Yom Kippur – A Piece of Cake?

I know that for some, fasting on Yom Kippur is not easy. If you have hypo or hyperglycemia, addictions for caffeine or nicotine, or for pregnant women, or the young or the old, or a host of other conditions, the day can truly be a physiological affliction. But for myself, like many others, it’s just another day where I skip meals and end up hungry, weak and with a nagging feeling that I’ve forgotten something – ah yes, to look after myself.

So if it’s not the withholding of food in what way am I supposed to afflict myself? Perhaps it’s by being in synagogue all day?

But one thing I’m certain about, whether it is easy for you to fast or difficult for you to fast, when it comes to the shofar at the end, you are not starving. Whenever I would complain to my father that “I’m starving” he would retort: “Starving? You have no idea what starving is, and please God you never will.” And if you didn’t know already then you probably guessed – my father is a holocaust survivor who ‘managed’ on 200gms of bread a day, and by that I don’t mean as an accompaniment to his meal, I mean, that was his meal.

Here’s an insight that came to me a few years ago as I garnered up my waning strength to blow the sounds of relief to some, the sounds of joy/redemption/atonement/forgiveness/hope/fulfillment to others: What is Yom Kippur really about? Or put another way: How do we know if we passed the test?

In the old days, back in the times of the First Temple and even the Second Temple, we are told that there was a sign that showed whether we had been forgiven and given atonement, i.e. brought into “at-one-ment” with our Creator, our Selves, our Purpose, our Being both on a personal and on a national level. That sign was a thin, red cord tied to the door of the Temple. When the scapegoat was thrown of a cliff-face outside of Jerusalem that cord purportedly, miraculously changed to pure white proof that the High Priest’s prayers and sacrifices had been received with satisfaction by the Almighty. (Amazingly enough, according to the Zohar, this goat was given as an appeasement to the satan – but that’s another story – or is it?).

So what sign do we have today that we have come back into alignment, that our prayers have been answered, that we have indeed been inscribed in the Book of Life? There isn’t one! At least not an external, objective one, like a string changing color. That’s for children. We’re mature adults. We don’t need magic tricks to hang our beliefs on. We’re far too sophisticated for that. We’re living in the new paradigm.

If only it were that simple. If only it were that true.

There is today (in two days in fact) an external, objective test as to whether we have received atonement, to whether we have ‘done tshuvah’, to whether we have mended our ways, learnt our lessons, vowed our new resolutions, meant what we said, turned over a new leaf, broken our habits, ended our addictions, reduced our carbon footprint, grown up – and that is – how we break the fast.

Is that first bite filled with joy and anticipation, gratitude and blessing, awareness of the earth’s fragile ecology, or is it scoffed down like a starving beggar? Are others pushed aside in the uncontrolled desire to eat or do you first make sure that everyone has, including yourself? Is the scene like a Jewish kiddush where the elbowless go hungry? Or is it like the messiah’s meal where we are all servants serving each other, i.e. true kings and queens?

The Moslems have a wonderful lesson to teach us here: they end their daily fast (iftar) during the Ramadan month by consuming one date and a glass of water followed by a break of several minutes. This is done to hold back the tempter, the satan. And then a good meal, eaten in community. In many ways, it could be argued that the recitation of maariv after the shofar is blown is our way of holding back the immediate temptation to start eating. Where I grew up the shofar was sounded after maariv for this very reason. And then everyone trampled on each other in the panic to get to the food.

So it’s not (only) how we fast – it’s how we break the fast that’s the real test of the day.

Gmar Hatima Tova and Tzom Kal – easy fasting.

About the Author
Michael Kagan is the author of the Holistic Haggadah (Urim), God’s Prayer (Albion-Andalus) and The King’s Messenger (Albion-Andalus Books). He is a scientist, entrepreneur, film-maker and teacher of Holistic Judaism. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife, Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan.