grandfather was saying that he would practice Judaism on his own terms. With as much seriousness as any traditional Jew, my grandfather defined Jewish practice for himself, based on defining that which was meaningful.
In truth, we all do this. Let me ask: How do you make choices about Judaism?
For generations, Judaism was defined by a structure of practice that defined who we were to separate ourselves from the other civilizations among whom we lived. That is one piece of what it means to be Am Kadosh, a holy people; we are hekdesh, separate and apart, from others. Kashrut—our tradition’s dietary laws—served this purpose. Many explanations are given for why we as Jews keep kosher. The Torah suggests that its restrictions around food help the Israelite people attain their unique holiness in God’s eyes, thereby distinguishing the Israelites from among other peoples. Throughout the generations—even still—kashrut remains a way that we separate ourselves as a Jewish community from the other communities with whom we live. Even more so, kashrut has become a way to distinguish what sort of Jew you are today.
That’s because we all are like my grandfather. In contemporary Jewish life, we all make choices about Jewish practice. For the American Reform Jewish community until the 1960s and 1970s, we were defined by the choices we made to refrain from certain practices. We were orthodox about being American Reform Jews. Reform Jews did not keep kosher. Reform Jews did not wear tallitot or kippot. Other Reform Jews identified their mode of Jewishness as not-Zionist. America was our new Zion. In the Reform Haggadah published in the 1920s, the editors included “America the Beautiful,” and cut out “Next Year in Jerusalem.” We were a people defined by negative freedoms, expressing our choice to refrain from traditional Jewish practices. My grandfather was an ardent negative-freedoms guy. He never understood it when I started wearing a kippah in the temple.
Something shifted in the late 1960s or early 1970s. We moved from a community organized by our negative freedoms, reclaiming our freedom to use tradition as a positive source of worth. A new view on kashrut formed. It may separate us from others among us; though, perhaps a stricter dietary practice would add sanctity to our lives. We could reclaim the wearing of a tallit or kippah at services. It did not have to be a way by which we distinguished ourselves from the other Jews and Gentiles around us. Rather, putting that kippah on my head when I come in the synagogue—that’s about my own spiritual life, that’s about about my own connection to God. We entered a generation of positive freedom.
We continue to choose, today. Mordechai Kaplan, the Jewish thinker who crafted much of this framework, had a word for this: sancta, how holiness is made manifest in our lives. Discerning and embracing sancta is an ongoing, generational process. He wrote, “the sancta of religion must be reinterpreted in each generation so that their meanings are relevant to the needs of that generation.” Tradition had a vote but not a veto, as “a source of wisdom and morale awakening new creative powers.” When spiritual practices are meaningless, they stop doing what they are intended to do—help us transcend the regular world.
For my grandfather, fasting had long ceased to be a meaningful for him. But, attending the family service with his grandchild, being with family later in the afternoon—there was something about those practices that clicked.
Each generation is called upon to define that which is holy for them.
Rav Avraham Kook, the father of Religious Zionism, also recognized the need for the rebirth of Jewish practice as he both witnessed and guided the return to Israel. As Zionism made its way from Europe to the Land of Israel, Rav Kook was challenged by the movement’s lack of connection to religion. Kook and his student crafted a Zionist and religious vision in which “the mitzvot of today are a means to the higher ethic of the future, which will reach beyond Judaism toward all humanity and even to the animals and the natural worlds.” Kook was ambitious. Kook believed that Zionism could forge a secular path toward a spiritual and religious Redemption. Because of this, he and his followers found commonality with the other secular Zionists. Kook, holding an eye toward the potential for Redemption, said “הישן יתחדש, והחדש יתקדש. The old will become new, and the new will become holy.”
Each year, when working with our b’nai mitzvah students, we talk about Jewish practice. We focus on the mitzvah part of becoming bar and bat mitzvah, namely that there are two main ways by which we practice Judaism—ethically and ritually. The mitzvot, the commandments, can be categorized as such. I challenge the students to take on Jewish practices, to experiment with sancta, and to report back.
Last year, we focused on Yom Kippur and the opportunity to fast. Our tradition teaches that from the time a child is nine years old, he or she should start fasting, adding hours each year until coming of age. Here these young women (last year’s class was all women) were, stepping into the spiritual aspect of their adult lives. I spoke with their parents and with them, and we went over the rules.
