The 19th Century Chasidic Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of Apt once said, “If it were in my power, I would do away with all the afflictions, except the afflictions of the bitter day Tisha B’Av, for how could one eat on that day? and the afflictions of the holy and awesome day, Yom Kippur, who needs to eat on that day?”
Fasting is a central part of today’s practices. Perhaps it is a little mean of me to focus on it at this point, or else we are completely misunderstanding what fasting is all about. Very often we will hear the greeting, tzum kal, which means, “have an easy fast.” Perhaps we should be saying tzum mashma’ut, “have a meaningful fast.”
The practice of fasting comes from Leviticus 16, often part of the Torah reading on Yom Kippur afternoon for more traditional strains of Judaism. “…you shall practice self-denial; and you shall not do any work….” Self denial has been translated into a general non-care of the body, including not bathing, not wearing jewelry, not engaging in marital relations, and of course, fasting.
But what is self-denial really supposed to be? We get an explanation of it in this morning’s haftarah, from Isaiah 58. Isaiah begins the passage by chastising the people. The Israelites are told to call out like a shofar, but not for their own sake. For the sake of the entire world. He critiques that the Israelites’ fast is false because they are focused on how they can improve personal gains instead of how they can improve their own behavior and the state of the world. Isaiah implies that our fast is a facade, and recounts what a real, true, meaningful fast is all about.
Isaiah 58:6-9 reads:
Is this not the fast I desire—to break the bonds of injustice and remove the heavy yoke; to let the oppressed go free and release all those enslaved?Is it not to share your bread with the hungryand to take the homeless poor into your home, and never to neglect your own flesh and blood?
It would be pretty powerful if, in the middle of services, a loud voice could be heard from the middle of the sanctuary, yelling out how we should really be fasting as we recount the past year.
Like when the most recent article of Time magazine features cover stories of teachers being underpaid and overworked.
“To break the bonds of injustice and remove the heavy yoke.”
This past Thursday, seven police officers and 26 civilians were arrested for human trafficking, having run a prostitution ring in New York for over two years.
“To let the oppressed go free and release all those enslaved.”
In Orange County over 300,000 people are at risk of hunger each month, including one in six children of the total population.
“Is it not to share your bread with the hungry…”
2016 was reported as having the highest number of homeless deaths in Orange County in several years. Then it was overtaken in 2017, and this year is on track to overtake the record again.
“…and to take the homeless poor into your home?”
Earlier this year in Riverside, a husband and wife were charged with abusing 12 of their 13 children, including chaining them to beds and inflicting malnutrition so severe that two fo the girls will never bear children of their own.
“…and never to neglect your own flesh and blood.”
A poem by Hermann Hagedorn describes a man’s face-to-face encounter with God. Its last few stanzas say:
I hastened to reassure Him, “There’s nothing the matter with me. It’s the other fellow that’s the trouble, a hundred and thirty five million of him.” “I know all about the hundred and thirty five million,” said the Lord, and I thought He seemed a little tired as He said it, “but I don’t at the moment seem able to see anyone but you.”
“My Lord?” I said, “How odd! I’m sure you must be mistaken. There’s nothing about me that need give you even a moment’s uneasiness.”
Silence rose out of the ground, straight, hard, and thick as a wall. Rose like a wall between us, between the Lord and me. And my nose flat up against it, and the Lord on the other side….
The wall was so cold it sweated and I began to sweat, too. “You know all about it, Lord. I’ve run my business by the Golden Rule…Fought in a dozen good causes. Not an awful lot happened, but then You know how things are in this world.”
The wall got higher and thicker and colder and wetter. I had to shout to make sure that the Lord could hear me at all.
“You can’t do this to me! I’m a pillar,” I cried. “I’m a corner stone! I’m not a materialist, a scoffer. I’m one of those…that hold the social structure together>’
The Lord said not a word, but space began to speak. Space spoke in icicles pointed like knives. Icicles dropping on me ’til I froze and bled. “I’m a good man, Lord!” I called, “I don’t get the idea!”
The poem ends there. He doesn’t get the idea, but hopefully we do. The thing that rises up like a wall to our doom is our inability to acknowledge our own part in the sins of the world. When we refuse to see our own responsibility, when we are complacent or indifferent, we are culpable. Like the shepherd letting each individual sheep go one by one under the staff, God only sees us when the question is asked, “Where were you when it was time to act?”
At this very moment there are injustices being done around the world. One need only peruse a paper momentarily to see children being starved or kidnapped, our environment being neglected, and the signs of hatred all over our political discourse. It has become normal to take and take and take, without regard to who else might be in need. It has become normal to tweet insults and respond with more hatred. It has become normal to make excuses. It has become normal to lie and deny and cover up. It has become normal to tout what we have built rather than who we are.
“Is this the fast I desire?” asks Isaiah.
No, we should answer. It is most certainly not.
Our fast should be a fast from consumerism, from hatred, from believing whatever our own echo chambers repeat. Our fast should be a realization that this is a holy and awesome day as the Chasidic Rabbi Heschel believes. It is a day when we make Tshuvah, and truly turn from all of the trappings of our own downfall and start to rebuild our world.
Let the next headlines we read be about the positive changes our fast is bringing about in the world.
May we read that a multi-racial, inter-religious, international group sat down to understand one another.
May we read that a task force made the perpetrators of sex trafficking see the victims as their own daughters and sons.
May we read that a politician apologized for a mistake they made. And may we read that it was simply accepted.
May we read that restaurants stopped throwing away their leftovers to feed the hungry.
May we read that affordable housing and reasonable loans were provided to make homes for thousands of Southern Californians.
May we read that this is the year we start seeing each other for who we are and not for what we have.
Tzum mashma’ut, May we all have a meaningful fast.