Not So Fast: A Reflection for Yom Kippur

Rabbi Dan Ornstein, Congregation Ohav Shalom, AlbanyFor Jews, fasting is the trademark religious practice of Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement for personal and communal wrongdoing. Yom Kippur emphasizes the importance of repentance and forgiveness. Refraining from eating and drinking for a full day is a ritual accompaniment to our feelings of contrition and to our commitments to being better people in the coming year. Denying ourselves the basic necessities of food and drink forces us to remember that the world does not revolve around us and our desires. We also fast to cultivate empathy with the poor and the needy, who often go without adequate life necessities on a daily basis. For these and other reasons, Jews – along with so many other people of faith – fast on specific holy days like Yom Kippur.

Yet what happens when a ritual like fasting becomes ritualistic, a rote form of religious behavior which someone performs out of habit or out of the belief that it is a kind of magic that forces God to reward us? Ritualism by itself is not necessarily a problem except when this kind of behavior becomes a substitute for the ethical and spiritual values the ritual was supposed to help us express. The prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 58) pointed this out to his fellow Israelites thousands of years ago. Relaying to the people God’s criticism of their oppressive behavior, he imagined -perhaps even imitated – them lodging the following complaint against God, then God’s response:

“Why, when we fasted did You not see?

[Why], when we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?”

Because on your fast day

You see to your business

And oppress all your laborers!

Because you fast in strife and contention,

And you strike with a wicked fist!

Your fasting today is not such

As to make your voice heard on high.

The community assumed that it could behave as unjustly as it wished, then obliterate its culpability through rituals such as fasting. However, Isaiah then told them, that is not how things work with God Who demands just behavior from society:

Is such the fast I desire,

A day for men to starve their bodies?

Is it bowing the head lie a bulrush

And lying in sackcloth and ashes?

Do you call that a fast,

A day when the Lord is favorable?

Imagine sitting in Isaiah’s house of worship on a day like Yom Kippur, listening to him thundering these words in God’s behalf. You hear him utter each of these rhetorical questions and you wonder: “Is the prophet talking to me? Have I missed the meaning of this fasting practice?   What is the whole point of this fast if not self-denial? And what if anything does this fast have to do with treating my employees better and being more peaceful? Come on, religion is religion and business is business!”

Then Isaiah answers your questions:

No, this is the fast I desire:

To unlock fetters of wickedness,

And untie the cords of the yoke

To let the oppressed go free;

To break off every yoke.

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 him,

And not to ignore your own kin.

You hear Isaiah speaking God’s plaintive, demanding words, and suddenly you get it. God is not saying, “Ritual doesn’t matter, just engage in acts of social justice.” God is saying, “The whole point of this fast is to afflict your bodies and souls so that you begin to understand what want, hunger, deprivation and oppression feel like. If you think that your religious life and your ethical behavior are separate entities, not so fast! Think again, as you continue fasting.”

Yom Kippur ends, and you return to your normal life of eating and drinking. But you have grown, you have changed. You have felt what hunger and want feel like, even if only for a few hours. You decide that evening, “I have tasted the other side of injustice, howbeit briefly. It is time for me to do what God needs me to do: make the world better, starting with my own piece of it.”

This is why Jewish tradition developed the practice of reading these passages from Isaiah during Yom Kippur worship. To remind us what our fasting is truly about.

May all of our worship and religious traditions help us strengthen our partnerships with God to wipe out injustice and bring about the healing of humanity.