R’ Debra Rappaport, AARC, Kol Nidre 5783 / 2022
I’ve been wanting to write this sermon for a very long time. It’s called “Fasting & Nourishment.” I’ve always been curious about why so many Jewish people, especially those who don’t observe the letter of the Jewish law throughout the year, take the Yom Kippur fast so earnestly. Tonight I’m going to reflect on the layers of significance of a 25 hour fast on the holiest day of the year.
In full disclosure, I don’t observe a halakhic, pure fast of abstention from all food and water; and I understand the appeal, and it’s complicated. At its best, fasting on Yom Kippur gives us the opportunity to bring increased awareness to the true nourishment we receive from all we consume, food and otherwise. I believe that bringing conscious awareness to all of what we take in is an important aspect of honoring the godliness in each one of us, created b’tzelem elohim, in God’s image. When we honor our own bodies and souls, we are able to show up for others at our best, and do our piece of tikkun olam. So here are some teachings from our tradition and some reflections for today.
Why fast on Yom Kippur?
Where does the custom of fasting on Yom Kippur originate? The Torah commands that all the Israelites on this day are to practice self-denial, bring a holy offering, and not do our ordinary work. (Lev. 16:29 and Lev 23:27-32) The Hebrew for self-denial is: נּוּ֣ע ַתְּ
כםֶ֗תיֵשׁ ֽ ֹפ ְנַאת־ ֶThe root, ayin-nun-heh, became a word for fasting. Literally, though, t-annu et nafshotechem translates to “afflict or humble your body-soul.” While the Torah does not define what is meant by affliction, it makes clear that if you don’t observe the command, you are to be cut off from the community. Karet, being sent away by your community, was the worst possible punishment for our forebears: one could not live without community. The threat was significant; people would observe.
In the rabbinic era, the early centuries of the common era, the Mishna – also known as Oral Torah – elaborates on what the Torah means by self-affliction, saying: “On Yom Kippur, the day on which there is a mitzvah by Torah law to afflict oneself, it is prohibited to engage in eating and in drinking, and in bathing, and in smearing oil on one’s body, and in wearing shoes, and in conjugal relations.” (Yoma 73b)
But, lest we think that simply following the laws of the written and oral Torah suffice, the prophet Isaiah, in our Haftarah we’ll read tomorrow, emphatically adds a moral layer to our fast: (Isaiah 58:3-7) Isaiah rejects the idea of our fast as some self-wallowing thing we do just to appease God. God says, I will be appeased when you not only feed the hungry and share your home with those experiencing homelessness, and make sure people have clothing. God says, I will celebrate your fast when you “unlock the fetters of wickedness… and free the oppressed” According to Isaiah, our fast must be accompanied by acts of justice to be meaningful.
Our tradition also has other examples of fasting. Some fasts are the physical demonstration of atonement, of teshuvah. Tomorrow’s afternoon Haftarah, the story of Jonah, tells of the people of Nineveh’s fast of atonement. Another biblical type of fast is in supplication, a way of showing God you’re serious and humble about your prayers; Our Purim heroine Esther demonstrates this type of fast for three days before approaching King Ahashueros on behalf of the Jewish people.
The fast of Yom Kippur evokes all these and more. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg describes Yom Kippur’s fasting from all bodily functions as a way to come face to face with our mortality. By denying all our physical needs, we enact a death within life, in order to embrace life all the more passionately. Writer Penina Adelman articulated the beauty of the Yom Kippur fast in these words: “Praying when fasting feels the way I imagine it to be when one who is facing death prays. Priorities become as clear as a finely tuned radio. Feelings are sharp and at times as overwhelming as a tidal wave. The senses are more vivid and vibrant. I am inside the birdsong, the flower’s scent, the fallen leaf’s changing colors. How ironic that on a day when we are denying our physicality, we may experience the physical world more strongly than ever.”
To recap so far, Jews fast on Yom Kippur because it’s commanded, and we fast to remember all those among us who don’t have enough to eat and who are afflicted by those in power taking advantage of those with less power; to speak out, to identify with the afflicted and to take action to support them. We fast to to physically enact our teshuvah, to encounter our mortality, to focus so deeply on our prayers, as these all speak to waking up from our sleepwalking through life and really embrace what we’re here for. And we fast in solidarity.
Complicating factors/Other Aspects
All of these traditional reasons we fast on YK are powerful, and perhaps even more relevant today. Yet there are complicating factors.
Some of us have a medical condition in which fasting makes you sick or does harm to our bodies or our mental health. Some of us have eating disorders, in which case an association of fasting with holiness can truly be life-threatening, not life-affirming.
Fasting is a striking act of asserting agency over our bodies. It’s a powerful spiritual practice when having agency over our eating and our bodies in general is the norm, but it has often not been the norm – for women, for people who are enslaved, for people who live in poverty. Today is a day to appreciate that our fast is a choice.
Moreover, as a society, we are less than healthy in our eating habits and in our relationships with our bodies. While some among us have serious eating disorders, most of us have some level of disordered eating. With endless access to food, we eat when we’re bored, we eat when we’re anxious, we eat when we’re sad – often our eating is not connected with our metabolism. We eat without paying attention, while we’re driving, or at our computers. Families give mixed messages about when to eat and when not to eat: you should eat if it’s dinner time even if you’re not hungry, you shouldn’t snack even if you are hungry and so on.
