by Tracie Guy-Decker
Regular readers of my guest blogs on the Simon Family JCC site will know that I often write about the Jewish holidays as I experience them (again) through my 3-year-old daughter’s eyes. Indeed, my thoughts about Rosh Hashanah last week followed that theme. For Yom Kippur, I am feeling slightly more self-reflective.
The most recognizable component of Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement,” to the non-Jew is likely the fast. Traditionally, Jewish people fast for the 25 hours of the holiday. This fast is meant to be a complete fast, and the rabbis tell us it consists of abstaining from five things: food, water, washing or anointing the body, sexual intercourse, and wearing leather shoes.
In my memory bank of 38 Yom Kippur observances (and maybe a few lack thereof), I have this deeply rooted understanding that we fast from the sustenance of the body in order to focus all of our attention on the sustenance of the soul. In Seasons of Our Joy, Arthur Waskow writes, “The mouths not used for food were used for chanting praise to God” (p. 33).
I’ve been thinking a lot about that idea—that we are asked to somehow suppress our physical selves in preference to our spiritual selves—because of my experience right before Rosh Hashanah this year.
On the Friday before Rosh Hashanah (which, you remember, began on a Sunday evening), I discovered a growing, hot, red rash that looked much like a bullseye, just above my left knee. It was precisely the same spot where, about 10 days prior, I’d removed a tiny tick. My trip to the urgent care provider confirmed my fear: this is Lyme disease.
The good news for me is that I caught it very quickly. Once I complete my three-week course of antibiotics, I am likely to have no lasting effects of the disease. Still, it was not an easy experience for me. I had extreme body aches and headaches, swollen eyelids, and what felt like cotton shoved cruelly into the recesses of my skull. The painkiller provided short islands of tolerable pain in a sea of excruciating pain. Further, I happen to get nauseated when in extreme pain. So in addition to the pain, I was physically ill many times.
I actually was fasting from most of the five things from which the rabbis tell us to abstain (I did shower many times, since the hot water gave me small respite from the headaches).
I was not thinking of God. Nor was I praying, unless you count “please, God, let me not throw up again” or “please, God, let me make it the next hour until I can take more pain meds.”
When, after a full three days on the antibiotics, I woke up on Rosh Hashanah day (Monday), with only the slightest trace of a headache, I certainly did say a prayer of thanksgiving. (Though if I’m honest with myself, I’m not sure if I was praying to God or to Alexander Fleming and his miraculous discovery.) The timing of the whole experience made me very curious to see more about what the rabbis have to say about this fast that I—and millions of other Jewish people—am about to undertake. (Though I will not execute a full fast, as I will definitely be ingesting enough food and water to consume at least three capsules of amoxicillin on Wednesday.)
In Leviticus, (JPS translation), we read:
The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Mark, the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be a sacred occasion for you: you shall practice self-denial…” (23:26).
The root of the word the JPS translators render “self” (in “self-denial”) is nefesh, a word often translated as “soul,” but may more accurately be translated as “ego” or “person.” Though the JPS’s choice of “self” is certainly more poetic. What I find most interesting about the word choice—in both Hebrew and English—is that the Torah does not say “afflict your bodies” or some other construction that speaks mainly to the physical.
My tick-borne affliction of the body was not one that I chose, and so it did not allow the sublimation of my ego/person/self in place of the greater good that is my community and the divine.
On Yom Kippur itself, from bemas the world over, Jewish people will hear words that will speak to this truth. The Leviticus portion I excerpted above will be followed by a reading from Isaiah (57:14 – 58:16) in which the prophet angrily tells the community that a fast that consists of an empty belly is not enough. In God’s voice he asks, “Is such the fast I desire, / A day for men to starve their bodies?” (58:5).
The prophet goes on to answer his own question:
No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock the 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. (58:6 – 58:7)
The fast of Yom Kippur is not to just to withhold the bread from my belly, but to share it with the hungry. It is not just to afflict the self, but to repair the world. For how can we have compassion for the hungry if we always have a full belly? How can we recognize our own privileges—whether they be full bellies or pain-free mornings or any other host of comforts we take for granted—if we never take the time to acknowledge them?
Once again the ancient voices reach into the present—and, I hope, my future—and surprise me with their wisdom.
For all those who observe, this year I will not wish you an easy fast. Rather, I pray that we all achieve a meaningful fast. Shanah Tovah u’Metuchah, wishing you a good, and sweet, new year.
This year, Yom Kippur begins on the evening of Tuesday, September 22 and ends the evening of Wednesday, September 23. The Simon Family JCC will be closed Wednesday in observance.
Tracie Guy-Decker is a freelance writer and artist. She and her husband, a Navy Chief, and their three-year-old daughter share their home with a poorly behaved dog and a six-toed cat. She can be reached at email@example.com.