Five times, the Torah repeats that on the tenth day of the seventh month, the Day of Atonement, we should afflict our souls. Our sages interpret this verse of Torah to mean that we should fast from food and water, and abstain from bathing and intercourse. This piece of Mishnah has guided our people for generations, placing the fasting ritual at the center of our Yom Kippur practice as means to achieve complete atonement of our sins. However, like many Jewish traditions, the ritual of fasting is just a tool intended to aid our introspection, and increase our awareness of the suffering surrounding us. While it may appear from these ancient rules that the most important part of Yom Kippur is self denial, Torah proves that the most important mitzvah we should follow on Yom Kippur is to turn ourselves away from evil and injustice.
In the story of Jonah, after he emerges from the whale, God sends him to the city of Nineveh to instruct the people to fast and to repent for their sins. Shortly after Jonah delivered Adonai’s instructions to the king, a message arrived to the people: “By decree of the king and his nobles: No man or beast—of flock or herd—shall taste anything! They shall not graze, and they shall not drink water! They shall be covered with sackcloth—man and beast—and shall cry mightily to God. Let everyone turn back from his evil ways and from the injustice of which he is guilty. God’s wrath may be turned back, so that we do not perish.”
While fasting is mentioned in God’s instruction to the people of Nineveh, the Talmud teaches, “it is not sackcloth and fasting that cause atonement for our sins. Rather, repentance and good deeds will cause our atonement.” The talmud proves this by citing the final verse in this chapter of Jonah, stating: “God saw what they did, how they were turning back from their evil ways. And God renounced the punishment, and did not carry it out.” The Talmud further clarifies this proof text saying, “it is not stated: And God saw their sackcloth and their fasting.”
Similarly, in the Haftarah that we will read tomorrow morning, God instructs Isaiah to announce to the people their transgressions so they could atone for their sins, walk the right path, and be closer to God. The people had already fasted, and frustrated with God, Isaiah replied - “Why, when we fasted, did You not see? When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?”
God replied, “Because on your fast day You see to your business And oppress all your laborers! Because you fast in strife and contention, And you strike with a wicked fist! Your fasting today is not such as to make your voice heard on high. Is this the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head and lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, a day when Adonai is favorable? No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock 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 them, and not to ignore your own kin.”
By starving themselves for one day while going about their regular business, the people did not fulfill the introspective task that true repentance demands. The fast provided no meaning, nor did it help them turn away from evil and injustice as the Torah instructs. As we continue reading, Adonai’s conditions are clarified. If the people follow Adonai’s instructions, they will be protected. If they banish evil speech and the menacing hand, and if they offer compassion to the hungry, and if they feed the famished creatures...then, and only then will Adonai guide them and give them strength.
If you are fasting this Yom Kippur, it is likely that you feel deeply connected to
this tradition, and that is reason enough to follow through. Fasting can provide us with a hint of suffering, it can evoke compassion for the other, but it is not the only way. Intentional prayer and reflection can also help us find compassion, recognize our flaws, and commit to being better people. The fast that Adonai desires is not one of self deprivation, but one of moral transformation.
May we each find a path that leads us to moral transformation.