In this room, I imagine everyone has ultimate agency over your own food consumption, and yet we are all impacted and distorted by our culture and our inheritance. If we are descendents of survivors of Nazi camps or other severe trauma from deprivation, that trauma is literally in our cells, perhaps triggered by fasting. And possibly healed by leaning into our actual agency today.
Further complicating our relationship with food, we can’t help but psychically consume messages from our consumer culture about body image, how we’re supposed to look, what we should eat, what we shouldn’t eat. Commercials entice us with foods and beverages that would make our doctors cringe. And then we add gendered layers of the messages around eating. Women’s relationships with our bodies, I believe, have suffered more than men’s for all who are alive today. Even as there are now a lot of body-positive messages that counter the thin and fit (and let’s not forget white and blond) expectations of the dominant culture, more and more men and certainly non-binary folks are suffering from body image expectations completely disconnected from their embodied experience. Feminism has taught us to honor our lived experiences, and sometimes prioritize them over the dominant culture’s dictates.
So where does all this leave us with regard to fasting?
My intention is to raise awareness and thus intentionality about our choices around what we consume. I feel like this fast – whether you’re literally fasting from food or practicing humility and self-denial in other ways – can focus our attention on all the little choices that contribute toward more sickness OR more wellbeing for our world. Our individual choices are like stones dropping into a lake – the ripples reach far and wide. I offer a spiritual take on our personal relationship with our bodies, and then a bit of reflection on the ripple effects.
A couple weeks ago, I learned a Hasidic text from my teacher R’ Jonathan Slater, from Likutei Morohan, a collection of teachings from Rebbe Nachman of Bretslav, the great-grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism. “Each of us must have great compassion for our physical body, to show it every illumination and each insight that the soul attains, so that the body might know, as well, of that insight.” R’ Nachman actually uses a passage from the Yom Kippur Haftarah to support this teaching. In our passage from Isaiah, which we usually read as “don’t ignore your kinfolk’s need” The Hebrew is לּםָֽע ַת ְת ִאֹל֖ ֥רְשׂ ָבּ ְמ ִוּ “‘do not ignore your own flesh’ (Is. 58:7). Precisely ‘your own flesh’! Do not turn away from having compassion for your own flesh, i.e., your own body. We must have great compassion for the body, to make it transparent, so that we can inform it of all the illuminations and insights that the soul attains.” When the body attains this state of good health and feeling cared for, “it is good for the soul, as she sometimes falls from her high estate. When the body is bright and shining, the soul can raise itself up and return to her state through the body. That is, through the delight of the body the soul can remember and return to her own delights.” This interdependence of our bodies and souls rings so true for me. What I like about the teaching is that Reb Nachman suggests that we need to tend to the health of both body and soul. And when we do that, either one can return us to balance with the other. Sometimes my mind gets so caught up in ideas that I lose my connection with what is really present in the moment. Then it’s my body, a physical experience, that re-integrates my body-soul. Fasting can bring us back to connecting with our physical selves. When your stomach is literally rumbling or your head aching, it is much harder to ignore. A reminder that, not only is my body here, but my body needs attention and care. This is about recognizing that tending to our bodies is also tending to the godliness within us.
There are so very many implications of each of our food choices – on biodiversity, on global food distribution, on waste and greenhouse gasses, on local sustainability vs corporate profits, on animal welfare, organic vs cheap, and so much more. Jonathan Safran Foer, in We Are the Weather, intimates all these implications when he writes, “We do not simply feed our bellies, and we do not simply modify our appetites in response to principles. We eat to satisfy primitive cravings, to forge and express ourselves, to realize community. We eat with our mouths and stomachs, but also with our minds and hearts. All my different identities – father, son, American New Yorker, progressive, Jew, writer, environmentalist, traveler, hedonist – are present when I eat, and so is my history.” If you’re like me, you infer various food choices from each of these markers of identity. Each of us has our own identities and communities; and each circle establishes norms of appropriate eating. Which means that each choice we make influences others’ choices.
Foer also speaks of the even wider ripple effect of our personal food choices: “Our food choices are social contagions, always influencing others around us – supermarkets track each item sold, restaurants adjust their menus to demand, food services look at what gets thrown away, and we order ‘what she’s having.’ We eat as families, communities, generations, nations, and increasingly as a globe. Individual consumer choices can activate collective action that is generative, not paralyzing. … We couldn’t stop our eating from radiating influence even if we wanted to.” (p. 201)
What does this day’s fast mean to you? Are there other fasts you might contemplate, like taking the day off of your device? Or off of certain apps? The day is an opportunity to bring mindfulness to all of our choices. Does this nourish? Or does it make you sick?
My prayer in the year ahead is that we grow in compassion for our embodied selves, and for the wellbeing of our neighbors. May this Day of Atonement increase all of our awareness of what and how we consume. May we discern what is actually nourishing for our bodies in real time as living organisms. May our choices have meaningful positive impact on the healing of our earth. I won’t wish you an easy fast. Wishing you a meaningful one. May you be inscribed for good in the book of life.
For Further Study and Action:
● AJWS From the Sources: Texts on Social Justice; Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: Bounty and Scarcity
● Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger ● Hazon’s Jewish discussion guide to Jonathan Safran Foer’s book We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast