Flipside: Food for thought about fasting

For a nation focused almost fetishistically on food, fasting carries more weight, so to speak, than any other form of abstinence.

September 20, 2007 12:50
4 minute read.
ruthie blum 88

ruthie blum 88. (photo credit: )


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For a nation focused almost fetishistically on food, fasting carries more weight, so to speak, than any other form of abstinence. And so it should. Its very purpose, after all, is to force the body to accompany the spirit on a solemn journey inward, in order to come clean with God. It is an endeavor that requires the swallowing and digesting of something far less palatable than a pita with humous. But the subsequent sustenance it provides can be as satisfying as the meal signifying its end. This is because, arduous though it may be, atonement is filling. Or at least it should be. An empty stomach may be necessary to the process, but it is by no means sufficient. If self-starvation were all it took to acknowledge and repent for one's sins, anorexia would be the perfect remedy for the human condition, not a pernicious malady born of and afflicting it. If refraining from eating for a day were all it took to take a long, hard look in the mirror, dieting would be the practice of tzaddikim, not every Tom, Dick and Harriet with an extra love handle or two. This is why fasting on Yom Kippur is supposed to go hand-in-hand with hours upon hours of self-flagellating prayer - supplication that involves the confession of wrongdoing and a request for forgiveness. This is also why it is useless unless carried out with genuine intent. Herein lies the rub. WHEREAS AN astonishing number of Israelis faithfully fast on this highest of holy days - even those normally not observant - few seem to strive for more than the ability to muddle through it without a migraine. Far be it from me to presume what goes on in the privacy of others' souls; I have enough trouble sorting out the workings of my own. Nor am I in any position to pass judgment - particularly since I do not fast on Yom Kippur. BUT I do consider bowing down before the Almighty an extremely serious and meaningful business - not a one-night stand to be forgotten as frivolously as it is undertaken. I am also all-too-familiar with sinning. Which is why I'm so good at spotting it, no matter how subtle. Not that it's hard to detect, really, since the subtlest sin is also the most widespread - as it underlies all others: ingratitude. It is ingratitude at the root of envy and jealousy, for example. Coveting the gifts of someone else, or clinging to one's own, means not stopping to appreciate what one actually has. It is ingratitude behind sloth and apathy, as well. Succumbing to inertia and indifference means shunning one's innate energy - that battery each of us is born with. It is ingratitude, too, that fuels anger and aggression. Absorbing external slights and regurgitating them means refusing to employ the capacity for empathy and compassion that distinguishes us from animals. Ditto for being judgmental. Putting down others' handling of predicaments means abusing one's power of vision to embrace near-sightedness as though it were a virtue. And it is ingratitude that rolls out the red carpet for the woe-is-me walk. Moaning and groaning about one's plight means ignoring all that is positive or valuable about one's unique set of circumstances, which include special challenges that need overcoming. Indeed, self-pity is also a convenient cover for narcissism, since it provides endless opportunities for contemplating one's navel and appealing to others to take part in the project. Ingratitude, in other words, is a rejection of life. And that's a huge no-no where Judaism is concerned, whatever your interpretation of halacha. It is no wonder, then - nor is it accidental - that the key to Jewish law is the act of thanking God, from morning till night, about everything under and including the sun. This is why, when it comes down to it, every blessing is basically the same, with minor adjustments. Whatever else he is, God is no dummy. As our creator, he certainly knows what's healthy for the upkeep of our intricate machinery. He is also all too aware that our impulses have the hots for our self-destruct buttons. Experiencing gratitude, he tells us, is the most effective preventive medicine on the market. Though we rarely listen, deep down, we know he's right. Anyone who has felt gratitude - however short-lived - realizes it trumps Prozac without even trying. The trouble is that we keep mistaking it for achievements and acquisitions. So, rather than aiming to enhance our capacity for appreciation, we go for the gold medals instead. Ironically, of course, without the capacity to appreciate the medals, even winning them doesn't work. WHICH BRINGS us back to Yom Kippur - the day we shut shop for inventory and steam-cleaning. But are we genuinely taking stock, or are we really slacking off on the job? The answer will only be apparent the morning after. But at that point we will be too preoccupied to care. Because by then we will be busy bitching about our domineering bosses and our meager salaries; about our unmarried daughters and ne'er-do-well sons-in-law; about our apartments being too small and our mortgages too big; about our government's being too weak and about its being too strong; and, of course, about the lousy seats we had in shul... By the morning after, we will have replaced liturgy with litany, and gone about the business of accruing the stuff we'll have to atone for next year. HAVING AN empty gut is not merely a function of refraining from food intake. It is the state of being rid of resentment and complaint. It's a tall order indeed for a people as consumed with kvetching as we are with eating. Which is probably why we're a lot better at adhering to the letter of the law than we are to its spirit - especially when it's a one-shot annual deal. Chewing on that morsel before the fast may or may not make it easier. I wouldn't know. ruthie@jpost.com

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