Atone for What?

by David Meyer

Why will I fast on Yom Kippur this year? To fast or not to fast is an annual game time decision. When I choose to fast or attend services, it is on the grounds that those are, simply put, the activities Jews should be doing on Yom Kippur. Some years I even break the fast early on the grounds that I’ve sufficiently satisfied my desire to engage with Jewish traditions and customs —the lived experience of being Jewish. Other years, I am inspired by my friends and family to persist until the end of Ne’ilah. I’ve always made fasting a decision into which I put serious thought and consideration, but my thoughts have always been about peoplehood rather than spirituality. I would not be surprised if other Habonim Dror members and alumni have felt similarly.

But reading through the Yom Kippur haftarah, Isaish 57:14-58:14, it is clear that this is a false dichotomy. Jewish peoplehood and culture are hollow and useless without spirituality. In the text, God makes it explicitly clear that fasting cannot exist in its own bubble. Simply put, bad people also fast – and they do so for selfish reasons, while oppressing their laborers, seeing to their own business and not understanding their obligation to the people and society around them. The text reads: “If you banish the yoke from your midst,/ The menacing hand, and evil speech,/ And you offer your compassion to the hungry/ And satisfy the famished creature-/ hen shall your light shine in darkness,/ And your gloom shall be like noonday.” This Yom Kippur, I choose to fast in order provide space for my own internal reflection. Still, as the old movement saying goes, “the affairs of humankind are politics.” I will refrain from eating not only to atone for myself, but in order to reflect on my place in the world – as a Jew and as a human.

Posted in Rosh haShana 5775.