This will be my first Yom Kippur since my immersion in the Mikveh, my first Yom Kippur fully part of the Jewish people. Naturally, I’ve been thinking a lot about fasting, the most famous and intimidating prohibition regarding the Day of Atonement. The Torah says that on this day, “You shall practice self-denial” (Lev. 16:29), but what does this really mean? Why in the age of COVID-19, where self-denial is the currency of daily life, should this commandment continue to be so important?
In his classic book about the High Holy Days, This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared, Rabbi Alan Lew says that Yom Kippur traditions like fasting are part of an effort to confront emptiness, to look closely into ourselves and see what’s really there as we move through our lives. “We need a taste of this emptiness,” he writes, “to give us a sense of what will go with us, what will endure as we make this great crossing. What’s important? What is at the core of our life? What will live on after we are wind and space? What will be worthy of that endless, infinitely powerful silence? And what are we clinging to that isn’t important, that won’t endure, that isn’t worthy?”
This has been a year marked by emptiness. The pandemic has stripped away so much: jobs, schools, camps, wedding celebrations, b’nei mitzvah, and more. Our social circles have been drastically condensed, our activities consigned largely online and to our own homes. That’s to say nothing of the 200,000 families who have lost someone to COVID-19, creating holes in their lives that will not one day “return to normal.” During this pandemic, with our lives shrunk down to their essences, we’ve had more time than usual to think about what truly matters to us and what about our lives we hope will be different once the pandemic is over. In a sense, we’ve been fasting for months.
So why should we fast even more next week? Even if, like me, you’ve never fasted before? Even though the kitchen will be steps away from where we’ll be watching services? Even though it will be difficult and uncomfortable? Because this is a day to lean into our discomfort, to take a long and hard look at ourselves in the midst of all this emptiness and despair and see what’s really there. If this is it, if this is me, am I happy with who I am? If not, what can I do better? And how do I do it in a world turned upside down?
The spiritual work of the High Holy Days – of teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah– doesn’t truly end when the gates close and the shofar blows on Monday night. It continues on, but if we allow ourselves to be fully present for this Yom Kippur, hopefully we will be able to approach whatever comes next, pandemic or no pandemic, with our best, whole selves.