Yom Kippur is hard.
At least, for me – a fairly connected, yet pretty unreligious Jew on her own spiritual journey and trying to figure out how these traditional rituals fit into her own life – if they even do hold meaning and have a place in her life – Yom Kippur can be a tricky time of year.
I love the idea of an annual time of year to do some serious “soul-accounting”, but as someone who never grew up engaging with the High Holidays beyond two mind-numbingly boring services and a day without eating (which in reality was having the annual conversation with my mom, “you can fast if you want to, but Julie you really don’t have to, there’s no pressure…”) – how do I meaningfully engage with this day as an adult? How do I observe this holiday without these fledgling practices that come with it feeling rote, like I’m going through the motions of Yom Kippur without actually getting the “why” behind them?
Luckily, there’s a long Jewish history of diving head-first into practice and doing the learning as we go.
From the time the Jews accepted the Torah at Mount Sinai, it was all about “na’aseh vnishma” – “we will do and we will understand”. Understanding the meaning behind a practice or a law is important and valuable, and certainly the ultimate goal. But, if we continue to wait until we feel like we’re “ready” to meaningfully engage with a Jewish custom, we may never feel brave enough, never knowledgeable enough, never Jewish enough to take the plunge.
The good news is, if you’re relating to anything I’ve written thus far, you’re not alone! And I am ready to take that plunge with you.
Yom Kippur starts tonight, and as you may know, a huge component of this holiday is the idea of fasting – but why? Let’s dig into some background.
Why do we fast on Yom Kippur?
As one of the holiest days of the year, Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement. It’s when we reflect and repent for our sins and seek forgiveness from those we have hurt. Fasting is meant to be a vehicle for repentance, to “self-deny” (Leviticus 23:32) in order to truly reflect on the repentance process. As Jewish educator Aliza Bulow has said,
“The purpose of fasting is to bring one to repent, and true repentance brings about a change in actions. However, repenting without fasting is not enough.”
Interesting concept. The thing is – and I know this might be the choosy millennial in me coming out – fasting doesn’t really “connect” with me. In these days of intermittent fasting and OMAD, I know so many people who don’t even blink at not eating for a full day. While I don’t follow those food practices, I frequently find myself working through lunch without realizing and decide to just wait until dinner. Part of my ongoing reluctance to engage with the fasting tradition on Yom Kippur stems from the fact that, well, it isn’t really too much a hardship for me, and it’s not a self-denial that’s going to cause me to turn inward to truly stop and reflect, so why bother?
In discussing this disinterest in fasting with my cohort in GatherDC’s High Holidays Prep Class last month led by Rabbi Ilana, I started hearing about alternative ways people have taken this idea of fasting and made it their own. So – in the vein of me being a choosy millennial who wants to do it ~*her own way*~ – I’ve compiled this list of alternative ways people have interpreted the idea of self-denial and molded it to fit their own lifestyles. If you have other suggestions, ideas, or perspectives – please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or comment below. I’d love to discuss further!
Fast from Social Media
We’ve all complained about the monotony of the endless march of baby photos from our high school peers and the political memes from our family members, but when it comes down to it, we can’t seem to put the phone down! Addicted to the meager hit of serotonin that little Instagram heart provides, I find myself checking my apps without even realizing it. I put my phone down, only to immediately pick it up 17 seconds later to scroll mindlessly, before realizing what I’ve just done and throwing my phone down in disgust.
This fast is, frankly, deeply appealing. What better way to connect with yourself and reflect on the past year, than by removing the device that may be a gateway, but is also one of the biggest barriers in connecting to your larger social world? Disconnect, power down, and let yourself sink into the past year without the aid of your timeline. What went wrong? Where could you have done better? The answers might be hard, but they definitely won’t be found behind your screens.
Fast from Waste
This concept was first introduced to me by GatherDC’s Rabbi Ilana, who sent me the Cleanse 5780 challenge as a different way to connect with the High Holiday season. Cleanse 5780, led by Shaina Shealey and Arielle Golden, is a 10-day initiative using the Days of Awe (the 10-day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) to intensively reflect on “the mind/body/spirit connection” by eliminating food-based, single-use plastics from your life.
This “cleanse” spoke deeply to my rapidly growing environmental panic, and gave me the space and permission to start thinking about how I can change my habits to be kinder to our world. I really love the idea of fasting from some of the most wasteful aspects of our modern life. In refraining from participating in needless and harmful waste, we can use these energies instead to reflect on the things we can repent for as it pertains to our ecological sins and how we can change our actions to do and be better going forward.
Fast from Judgment
This might seem like an odd contender for a blog on how to observe and engage with the Day of Judgment, but hear me out.
Judgment is a daily part of our lives, and sometimes it can be helpful – being able to take stock of social situations and make snap judgments is critical to navigating our social world and maintaining one’s physical safety in it, especially in a young, vibrant, urban environment like Washington, DC. However, I think many of us often find ourselves unfairly judging strangers, our social networks, even our friends and family, and it becomes harmful very quickly when this judgment shifts from doing it for yourself and to being a harmful action you do to others.
Our connected world makes it easier than ever to pass this mean, petty type of judgment, to feel judged by the virtual masses (see: Social Media Fast), even to pass overly-critical negative judgment on ourselves! As Rabbi Adina Allen said in her Erev (eve of) Rosh Hashanah sermon just last week, “…we are all too quick to take God’s place, elevating ourselves to the role of arbiter, looking upon one another harshly, judging loudly, sentencing with impunity.” What if we left the judgment to God tomorrow and chose to navigate our day entirely without judgment, in order to more fully focus and turn inward to reflect on our own actions of the last year?
These three alternatives to fasting might not be enshrined in the Torah, but they’re still a way to connect with the themes and the meaning behind the day. I don’t have all the answers– in fact, I think I might be less certain of myself than I was when I started this article. What I do know, is that in really sitting and thinking about what this holiday and process represents, I’ve put more thought into my “teshuva” (Jewish process of reflection and repentance) than I ever have in years previously, maybe ever – and isn’t self-reflection, repentance, and growth what it’s all about?
About the Author: Julie Thompson keeps Gather’s wheels turning behind the scenes as GatherDC’s Office Manager. When Julie isn’t at the Gather office, she’s probably out with friends trying a new restaurant across DC, planning her next big trip to explore a new corner of the world, or snuggled in with a good book and her rescue cat, Chloe.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site