This year, on September 18/19, observant Jews celebrated Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish religious calendar. Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement,” and it is day of praying, fasting, confessing sins, acknowledging faults, and asking forgiveness. Like all Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur begins at sundown and ends at sundown the following day. The Yom Kippur fast lasts for that 24-hour period and involves abstaining from all food and drink. Children under the age of nine are not permitted to fast, nor are adults whose health would be adversely affected by fasting.
Jews spend the entire day of Yom Kippur in synagogue, praying and participating in a collective liturgy that includes confession of all conceivable sins, many of which most of the participants have probably never thought of committing, much less committed. This collective confession can be seen as highlighting our responsibility not only for our personal faults and sins, but also for those of the community or society of which we are a part. We are responsible for each other and for the kind of society we live in
According to the tradition, many personal sins against others—gossip, slander, humiliation—can’t be atoned for on Yom Kippur. Among many observant Jews it is a custom on the days before Yom Kippur to seek out those they have personally wronged and ask their forgiveness.
On the morning of Yom Kippur, just as those fasting are beginning to feel the pangs of hunger and thirst, the following passage from Isaiah is read:
“Why, when we fasted, did you not see it? When we starved our bodies, did you not know?” Because on your fast day you engage in business and oppress all your laborers! Because you fast in strife and quarrelling, and you strike with a wicked fist! Today, you do not fast in such a way as to make your voice heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I desire? A day of merely depriving one’s body? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ash? Do you call that a fast, a day in which the Lord delights? “
Isaiah goes on to define the fast the Lord desires: freeing the oppressed, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and banishing oppression.
This part of the Yom Kippur liturgy is a strong reminder that fasting in itself is meaningless and that it is not our individual spiritual lives alone that are at stake. On the morning of Yom Kippur, at precisely the time our fast is beginning to focus the mind on personal suffering, we are reminded to consider the suffering of others; we are reminded of the demands of social justice. A self-centered notion of spiritual growth is alien to Jewish thought. Personal righteousness cannot be achieved except in the realm of social action and social justice. Fasting and prayer are meant to change how we live in the world, not to remove us from the world.
The Yom Kippur liturgy incorporates the important insight that suffering itself does not necessarily produce empathy for those who suffer, and that when we are ourselves suffering, we can easily forget that others suffer. The oppressed can become oppressors. It is when we are suffering from our hunger and thirst that we need to be reminded, indeed commanded, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and comfort the oppressed. Similarly, the Torah reminds us no fewer than 36 times not to oppress the stranger, because “you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9)
Alan Rutkowski is a member of Congregation Emanuel and a founding member the Victoria Jewish dialogue group of If Not Now, When? He has been a contributor to the American journal Jewish Currents.
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* This article was published in the print edition of the Times Colonist on Saturday, Sept 22nd 2018