By Philip Lerman
Why do I fast on Yom Kippur?
There are not many rituals I still keep from my younger days. The Jewishy stuff in my life was fairly common: Reading Philip Roth, lighting candles on Chanukkah, feeling guilty about everything.
But I started fasting again, and going to synagogue on the high holy days, and incorporating more rituals into my life, after my child Max was born. Partly because I wanted Max to have the option: Let Max see what it is to be in a Jewish house, and then choose later how much to keep, or reject, just as I did when I was older. But Max will always have it there to return to, just as I have.
So partly I returned to the Jewish rituals for Max, but partly it was for me, too. There was something reassuring about focusing on something larger than yourself. Of giving thanks, and atoning, in a proper and ritualistic way. And one of the more important parts of Jewish life I’ve returned to is fasting on Yom Kippur.
But still – when my cousin Debbie wished us all a meaningful fast the other day, it occured to me: What, exactly, is that meaning? And specifically, what is that meaning for me?
I guess on one level, fasting was my first experience of mindfulness. I know the term gets bandied about so much these days that it seems meaningless (and I’ll admit, the $10-a-month mindfulness app on my phone is wrong on the face of it) – but for our family, it’s been quite literally life-saving. It helped me lose the weight that had me borderline diabetes; it was the practice that brought Max out of the depths of anxiety; and those who know that weird snorfling tic I have – that obsessive Felix Unger honk – may have noticed that it’s mostly gone now. Mindfulness (and the cognitive behavioral therapy behind it) were the cure.
So for starters, taking a day to stop doing – eating, watching, going, trying, helping, not-helping, attempting, achieving, writing, working, biking, cooking, making lists, crossing things off lists, laughing, joking, arguing, formulating, persuading, planning, and congratulating myself for the successful carrying out of a plan – stopping all that was, in itself, a mindfulness exercise. The fast wasn’t just not-eating, but not-doing, as well. It brought me into the moment, for a full day, once a year. And I can look back on it, afterwards, and call on the peace of that moment to carry me through others.
But the fast is more than a day-long meditation. The focus on facing your sins, apologizing for them, and releasing them, feels – to tell the truth – a bit selfish. I mean, let’s be honest. Have I pissed people off this year? No doubt. Done crappy self-centered mean-spirited things? Guilty. And to all those folks I have wronged: I don’t have to seek them out, say anything to them? I just apologize to God and I’m clean? Seems a little too easy. On Rosh Hashanah we do something called tashlich – we cast bread on the water, and symbolically throw away our sins. Good for us, I guess. But how does that help anyone we’ve wronged? (We throw the bread, by the way, down at a creek near our house, and invariably ducks come and eat it. So we’re cleansed, and they carry the sins with them – how nice for us, and how lousy for the ducks!)
But yes, I do know that the act of forgiving yourself, and imagining that God is forgiving you, is indeed a cleansing act. That’s not, however, the meaningful part for me.
What’s meaningful, I’ve come to understand, is this:
For one day, I forget getting.
So much of life is about getting. Getting food. Getting praise. Getting money. Getting work, getting stuff, getting ahead, getting laid, getting ready, getting going, getting Max to clean their room, getting someone to return my call. Getting careless. Getting the car, getting the guy, getting a present, getting the answer, getting the broken thing fixed, getting the new one to replace the old one. Getting in trouble, getting out of trouble. Getting caught in the act.
Getting over it.
And so on Yom Kippur, when I fast, and I sit in the synagogue and recite prayers, and then come home and sit in the yard, the thing I focus on is how much I already have. And how little I need. How lucky I am. How incredibly, earth-shatteringly, one-in-a-millionish lucky I am. To have the life I have. The family I have. The friends I have.
So tonight and tomorrow I will fast. And the day after tomorrow, I will pick up again, slowly, with the processes and procedures of getting. Of course I will. But hopefully, I will do it a little more mindfully.
Because anything I’m trying to get, I already have.
For those who are fasting, I wish you all a t’zom kal – an easy fast; but as I have just learned to say, I wish you t’zom moil – a meaningful one, as well. And for those who are not fasting, have a good yom tov.
Literally: A good, good day.