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.
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:
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.