For the past few days, people have been wishing me “an easy fast,” and I’ve been saying the same to them. Today is Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, and it’s common to wish your fellow Jew an easy time with the 25-hour fast mandated on this day.
Last night, at the pre-fast dinner, my mother mentioned that it’s such an odd thing to say. Of course, we don’t wish discontent on anyone, and so it is a very human trait to want to wish others an easy journey.
But fasting isn’t meant to be easy, my mother said. It’s supposed to be difficult. Otherwise, how would we shake up and wake up into the atoning we are supposed to do on this day?
Before I go any further, I should admit that I come from a tradition of not fasting. My family never did, and we still observed Yom Kippur. Most Jews do, although they suffer through the day and the agonizing anxiety that pre-empts it.
And personally, I observed Yom Kippur strictly for the decade that I was Orthodox, fasting and all, even when I was nine months pregnant with my daughter. I don’t have any physical problem fasting; it’s an emotional or intellectual barrier that I face, and every year, I reckon with my own struggles surrounding this day.
Actually, that’s not true.
I do not struggle with how I feel about Yom Kippur. I hate this day. I don’t believe in mandatory 25-hour atoning. It’s too much, too heavy, too ominous.
I believe in regular reckoning, where we go inward and contemplate how we are living, our character, our priorities. I prefer daily, if you want me to be honest. We get one chance at this life, and we must make sure we are on top of our game.
But my mother has a point – why should we wish today to be easy? It isn’t easy, by definition. Jewish Law forbids eating, drinking, bathing, “anointing,” and intimate relations. We also aren’t supposed to wear leather.
The rabbis say it’s so we are freed from all the normal daily functions to really focus on how we can be better in the coming year.
If only that were true. During my first Yom Kippur in an Orthodox synagogue, I remember a break in services around 1 p.m., and we all poured out of the synagogue to take in the sunshine and blue sky. We sat outside in a balmy 70-degree day, chatting and relaxing. And what stunned me was the the conversations veered mostly toward food.
We were hungry, thirsty, eager to end the fast and resume our normal routine.
And in the end, isn’t that the truth? That we are human and our failings complete and constant. We can choose to improve ourselves on a regular basis, or we can choose to sweep these moments under the rug and pretend everything is perfect.
Fasting is not easy and it shouldn’t be, and it is kindness that motivates to wish others an easy fast. One might say life is not easy, why should we encourage others to strive for the easy?
But I would argue there, too. Why do we have to operate by a belief that life is inherently hard? Isn’t that a choice of perspective?
Ben Zoma said in Ethics of the Fathers 4:1, “Who is rich? One who is satisfied with his lot…”
When you accept what you have rather than yearn for what you don’t, nothing is hard. Life is good. You are complete, satisfied and content.
If a person fasts because he believes he should, because he wants to experience the absence of food and drink to truly atone, then how miserable can he be?
I would argue that those wishing for an easy fast are those who don’t really want to do it but out of guilt or obligation or a belief that they are supposed to do something, fast. Those who fast because they choose to, because they make a decision to do it despite the discomfort, who embrace the discomfort because it is part of their ethos and their belief system, how hard is the fast, really?
And therein lies the main question: are we living according to our own beliefs? Or are we living according to the expectations of others?
On this Day of Atonement, that’s the question I seek to answer.