In the next few days, many of us will give each other the customary wish for the season, "an easy fast." Now I know pretty much everyone here, and have considerable affection for you all; but yet, I am going to wish you a very difficult fast. In fact, I am going to assert that the fast leads us directly to the three pillars of Judaism, to God, Torah and Israel, and that its difficulty is part of the process.
Why would I wish you a difficult fast? Any reasonably thoughtful child in our congregation might come up with one explanation: If your fast is difficult, that must mean that you usually enjoy a full tummy. If you are bothered by the unexpected inability to reach for food to satisfy you when you are empty, why, you are truly blessed. As the rabbi spoke on erev Rosh Hashanah, gratitude is the essential basis of religious feeling - our hunger must remind us, by its very novelty, of how fortunate we are.
But this level of meaning is not enough. Anyone can skip a few meals to attain a recognition of how lucky they are to feel hunger only when they choose, how lucky to have Grandma's briskit waiting at the end of this long day. But "luck" is existentially frightening, it is not faith and it is not Torah.
In tonight's parsha, Haazinu, "Jeshurun became fat, and kicked then he forsook God who made him, and lightly esteemed the Rock of his salvation." When we are sated, we might forget to be grateful to God. We might be complacent. Jeshurun is a name for Israel, possibly derived from the word ashrei, happy. Can we be too satisfied, too happy, too complacent? And if so, how does fasting bring us back to God?
One purpose of the fast, obviously, is noticing absence. Absence of food in the stomach, yes. But also absence of a much deeper, more complex nature. We are commanded (Deut 8:10), "You shall eat and be satisfied, and you shall bless." On this fast day, we have lost the opportunity to bless God at the conclusion of our meal, because there is no meal. We should notice this loss, we should feel it. We should miss that blessing. This should make our fast more difficult.
So the fast of Yom Kippur brings us physical hunger and it should also bring us some spiritual hunger. It should bring us to remember that every bite, every swallow, truly comes from God. It should remind us to bless and thank God when we do eat.
In some traditions, fasting is "mortifying the flesh." Is this our view of fasting? Torah uses the term "afflict" in ordaining our observance of Yom Kippur (Lev 16:29 and 16:31): "in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all. It shall be a sabbath of rest to you, and you shall afflict your souls..."
Here is the beautiful leap that the Talmud takes in discussing affliction, the leap which brings us a new insight.
In Egypt, Israel was afflicted by Pharoah with hunger, slave labor, and abuse.
In the wilderness after the Exodus, it was God who afflicted Israel with hunger and thirst, then assuaged it with manna and water.
And now, Israel is a free people. It is up to us to choose to afflict ourselves for a specific purpose. And the affliction of the body, the fast, is not an end in itself, it's a way to get our own attention, to reach deeper inside ourselves.
Fasting in Judaism is not punishment, it is not mortification of the flesh, and it is not in service to some ascetic ideal.
Fasting is a choice we make. It is a commandment, and we accept it, we accept the Torah, in order to teach ourselves to be closer to God, by noticing the absence of food, the absence of blessings, the absence of our normal daily rituals. Fasting is a luxury which a free people can choose to accept. Some starving Jews in concentration camps still chose to fast on Yom Kippur, both as a recognition of their religious obligation and as a stubborn statement that they were still strong enough, and free enough, to choose.
If you are very fortunate, you have at some point had (or will have) wonderful young children around you, who need to be fed even on Yom Kippur. You have the surreal, difficult experience of fasting yourself but feeding others: being hungry ourselves, yet nursing the baby, or fixing macaroni and cheese for the kids - and thereby remembering what an extraordinary blessing these children are, what a gift. You have, right there, the food in your hands and the growl in your stomach. You can see and feel how our choices as adults give these children the opportunity to learn about being Jews and about being strong, courageous, thoughtful adults who can make their own choices.
And as we look about us late on Yom Kippur afternoon, we marvel at all these other strong, thoughtful adults who are making the same shared stubborn optimistic choice of a holy people, a nation of priests. We reflect on the strength we draw from each other every day, from c'lal yisrael, from our community.
So the fast is about gratitude for the luck that we are not often hungry. It is about Grandma's briskit.
The fast is about God and it is about Torah, our tradition, and it is about Israel, valuing our community and each other.
And a difficult fast means that we "get it." We are aware of the fast, aware of ourselves, and aware of God's presence and what it demands of us.
I want to share yet two more levels of meaning of the fast on Yom Kippur: what it is, and what it is not.
The Talmud teaches that "The merit of a fast day lies in the charity dispensed" (Berachoth 6b) and, "If on a fast day, the distribution of alms is postponed overnight, it is just as though blood were shed" since the hungry, who needed it, might have died of starvation. Recall the Haftarah for Yom Kippur, in which Isaiah roars to Israel, "this is the fast that I have chosento undo the bonds of oppression, to let the crushed go free, and to break every yoke to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the outcast poor into your home ." (Isaiah 58)
In this way, the fast connects us beyond all of Israel and with all of humanity. On Rosh Hashanah morning, the rabbi taught that empathy is a primary quality we must possess and nurture in order to be fully human. A difficult fast should teach us empathy for the hungry, renews our connection with our fellow Jews and all people.
So a difficult fast should connect us to God, to Torah, to Israel and beyond, to all people.
Finally, then, let's remember what the fast is not. The fast is not magic or a quid pro quo. It's not a button we push to get results. We don't have the right to bargain with God, to say, OK, I fasted and now you gotta give me - whatever it is I want.
We have to earn our atonement and our self-respect and our redemption through our acts every day, all year, of righteousness, tzedakah, and g'milut chasadim, loving improvement of our world through deeds, prayer and study. The fast is one way we are commanded and we choose to teach ourselves these lessons - it is not an end in itself. It helps to get us refocused and ready for the challenges of our lives.
The yomim noraim, the Days of Awe, are all about preparing us to make the right choices: choices that connect us back to our best selves and to the world around us, to God, Torah and Israel.
So why do I want us all to have a difficult fast?
I hope that it is hard for us to fast because we are used to being full and it makes us grateful that we aren't empty very often, reminds us poignantly of God's gifts and our need to earn them.
I hope that its difficulty overwhelms us just a bit, reminds us of the demands that Torah places upon us, the need to live up to the very high standards of our tradition for an ethical and just life.
And I hope that it is difficult because it brings us to empathy with those in the community of Israel and throughout our world who are so used to hunger every day, every night, and brings us to act to fill their stomachs and lighten their burdens.
Making the right choices in an imperfect and complex world can be very difficult, and we just need to do the very best we can. I hope that wrestling with a difficult fast makes some of those choices a little clearer, maybe a little easier, for you throughout the coming year.
And then, as we learn in our Torah and Haftarah portions this week, "It is not a vain thing for you, because it is your life The Eternal will guide you always, filling your throat in parched lands and renewing your body's strength And you shall eat in plenty, and be satisfied, and praise the name of Adonai your God, who has dealt wondrously with you And you shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am Adonai your God."