The Fast and the Fearful

In two more days, Jews throughout the world will begin the 27 hour Fast of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is not one of my favorite holidays…too solemn and encrusted with fear.

I never seem to mind fasting from all food. It is the thirst that disturbs me. I cannot even brush my teeth on this awesome and fearful day since not a drop of water is permitted to pass through our lips.

When I was a child I used to wonder how travelers were able to cross arid desert lands far from sources of water. And I remember how the children of Israel, crossing the desert from Egypt to the Promised Land, begged Moses to provide them with water.

Moses appealed to God who told him to speak to the rock. But instead of speaking, Moses struck the rock with his rod. Water poured out and thirst, for the time being, was quenched.

For that one act, striking rather than speaking as God had instructed, Moses suffered the severe punishment of being denied by God to enter the Promised Land. He could see it from one side of the Jordan River but the soles of his feet could never touch it.

For all that he had endured in Egypt and the 40 years of crossing the hot desert sands, I thinks his punishment was cruel. But who am I to question an act of God?

Sitting in the synagogue for most of the 27 hours, turning hundreds of pages of prayers, confessions, and petitions, so repetitive, there is little time to think about what that most solemn day on the Jewish calendar demands of us.

A major prayer, U’netaneh Tokef, has always frightened me. Tradition ascribes the prayer to Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, Germany in the eleventh century, who proclaimed it in the last moments of his life as he was dying in cruel martyrdom.

The Archbishop of Mainz on the eve of Rosh HaShanah commanded Rabbi Amnon to appear before him and demanded that he convert to Catholicism. Of course, Rabbi Amnon could not ever think of such a thing but he asked the Archbishop to give him three days to consider the matter. The Archbishop demanded that the rabbi return within three days to give his reply.

At the end of the three days, Rabbi Amnon appeared before the Archbishop with his reply. “I am a Jew and I will always be a Jew.”

The Archbishop summoned his guards and Rabbi Amnon was dragged into a prison and brutally tortured. Both of his hands and feet were amputated. As he lay dying he requested that his disciples carry him into the synagogue. Once inside, he recited the prayer known as the Netaneh Tokef, and upon reciting the last word, he died.

Some days later he appeared in a dream to Rabbi Kalonymus ben Meshullem of Mainz with a request that his prayer should forever be recited in the synagogue on Rosh HaShanah and again on Yom Kippur.

The prayer is the central theme of both holy days. It makes us realize what the Day of Judgement is… the day when God opens His book and in it is the inscription, aweful and fearful.

“On Rosh HaShanah the decree is written in the book and on the Day of Atonement it is sealed. How many shall pass away and how many shall be born? Who shall live and who shall die? Who shall reach the measure of man’s days and who shall not reach it? Who shall perish by fire and who by water? Who by sword and who by beast? Who by hunger and who by thirst? Who by earthquake and who by plague? Who by strangling and who by stoning? Who shall have rest and who shall go wandering? Who shall be tranquil and who shall be disturbed? Who shall be at ease and who shall be afflicted? Who shall become poor and who shall become rich? Who shall be brought low and who shall be exalted?”

Unlike the concept of an anthropomorphic God who picks up a pen and inscribes our fate in His Book, it is we ourselves who inscribe our own fate. We alone are responsible for the way in which we live our lives. God is not responsible for our fate. He is not the author of our destiny. We alone are the authors.

Rabbi Amnon gave us the answer. “But Repentance, Prayer and Righteousness avert the severe decree”.

Our tradition teaches us that God is slow to anger and always ready to forgive. Seeking forgiveness is the main essence of Yom Kippur. Sins against God are forgiven by God. Sins against our fellowmen are not forgiven by God. To each person whom we may have wronged or harmed in the past year, Yom Kippur demands of us that we seek forgiveness from the person we have wronged. Only then can God forgive us.

The long Fast enables us to search our hearts, to seek answers, to beg forgiveness and to be at-one with God and with man.

I will not be hungry on Yom Kippur. I will, however, be thirsty. But if I pray devoutly and sincerely, God will quench my thirst.

He will not strike the rock but He will speak gently to it and from the rock will flow in abundance the water of life.

Each year I fear Yom Kippur. I am aware of my faults and my sins and I freely confess them to God on this most solemn day of the year.

Hopefully my prayers for forgiveness and a renewed year of life will be answered.

If so, perhaps next Yom Kippur I can share with you the results. Tzom kal. An easy and meaningful fast to all.

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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