As we prepare for this holiest of Jewish holidays I often think of the Yom Kippur fast. To be honest denying ourselves food seems so un-Jewish. But this observance traces its origins to the Torah. “Mark, the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be a sacred occasion for you: you shall practice self-denial… you shall do no work throughout that day. For it is a Day of Atonement, on which expiation is made on your behalf before the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 23:26-28)
The ancient rabbis ask what is the meaning of this commandment of self-denial. Being rabbis they answered their own question and said that five enjoyments are forbidden on Yom Kippur. They ruled there is to be no eating or drinking, no wearing of leather shoes, no washing, no anointing with oils, and no sexual relations.
Again one might counter that taking pleasure in life is one of Judaism’s greatest teachings. We do not belong to an ascetic tradition. Monks are not our religious ideal. In fact another rabbinic statement suggests that in heaven we will be called to account for all the worldly enjoyments we denied ourselves.
Yet one day a year we are commanded to practice self-denial. We are commanded to become monks. All are instructed to leave the pleasures of this world and look within, toward the inner life. We leave aside our needs and pleasures and focus instead on our spiritual lives. We turn to God and more importantly turn to our friends and family seeking to make amends for past wrongs. But sometimes I wonder if the fast and this self-denial achieve their lofty goals. I don’t know about you but I can get pretty cranky when I don’t eat. And then whom do I snap at? Those closest to me—my family and friends.
Nonetheless on this one day a year, I don’t worry about what I need to cook for breakfast, lunch or dinner. I don’t try to squeeze in a Starbucks coffee in between the office and Hebrew School. I don’t think, “Maybe I can stop at Whole Foods for a quick, if over-priced, snack or 16 Handles for a frozen yogurt.” I think only about what is really most important: my relationship with family and friends. I dwell on my longings for God. I look within and see what I most wish to repair. No one is perfect. All can do better.
G’mar chatimah tovah—May you indeed be inscribed for life.