At first the students were incredulous. “We’ll starve!” They said. As we talked it out, and as they talked it out with their parents, they got on board. On Yom Kippur morning last year, I can remember, the class all sat together right in the middle of the middle section here. They took the challenge seriously. They took Yom Kippur seriously. And they tried out fasting.
The week after the holiday, we debriefed. “It was hard,” they said, “but we’re were glad we did it.” I asked them if there was anything personally, spiritually meaningful about fasting. “We’re glad we did it together,” they said. In other words, being a part of a community—and being vulnerable in that community—that mattered. One student offered, “Fasting was hard, but I liked that it helped me focus on prayer.” Bingo. They got it. These young women transformed a practice into something meaningful and sacred.
Whereas my grandfather wrote off fasting, these young women wrote it in.
In our Hebrew Bible, fasting developed as a later spiritual tool. “The Day of Atonement is the only annual national fast day proscribed in (all of Jewish) law.” Israelite leaders sometimes called a public fast for special penance, though infrequent. Then, in the face of colossal, communal tragedy—namely the destruction of the First and Second Temples—the practice of fasting went vogue. As a form of “self-abasement and self-degradation,” fasting “became one of the more important expressions of faith.”
Flip through a Jewish calendar and there you’ll see a series of different holidays, all of which are fast day: Tisha b’Av, Tzom G’daliah, Ta’anit Esther, Tzom Tammuz. For each of these—sometimes observed, sometimes not even in traditional circles—generations in the Jewish community determined that it would be meaningful to fast. In the 1980s there was even a debate about Yom HaShoah, the day on which we commemorate the Holocaust. Some argued that it should be a fast day, too. Jewish tradition continues to see fasting as a valid expression of communal grief.
Something about fasting resonates for us when we experience grief and loss. When my friend Rob’s wife died, he was in a daze. It was a sudden, tragic loss. They had two small kids. The day of the funeral, Rob was sick with grief. He went through the motions, went to the service, went to the cemetery, and then headed home to begin shiva. Sitting at his kitchen table, he did not want to talk to anyone. Then, he recalls, his best friend, Ken, came walking through the door. Ken walked straight into the kitchen and sat down with Rob, placing a white paper bag in front of him. “Here, eat,” Ken said. It was a corned beef sandwich from the deli down the street. Ken knew that Rob had been fasting unintentionally, and that this was the best way he knew how to love his friend. Rob always said that that was the moment he knew he was really cared for by his community.
Rob’s fast was unintentional, but we use fasting to recreate what we experience in grief. We choose to express grief and faith: faith that we know the fast will end, that our lives will go on.
Fasting is about our spiritual wellbeing.
We abstain from food and drink to focus more on Yom Kippur. Our tradition teaches that we not only fast, but we refrain from other luxuries—wearing leather (don’t look down!), putting on perfume, or being intimate with our partner for the day.
By abstaining from one thing, while difficult, it enables us to focus on another. Fasting is sacrifice in miniature. Sacrifice is the willful surrender of one thing, in order to gain something else. In our biblical tradition, we find sacrifices of all different types, and we still talk in terms of sacrifice: We sacrifice for our partners, for our careers, for our children.
The metaphor of sacrifice is more severe than helpful. Sacrifice becomes an excuse: I cannot make it to my son’s baseball game because I have to work. I sacrifice my family for the sake of my career. I cannot get caught up on email, because I need to drive my daughter to soccer. I sacrifice a relationship with a client for the sake of my daughter’s happiness. These tensions express the willful surrender of one thing for the sake of another. But sacrifice suggests permanence: I will never be able to have a meaningful career because I gave that up for my family.
Is that right? When we talk in terms of sacrifice, do we not really mean that we are fasting?
In fasting, as opposed to sacrifice, we do not surrender agency. We know that the fast is hard, but it is a choice, and it is not necessarily permanent. We focus on one thing when we could be doing a thousand other things. In that act of willful, temporary surrender, we make a choice, and we own that choice. Fasting is meaningful because of intention and discipline.
