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Fasts, Feeding, and Family

09/26/2020 01:08:11 PM


Boker Tov and Shana Tova. I am guessing right about now most of you are hungry. Some of you may be fasting, and the discomfort of it is really starting to hit. Some of you may not be fasting, but it is getting to be pretty late into the morning and maybe you’re starting to think about lunch. We usually spend a lot of Yom Kippur in prayer, conversation, study, and maybe sneak in a nap – anything to keep our minds off our fasts. But right now, I want you to tune into your hunger. Close your eyes, place a hand over your belly and take a deep, slow breath. Feel the emptiness in your stomach.

            Where else do you feel emptiness? What in life do you hunger for? Is it a hunger you generally give in to or try to ignore? At this moment, you cannot give in because we’re in the middle of Yom Kippur service, but neither should you ignore it. Face the emptiness directly. Stare into the void. Let the sorrow and regret and hunger seep into your bones and your soul. And in about 9 more hours when we break our fasts and fill our bellies, do not forget this feeling. Do not ignore where other necessities still lack in your life or in the life of your neighbor, your fellow humans.

            In our Torah reading this morning, Moses declares to the people: “Behold, this day I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life – that you and your offspring may live.” In a preface to the Torah service in Mishkan HaNefesh, contemporary Rabbi Josh Zweiback offers a teaching that he has derived from the writings of early 20th century Rabbi Eliezer Davidovitz. Rabbi Davidovitz asks, “Who would choose death?” Rabbi Zweiback expands, rather, there are two ways to “choose life.” There is an “I” way, which puts ourselves first and makes decisions based on what we think will elevate our own individual lives or maybe that of our immediate family. Then there is a “you” way, which puts others first. It requires that we think about how our actions or words will affect others before we decide how to act or speak. When Moses says that he is putting before us life or death, blessing or curse, he is referring of course to the covenant and the Torah. If we follow the Torah to the best of our abilities and live up to our end of the agreement between God and the Israelite people, we will be blessed and we will see our values and peoplehood live on. If we turn our backs on the mitzvot and our relationship with Judaism and the Divine, we may feel cursed and see the end to our traditions.

            Throughout the Torah, and even more so in the Nevi’im we see that to “choose life” is to choose the “you” way. The TaNaKh is concerned with how our actions will affect one another, and how we treat each other. It is clear that we are not to elevate our own lives off the backs of others, that exploitation may benefit one individual in the short-term, but it cuts us off from each other and the covenant in the long term.

            Although we don’t often pay enough attention to the later parts of the TaNaKh, this morning’s haftarah portion is an important key to understanding this day, to putting your hunger and discomfort in context. Isaiah delivers a sermon to the Israelites on behalf of God, wailing with the pain of the Divine pathos, “On your fast day you still think only of desire, while oppressing all who work for you…Is this the fast I desire? A day to afflict the body and soul? … You call this a fast?! A day worthy of the favor of HaShem? Is not THIS the fast I would choose – to break the bonds of injustice and remove the heavy yoke; to let the oppressed go free and release all the imprisoned; to feed the hungry and house the unsheltered…. THEN when you call HaShem will answer, then when you cry HaShem will say, Hineini – I am here. If you offer your soul to the hungry and satisfy the suffering, then shall your light shine through the darkness.” Mishkan HaNefesh again here points out the crucial act of giving of self in order to sustain life in the community. The word “nefesh” means soul, but this last verse of what I’ve quoted here is translated in most modern English versions of this text as “If you extend your compassion to the hungry.” Rashi, our favorite 11th century commentator, explains the use of the word soul here to mean, “offering the consolation of kind words” in addition to food.

            It is not enough to drop a dollar in the cup of the person in the streets as you walk past without making eye contact. It is not acceptable to take out this one day of the year to feel true hunger and reflect on your misdeeds, and then go back to a life of comfort while ignoring the millions of people who go hungry every day in a land of plenty. It is not in the spirit of the day to feel our own personal catharsis without also working year-round for dismantling of oppressive systems that allow for exploitation and poverty, that perpetuate racism, classism, and ableism. That is not the fast HaShem requires of us. A 25-hour abstinence from food may elevate our spiritual plane, but an eternal abstinence from greed will elevate our world.

            Throughout these High Holy Days, we have read the prayer Avinu Malkeinu. In a recent prayer-writing workshop I attended with Trisha Arlin, who also led one of our own summer series sessions, she walked us through coming to terms with our own understandings of God. While I think the traditional understanding of the prayer views God as the Father and King of the Jews who are praying to be written in the Book of Life at that very moment, I don’t find anything inherent in the text itself to suggest that the “us” in question refers solely to Jews. During the writing workshop I found myself writing to God, the Parent of the Whole World – Horeh Shel HaOlam, and asking Them to grant Us – that is, all of humanity – peace and unity, grace and forgiveness, to see our flaws as simply human despite our best efforts, to help us see each other as Wholeness and Divine Spark, to allow us to see ourselves and each other as siblings on this shared Earth.

            If all people truly looked upon one another as equals, as siblings, as all deserving the same love and compassion and human necessities, as all inherently worthy of life, what would our world look like? If you knew your sister felt the hunger pain you are feeling right now every single day, wouldn’t you feed her? If your brother lost his home due to unforeseen circumstances, wouldn’t you take him in? You wouldn’t even view these acts necessarily as great self-less sacrifices, of putting others before yourself, of following the Torah and choosing life for all. After all, they’re family. This would still largely feel like that “I” way of choosing life mentioned above. Because the truth is, there really should be no “I” and “You”. There is only “We” and “Us” and we are all responsible for each other, for this shared planet, for the Holy Nefesh that unites and connects us all as siblings, children of the Horeh Gadol HaKol, the Great Parent of All.

            May we never know true hunger, and may we create a world where no one ever has to go more than 25 hours without a healthy meal, and may we merit being written into the Book of Life. Amen and G’mar Chatima Tova.

Fri, October 23 2020 5 Cheshvan 5781