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Leave your stomach out of it – pamper your soul on Yom Kippur

  • RabbiGreg
Zog the alien comes to Earth. The first human that Zog meets is you. And, as you explain life on Earth, you get to the Jewish stuff – the festivals, blessings, kashrut, Shabbat, and so on – and Zog finds this fascinating.
by RABBI GREG ALEXANDER | Sep 26, 2019

They don’t have Judaism on planet Zog. So, curious, you ask Zog what it/he/she thinks would be the most popular thing among all of these for Jews who are not, well, 100% committed to being Jewish every day?

Zog scratches his/her/its four chins and thinks, surely it would be something fun like Purim or Simchah Torah, or spiritual like davening, or ethical like marching for social justice? It might be baking challah (yum), or hearing the shofar.

The one thing that you can safely assume is that Zog wouldn’t guess that fasting on Yom Kippur would hit the top three. Why, out of all the many things that Jews could do, would the thing that resonates most every year involve sitting in shul and starving for 25 hours!

And yet, to my amazement, Yom Kippur remains one of the highlights of the Jewish year for those deeply involved as much as those on the peripheries of Jewish observance.

Why is it so enduring, and what brings people back to it year after year? Is it that we love a challenge, an endurance test? Or, are we a nation of masochists that loves to beat ourselves up with guilt and suffering? Or, is it more an annual act of tribal connection (well then why not connect on a happy festival with food to scoff)?

It could be for all of these reasons and more, but let me give you one more to add to your list. You see, most people see fasting as suffering, and indeed, the mitzvah (good deed) comes from the Biblical verse (Lev. 16:31), which states that on Yom Kippur, “you should afflict [or deprive] yourselves (v’anitem et nafshoteichem)”. Let’s be honest, who isn’t suffering by Yom Kippur afternoon when your head is a bit woozy, you are fantasising about (fill in your fantasy food, drink here) and your breath smells like a buffalo died in your mouth?

But, why come back year after year to make ourselves suffer? Isn’t there enough suffering in our lives, in this world? Is that a motivation for Jewish practice today?

What we really need instead of more guilt and suffering are the tools to lift our lives, give us strength, dignity, compassion, meaning, and inspire us to be the divine beings that we are created to be. How does fasting serve that end?

I like to see Yom Kippur less as suffering and more as a luxury spa. A day to turn off phones, turn off the world outside, and journey into our inner world. A day that we have to worry about nothing except who we are and who we want to be. All day. Intensely focused. So much so that we don’t need to break, even to eat or drink. It’s like Shabbat on steroids. It’s actually called that in the Torah – Shabbat Shabbaton – the Shabbat of Shabbatot, the super Shabbes!

In fact, when he came to write the requirements of this day, Maimonides (Spain 1135 to 1204) codified the laws of Yom Kippur as enabling our bodies “to rest from food and drink”. To rest (lishbot), the verb with the same root as Shabbat – resting, restoring ourselves, like we do each week when Shabbat comes in. Not in the sense of prohibition, but rather in the sense of re-creation and repair. (Laws of Sh’vitat Ha-Asor 1:4). In other words, Yom Kippur is not to be seen as the chief day of suffering, but a day to reboot, restore, “re-Jewvenate” and all those other re- words that we need so much right now.

One can see each of the five services on Yom Kippur as a meal. Yes, you aren’t actually eating, but you are feeding your soul. On Shabbat, we famously eat an extra-special meal, seudah shlishit, making for three “feasts”. But on Yom Kippur, we have five feasts – kol nidrei, the morning service, and mussaf, mincha, and neilah. That’s a full day of feasting, not fasting, each service a delectable banquet of soul food. Forget hunger, leave your stomach out of it, and pamper your soul.

We live lives that are so pressured, so demanding, so filled with input from our phones, work, Netflix, that we are rarely given time to think. Yom Kippur is an island in time, a day to switch off and come back to ourselves, to return, return, return and, in doing so, find ourselves again. That is its gift. That’s why people keep coming back for it and to it. And, if we stop seeing it as a day to “get through” but rather a pamper day to luxuriate in, we might get more benefit from it.

So instead of wishing for an “easy fast” this year, let’s wish each other a “delicious one”. May we all have a restorative one, a meaningful one, a transforming one. May this Yom Kippur bring you the opportunity to go deeper and emerge stronger, happier, and more peaceful when you reach the other side.

From Andrea and my family to yours, a chatimah tovah, and a delicious fast.

  • Rabbi Greg Alexander is one of the rabbinic team at the Cape Town Progressive Jewish Congregation.

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