Judaism: Fasting: What For?
Our calendar is dotted with a number of fast days, days when we are called upon to deny ourselves the deep and satisfying pleasure of food and drink. Some of these fasts, like Tsom Gedaliah, Asarah beTevet, Shiva Asar B’Tamuz and Tisha B’Av, are public and recall dark events in our history. Others, like Ta’anit Esther, remind us of moments of agony coupled with ultimate salvation.
And, of course, there is our fast on Yom Kippur at the conclusion of the awe-filled Days of Repentance.
These fasts demand that we bring “suffering” upon ourselves. But why? And perhaps most importantly, do our fasts accomplish what the mitzvah demands? After all, the events that these fasts commemorate happened long, long ago. How could we possibly identify with those times. And how does giving up our Starbucks help us do so?
We know that the purpose of our fasts are to motivate us toward repentance, reflection and introspection. But, really, are hunger pangs, deprivation and caffeine-loss headaches the best way to accomplish this?
I wasn’t sure. So I polled a number of good, observant Jews and asked them, “How/what do you feel when you fast?”
A number of the responses were a variation of, “We Jews love to suffer. Our fasts prove it.”
Some fasted for no other reason than the obligation to fast. “It is suffering without purpose or context,” they complained. Some felt put out by the need to fast.
Others showed flashes of humor in their responses. “Would Gedaliah have fasted for me?”
Almost every person assessed the minor fasts differently than they did Yom Kippur or Tisha B’Av where the power of the moment combined with the demands of the fast to create a sense of holiness. For them, the minor fasts seemed more like transitory obstacles rather than moments of holy introspection.
“Fast days make me feel as though there is a dark cloud hanging over me. I feel weak. Anxious. And hungry. Very hungry!”
Wouldn’t our focus on repentance, reflection and the significance of these tragedies be more powerful if we were not depleted and distracted by our interest in “How much longer?”
For those of us who live to eat (versus eat to live!) few things have the potential to break us down and put us out of sorts as taking away our pleasure. However, there is another way to view fasting, a way that was articulated by a dear friend of mine who had a passion for his chosen profession, medicine. His zeal and determination to become the very best doctor he could be was a blessing to his patients.
When he was an intern, he actually resented the time that eating took away from his experience of learning. Consequently, he got into the habit of not eating during the day. By not eating breakfast, lunch and dinner, he could focus on his responsibilities and actually get home an hour or two earlier than some of his colleagues.
He laughed as he related his experience to me. “All those years of not eating during the day. I almost never feel hunger during the day, but when I get home at night, I am like Pavlov’s dog. I am practically starving by the time I walk through the door.” Which brought him to my question. “During a fast of only one daylight, I hardly recognize that I’m fasting. As a consequence, it requires a conscious effort for me to remember that it is a fast day and why, and what I should be doing or thinking.
“Fast days that begin at night - well, remember, I tend to be hungry at night when the fast begins, as I am when I return home from shul. Interestingly enough, during ta’anit like Yom Kippur that begin the night before I don’t need ‘reminders’ to focus me on the fast and what it means. Of course, my awareness might also have a lot to do with being in shul most of the day."
It is only during fasts that challenge his “Pavlovian response” that the actual fasting impresses itself upon him. But the act of fasting itself does not seem to focus his thoughts more surely on the message and meaning of the commemoration.
If fasting seems not to accomplish its purpose either with those for whom the physical deprivation is easy or difficult, why do we persist in engaging in fasts? Certainly because it is commanded. That is reason enough. But when called upon to observe a mitzvah aren’t we better off for finding meaning in the doing of that mitzvah, as well as in the rationale for doing it?
I think that, to truly grasp the power of fasting, we have to confront the power of what it is that we are giving up. What is more essential, more basic, to our physical existence than eating and drinking? In our need to eat and drink, we are no different than any other beast of the field.
The demand for repentance is a demand that we become “other”, that we step outside our basic selves. Certainly, that means that we leave behind our more base selves and embrace our more holy selves.
What better way to accomplish that than to abstain from the act that makes us thoroughly and completely basic?
Strip away our physical need and what is left? Neshama. The soul. It is true that God created us as physical beings but not only physical beings. There are times when we must test what it means to leave our physical selves behind. It is not easy. Our physical selves cry out in discomfort. We must allow our souls to raise themselves above that discomfort. When we walk home after Neilah, our thoughts should not be, “Boy, am I am hungry!” but rather, “I am purified!”
By afflicting our bodies, we afflict our souls – the true goal of the fast. Jewish values do not embrace physical affliction. Rather, the Torah teaches us to “afflict your soul.”
“V'inisem es nafshoseichem.” Afflict your soul so your physical existence has meaning. We fast to awaken ourselves from a deep slumber; from the numbness of apathy and egotism; from the superficiality of our physical existence. We fast to wake up!
We know intellectually that there will be a day when we shirk off our physical selves forever. We will die. We know it in our heads but in our hearts we believe we will live forever. This is the reason an eighty year old man can stare at his wrinkled reflection in the mirror and be astonished that the smooth face of a young boy is not looking back at him.
“Where did the time go?”
The moments seem to slip by so slowly and imperceptibly - when can we actually feel the passage of time? The sands slip through so gently. It is only the tzom, the rare moment that demands that we discard the temporal, that we shirk, if only for a few, short hours, the comfort of our physical selves. It is only then that we have the chance to glimpse the person we are beyond our bodies.
Only through those long hours, coming to their magnificent conclusion at neilah, do we finally begin to get to a place where our awareness is not merely intellectual, but deeper and therefore more frightening.
Our end is nigh.
We know it because we can feel it during our fasts. And, feeling it, we have the opportunity to move forward from our fasts by making our lives more holy and meaningful.
The psalmist wings, “So teach us to number our days, that we may get us a heart of wisdom.”
Even for those who are “observant”, mitzvot often lose power because they are done almost by reflex. We mumble brachot so fast so that the words have no sound or meaning. We speed through the Amidah so perfunctorily that we sometimes cannot remember if we’ve said, Ya’aleh v’Yavo. We cover the challah before Kiddush so as “not to embarrass the challah or hurt its feelings” but then go on to say things at the dinner table that embarrass someone.
Many engage in ritual but never emerge from it with an increase in holiness or meaning. Like fasting, it is so often “a drag”.
Suffering without meaning or purpose.
For Rabbi Dov Fischer, it is just the opposite. It is the backwards ticking clock, teaching us the urgency of holiness and meaning.
It is taught that in the days of the Messiah, the commemorative fast days will be abolished. “All of these fast days,” the Rambam writes, “will be nullified… Moreover, they will all become days of sason v’simcha – of rejoicing.”
It is difficult to fast. Demanding. It is not meant to be easy or enjoyable. But, until Messianic times we must do it, because the job is not yet done. During the Messianic days, we will be truly holy. Until then, we focus on our bodies rather than our souls. And so we need to stop and separate ourselves from our basic bodily needs. We need to fast so that we can know, truly know, that we will, indeed, one day “shuffle off this mortal coil.”