Fasting as a Spiritual Energizer

Fasting as a Spiritual Energizer
Yom Kippur Morning 5780
Wednesday, October 9, 2019
Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo, New York

Is this the fast I desire?
Starving and bowing and laying down in ashes?
No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness, to set the oppressed free.
[Isaiah 58:5-6]

Isaiah railed against our ancestors for coming into the Temple and offering empty sacrifices and fasts and the outward signs of repentance. He said:

I see your hypocrisy - this is not a once a year thing - we must take care of those in need, we must fight injustice every day of the year. There is no making up for a year of ignoring problems with one day of fasting and confessions.

You have all heard this message before. We read it every year on this day. We are all accustomed to being told that we don’t do enough, that we need to step up, and here are the ways that we need to improve.

I call upon all of us - this is not the message. Leave the guilt behind. The guilt is holding us back. What we need from Isaiah and Yom Kippur is the inspiration to enter this New Year refreshed, renewed, and reminded that for this day to work we must return to the everyday of our normal lives transformed with new energy.

Let us take this message about authentic fasting differently. We don’t need to feel bad for not doing enough. We need to figure out how to use our fast days better. We need to find a way to make our fast serve us in the good work that we are doing. We need to hear Isaiah’s words as a cheer for the work we are doing and an opportunity to find the strength to continue it. Let us find new sources of inspiration and energy.

We must regard Yom Kippur as a gift, not an obligation.

This is a time when we can step out of our habits, leave behind the busyness of our lives, and find something else, something deeper or higher, something more meaningful, something holy.

For centuries Jews have relied on our holidays throughout the year to provide us the spiritual nourishment to take on the challenge of transforming ourselves and the world through righteous action. We can do a full accounting of our soul, a cheshbon ha-nefesh, once a year, but our souls need more than that.

We are an essential people - a community who for generations has discussed how to make the ourselves and the world better.

We have been practicing spiritual rest and renewal for longer than those terms have existed.

Our calendar serves as a source of wisdom and innovation that can help us make our way through the year not merely as better agents in the world, but as better spirits in our bodies.

We need more days like Yom Kippur, more fast days for the spirit, for our batteries of righteous energy.

We can’t do this on the efforts of one day a year alone. Yom Kippur is not enough.

Please don’t worry, I am not suggesting a regular repetition of the High Holy Days - once a year is plenty.

Rather, I would like to provide us with some other opportunities for contemplation and rejuvenation.

Cheshbon ha-nefesh - a full summary of our souls - is a once-a-year theme. There is more to our spiritual practice than this single intense day.

The Jewish calendar is filled with days of spiritual reflection and offers us a number of days to communally get our energy back to take on what needs to be done. While one Yom Kippur a year is plenty, one day of spiritual recharge per year has never been enough.

And while this may seem like the stereotypical rabbinic advice: “If only you would come to synagogue more often…” what I’d like to do is offer us some other resources - new opportunities, not old obligations. Days on which we can think a little differently, fast if we think it will help, gather together with our community if the company might inspire us, and remind ourselves that we have a sacred calling all year long, and that we are not alone in pursuing it.

You can do this on your own - there will be resources that I will share in advance. You can organize your own group or do it with me. As we explore this and experiment, whether you do this on your own or with others, I would love to hear about your experiences.

We are going to reinvigorate the very busy Jewish calendar with a number of days dedicated to bringing more justice and peace and working together to the world by reminding ourselves that in us is a spirit that needs attention too. When we attend to the piece of us that inspires us and drives us to do good in the world, then we might be able to persevere and do it better.

In the Jewish calendar there are a lot of Fast Days. There’s an extra one during the High Holy Days named the Fast of Gedalia, there’s the Fast of the Firstborn right before Passover, there’s the Ninth of Av, the worst day on the Jewish calendar in the middle of the summer, just to name a few.

Here is my proposal: quarterly recharges - seasonal and optional.