We fast all the time. Perhaps its not a complete abstention from food with regularity, but instead of sacrificing, let’s say that we are fasting.
In integrating our home lives and our work lives, we fast all the time. In the evening, I’m going to fast from Facebook, from email, from binge watching Game of Thrones, in order to ask my partner—really and truly—“How was your day?”
I’ve been a father for all of five seconds. I am the last to offer advice or perspective on the joys and challenges of parenting. But I can already tell you, I have had to fast for Lior. Liz and I have fasted from sleep, to attend to his late night and early morning needs. We’ve fasted from opportunities that have come up. We’ve had to learn to say no to other things, because right now, we’re focusing on this amazing little boy. We are not sacrificing though. We are not saying no, absolutely; we are saying, no, not right now. A fast is not permanent. In fasting from these opportunities we forego what we could be doing, choosing to focus and prioritize something that’s especially important, meaningful, and sacred—the joys and challenges that come with parenting our baby boy.
Fasting carries two inherent challenges: one in regard to our own well-being, the other in regard to the intentionality with which we approach the fast.
Fasting may be a mini-sacrifice, but it’s not supposed to do damage. On Yom Kippur, we make concessions for particular conditions. For those who are ill, our tradition teaches that one should follow the advice of his physician. A pregnant woman who feels pulled between her pregnancy and a desire to fast on Yom Kippur can eat until she feels full, and then can refrain from eating. Fasting is a meaningful spiritual challenge.
And it’s the meaning that’s the second potential pitfall, when we call for communal fasts. The prophet Isaiah, whose words we’ll read tomorrow morning as our Haftarah, looks at his community during the Day of Atonement and asks, “Is this the Fast that I desire?” Isaiah recognizes that the Israelite community seeks a relationship with God, daily. But, when they fast, they fail to see God’s nearness. Because, even while they fast there are those seeing to their businesses. And, there are those continuing to do wrong by the community—those who are oppressing their laborers, violating that which is moral and correct.
We can fast without really meaning it. We can fast and behave with righteous intent one day, and the other 364 days of the year return to bad behavior. For a fast to be meaningful, it needs to be connected to the other days of the year.
And so, this Kol Nidrei, I want to ask you: what meaning will your fast will take? Many of us will refrain from food, drink, leather, and the like over the holiday. What intention will we insert into that void? On what do we focus? As we neglect food for this holiday, who do we neglect the other days of the year? As we steer clear of other enjoyments and luxuries, when have we put our wants over our needs, our greed over our own wellbeing? In what ways have we neglected our bodies and our selves? In what ways have we neglected our partners, our parents, our children, our friend, our community? In what ways have we neglected others, failing to care for the most vulnerable in our society, failing to care for our environment? Fasting leaves a spiritual vessel open for us into which we can place our hopes, our cares, our aspirations, and our connection to God.
In the agency to restrict that in which we would normally partake, we are choosing to focus our energy on something that can really matter. In fasting, each of us has the opportunity to define and tune in to that which is sacred in our lives. Fasting is fiercely personal. No one else can do this spiritual work for us.
When we offer one another Tzom Kal as a Yom Kippur wish, we literally say “May this be an easy fast for you.” I’ve heard some say, “May this be a meaningful fast.” My wish for each of us on this Yom Kippur is that we choose to fast in a way that is both purposeful and impactful. And to see that fast carried through not only on Yom Kippur, but that we are able to recognize the agency of our lives, especially around our spiritual lives. And that we take the reigns, and hold fast to our spiritual lives all the other days of the year.
May 5778 be a year of intention and purpose. May we recognize that there will be things we have to go without. May this fast help us to be better people, individuals who have grown in our abilities and in our dispositions. May we take ownership of our Jewish and our spiritual lives, and there find meaning, sanctity, and God.
: The Future of the American Jew (1948), 49.
: Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament
: I Samuel 14:24.
: Theological Dictionary of OT.
: Greenberg, Irving; Moment Magazine, The Struggle Over a Date for Yom HaShoah (http://www.momentmag.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/The-Struggle-Over-a-Date-for-Yom-haShoah.pdf).
: Orot HaChayim 618:1.
: MT Hilkhot Shevitat ‘Asor 2:9.