Grateful for the challenge of Yom Kippur-
Fasting or Responding-
“אך בעשור לחדש השביעי יום הכפורים הוא......ועניתם את נפשותיכם”
“Mark, the tenth day of this seventh month, is the Day of Atonement....you shall practise self-denial (you shall fast)” (Leviticus 23:27)
I don’t like to fast. I would think that few do. I get grouchy and feel agitated in the course of the day , and rather than focusing on prayer I confess that the grumbling in my belly occupies too much of my attention. I wonder why the Torah legislated fasting as a means of atonement? There are of course not a few interpretations.To fast is to deprive yourself as punishment for your sins; you are detached from bodily needs and emerge more connected to your spiritual dimension as a human being;you can more fully devote yourself to prayer without the distractions of having to prepare food and engage in its consumption.
While I do fast and will continue to do so-it’s an integral part of Jewish tradition and practice-I continue to explore for newer meanings associated with the Hebrew root word for self-denial- “ענה.”
The meaning of this word can also be -”to answer, to respond.”
While grammatically the Hebrew verse is not constructed to be translated as “ you shall respond in or with your beings, souls,” I take the Midrashic liberty which is widely used in the Hassidic tradition to discover suggestions of other meanings, in spite of incorrect grammatical considerations.
Thus, “ ועניתם את נפשותיכם” could be translated as “You shall respond with your being and soul.”
Yom Kippur is a challenge, a question, an invitation.In the Garden of Eden God asked Adam -”איכה”-”Where are you?” Yom Kippur is a moment of being asked by the Divine-where are we? What is the nature of our spiritual and moral lives? Are we living up to the full integrity of who we are and could be?
It is no accident that the prophetic voice recited on Yom Kippur asks the following rhetorical question?
“Is such a fast I desire? (‘Because you fast in strife and contention,and you strike with a wicked fist!’).....No! this is the fast I desire-to unlock the fetters of wickedness...to let the oppressed go free...it is to share your bread with the hungry and to take the wretched into your home; when you see the naked to clothe him, and not ignore your own kin.”( Isaiah 58: 4-7)
The prophet does not eliminate the practice of fasting; he transcends it to a realm that highlights the spiritual challenge not only of Yom Kippur but of every day of our lives.
How responsive are we to the pain and needs of others? How open are we to the beauty and fullness of the world that summons our thanks and gratitude? How willing are we to not only engage in ritual but to translate feeling and intention into deed and response to change the world in some small way?
On Yom Kippur we are called upon by Divine wisdom to respond-to rise to levels of the angelic so that “your light will burst forth like the dawn and your healing will will spring up instantly.”(Isaiah 57 :8)
Imagine the following: Each Yom Kippur, the Jewish people, all who fast, contribute the cost of their daily meals to the hungry of the world. Assuming there are approximately 10 million Jews who fast out of a total population of 14 and 1/2 million world population of Jews and that the cost of 3 meals a day is equivalent to $50.00, conceivably the Jewish people as an act of moral response and the sanctification of the Divine Name, could contribute to the the poor and wretched of this planet a sum of $500 million -1/2 a billion dollars!! Imagine the impact upon the hungry, the Jewish people and the world at large.