The Fast of Yom Kippur helps us reorient towards the rest of the year. These other fast days will offer us some seasonal inspirations, injections of energy, readjustments - an oil change for the soul and a tire rotation and realignment for the mind.

The first new opportunity will be the Tenth of Tevet on Tuesday, January 7. The Tenth of Tevet commemorates the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem that led to the destruction of the First Temple. In her book, My Jewish Year, Abigail Pogrebin cited Rabbi Yosef Blau’s observation that because this date commemorated the beginning of the Siege, it was “a reminder that we should be sensitive to dangers even early in the game”. Pogrebin called it“heeding the signs”, or looking up to see what’s coming. When Abraham raised up his eyes he saw that a ram was caught in the thicket by its horns and he offered it up in place of Isaac. What might we discover when we lift up our vision out of the everyday and see past what is right in front of us?

On Tuesday evening, January 7, our theme will be “Look Ahead”. Lifting our attention from the everyday, we will look ahead, both within our minds and souls, and in our consciousness of the world, to gather our energies for better efforts to come.

On Sunday, March 8, the day before Purim, we will meet for the Fast of Esther. Esther and the Jewish people in Persia fasted before an ominous event, hoping that the fast would improve their fortunes. Since the king of Persia did grant Esther’s request, and the Jews emerged victorious over the family of Haman, this seems like a good time to think about the positive things that we are planning for the coming season and how we might prepare ourselves for big events. Our theme will be “Think Big” - what prevents us from reaching higher and doing better?

And then just as summer begins, on Thursday, July 9, we will observe the end of the Seventeenth of Tamuz, which commemorates the beginning of the end of the Second Temple, when the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem. Instead of mourning the loss of Jerusalem, we will focus on what barriers within us and around us need to be pierced. “Break Through” will be our theme as we reflect on the many walls and boundaries that protect us and limit us. Which are useful and necessary? Which must be overcome in order for us to make progress?

These informal gatherings will take place in the evenings, not directly on the fast days, so that we can share refreshments, reflections, and ruminations. Each of them will include spiritual practices that originate in the Jewish mystical traditions. There will be contemporary learning as well as texts from every era of Jewish thinking about how to build and maintain inspiration and resilience so that we can be the people we want to be for the world around us. We will use each of our themes, “Look Ahead”, “Think Big”, and “Break Through”, to help us to pause profoundly, and then boldly move forward into the next season of the year.

Today, I want us to find ways to energize our efforts, to gather to recharge our batteries for doing good and to refocus our visions on what to do next. Yom Kippur and these three other fast days are ways of finding the spiritual resources, the God-stuff within us and between us, that allow us to carry on the real work after we are done praying, confessing, atoning, and abstaining.

Where do we find the strength to pursue our values and stay on our many missions to help others and one another? Each of us has our own emotional, mental, and spiritual processes of recharge. We need to use these day to tap into them.

We have spent the last year digging deep, every single day, to make it to the next day, sometimes to make it to the next minute. We have Yom Kippur to connect to that bigger idea that there might be sources of energy, connections to God and to the universe, that we have yet to discover within ourselves and between us and the people around us in our community.

The restrictions that we place on ourselves today - and it is entirely up to us as to which ones we observe - among them are no food, wearing particular clothing or colors, and a lot of time in prayer and learning with our community - all of these are meant to allow us to tap into resources that we don’t normally connect with. A little deprivation and a lot of contemplation help take us out of the everyday and into places that provide us access to the holy, the special, the extraordinary. Unless we devote ourselves more often, we will continue to have too few days set aside for this during the rest of the year. We have so little time for concentrated attempts to recharge the battery that continues to let us reach out and do good.

So as we offer this day for all of these things, as we ask ourselves, “What changes can I make to do better as a person trying to be caring and righteous in this world?”, let us a plan to find these days during the rest of the year too. We need this more than once a year.

I invite you to embark on a Jewish journey through the year that will enliven your spirits so that you can act boldly in a world that needs you now, more than ever.