Our calendar is dotted with a number of fast days – days when we are called on to deny ourselves the deep and satisfying pleasure of food and drink. Some of these fasts, like Tzom Gedaliah, Assarah B’Tevet, Shiva Assar B’Tammuz and Tisha B’Av, are public and recall dark events in our history. Others, like Ta’anit Esther, remind us of moments of agony coupled with ultimate salvation.
And of course there is our fast on Yom Kippur at the conclusion of the Days of Repentance.
These fasts demand that we bring “suffering” upon ourselves. But why? And do our fasts accomplish what the mitzvah demands? After all, the events that these fasts commemorate happened long ago. How could we possibly identify with those times? And how does giving up our Starbucks help us do so?
We know the purpose of our fasts is to motivate us toward repentance, reflection and introspection. But, really, are hunger pangs, deprivation and caffeine-loss headaches the best way to accomplish this?
I wasn’t sure. So I polled a number of good, observant Jews and asked them, “How/what do you feel when you fast?”
A number of the responses were a variation of “We Jews love to suffer. Our fasts prove it.” Some fasted for no other reason than the obligation to fast. “It is suffering without purpose or context,” they complained. Some felt put out by the need to fast. Others showed flashes of humor in their responses. “Would Gedaliah have fasted for me?”
Almost every person viewed Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av, where the power of the moment combines with the demands of the fast to create a sense of holiness, in a different light from the minor fasts, which seem more like transitory obstacles than moments of holy introspection.
For those of us who live to eat (rather than eat to live), few things have the potential to put us out of sorts as taking away our pleasure. However, there is another way to view fasting, a way that was articulated by a dear friend of mine who had a passion for his chosen profession, medicine.
When he was an intern, he actually resented the time that eating took away from his experience of learning. Consequently, he got into the habit of not eating during the day. By not eating breakfast, lunch and dinner, he could focus on his responsibilities and actually get home an hour or two earlier than some of his colleagues.
He laughed as he related his experience to me. “All those years of not eating during the day – I almost never feel hunger during the day but when I get home at night I am like Pavlov’s dog. I am practically starving by the time I walk through the door.”
Which brought him to my question. “During a fast of only one daylight, I hardly recognize I’m fasting. As a consequence, it requires a conscious effort for me to remember that it is a fast day and why, and what I should be doing or thinking. Fast days that begin at night – well, remember, I tend to be hungry at night when the fast begins, as I am when I return home from shul. Interestingly enough, during ta’anit like Yom Kippur that begins the night before I don’t need ‘reminders’ to focus me on the fast and what it means. Of course, my awareness might also have a lot to do with being in shul most of the day…”
It is only during those fasts that challenge his “Pavlovian response” that the actual fasting impresses itself upon him. But the act of fasting itself does not seem to focus his thoughts more surely on the message and meaning of the commemoration.
If fasting seems not to accomplish its purpose both with those for whom the physical deprivation is easy and with those for whom it’s difficult, why do we persist in doing so? Certainly because it is commanded. That is reason enough. But when called on to observe a mitzvah, aren’t we better off finding meaning in the doing of that mitzvah as well as in the rationale for doing it?
To truly grasp the power of fasting, we have to confront the power of what it is we are giving up. What is more essential, more basic, to our physical existence than eating and drinking? In our need to eat and drink, we are no different from any beast of the field.