A True Fast for Yom Kippur
The Message of
the Law and the Prophets
Yom Hakippurim… Yom Kippur… the Day of Atonements…
What does this day mean to us?
We are all aware that we are supposed to fast on the Day of Atonement. A full fast—no food and no water for an entire 24 hours! Unless, of course, you are very young or very ill. Then you aren’t expected to risk your health in order to fast.
What else are we supposed to do? There are other areas where the rabbis have given instructions on ways to deprive ourselves. Don’t shower on this day. Don’t wear leather shoes, which are a symbol of comfort and wealth. Avoid entertainment.
All of these things are fine. They are ways to accomplish the original, primary purpose of the day—a day to afflict our souls as we contemplate our failings, our sins, and come to Hashem acknowledging that he holds our lives ever in his hands. On this day, to borrow the words of Yochanon Hamatbil,
He must increase, but I must decrease.
But is that all? If we deprive ourselves a bit, say some prayers, and fast, have we done all that Adonai expects of his people?
As it turns out… not really.
The haftarah reading for Yom Kippur is Isaiah 57:14-58:14. In reality, one should start reading a few verses earlier, to catch the context. You see, Adonai, as usual, had a contention with the leaders of his people. The prophet was declaring to them the errors of their ways, calling them out for self-righteousness, for not living in accordance with their profession. You don’t know anyone like that, do you?
And the Almighty declared that those who had turned to idols would not be heard in the day when they needed help. They would cry out, yet not be heard. But those who remained faithful to Hashem would inherit his promises—“whoever takes refuge in me will possess the land and inherit my holy mountain.”
That is where the haftarah portion opens. Do you want to know who Hashem loves? Who will be supported when all seems lost? Who has the right to stand before “the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity”? There is no mystery, no secret, no hidden agenda! Adonai himself tells us the answer to this question:
“I live in the high and holy place but also with the broken and humble, in order to revive the spirit of the humble and revive the hearts of the broken ones.”
The Almighty, the Creator, the Judge of the Earth, is also a merciful Father. He is well aware that we lack the endurance to stand before his judgment forever. He pities his children, and allows us to repent, so that we may receive his compassion and his help.
But what does the Father seek in his children? The punishments and blessings we have recently read in the Torah cycle are not without purpose. They are meant to train us in the way of righteousness (Hebrews 5:14). So, it is always appropriate to ask, “What is the goal of all this behavior modification?” Why are we fasting and afflicting ourselves? What is the point of this exercise?
Well, it turns out that the answer to these questions comes in Chapter 58. This passage has long stood out as the very definition of the “proper fast”. Even before I knew anything about the Messianic Perspective, or Yom Kippur, I knew that this chapter gave invaluable advice on what it means to fast in a manner that is acceptable to Hashem.
You see, as we often find in the prophets, this passage condemns the hypocrisy of the religious and the wealthy. The target of Adonai’s condemnation is the one who feigns closeness to the Father, while depriving others of the opportunity for that very intimacy. Those in Yeshayahu/Isaiah’s day even had the chutzpah to act as though they have been put upon by God! They claimed that they had performed all the right religious duties, but he had failed to bring justice and prosperity to them! Imagine being the one to accuse God himself of not giving you your due.
In response to these people, Adonai came down hard. He declared their religious actions nullified, of no value. Why? Because they had twisted the purpose of the fast, thinking they were purchasing brownie points with Hashem. They never realized that the real intention of self-affliction was to learn compassion.
In high school, I read a wonderful book by Chaim Potok, called “The Chosen”. The story tells about the interaction between two Jewish boys, one Chassidic and the other Reform. The Chassidic boy was a genius with a brilliant mind and the gift of total recall. Whatever he studied, he instantly memorized. Naturally, this was regarded as a wonderful gift by all his peers. But there was one problem. The knowledge that was so prized in his community came to him at no cost. As a consequence, he never learned compassion for those who had to strive for what they needed.
So, the boy’s father (the rebbe of the community) had to find a way to teach his son how to feel the pain of others. The technique he chose was to raise his son in silence. They would never speak to each other, except when engaged in study with members of the community. By inflicting this hardship on his son, the father hoped to teach the vital characteristics of compassion and self-sacrifice that are so necessary for one to be truly spiritual.
This is ultimately the lesson of Yom Kippur, as well. The prophet tells us that the goal of all this affliction is not only that we deprive ourselves, but that we go out of our way to serve others. The fast of Yom Kippur is supposed to be a day to lift the burdens from our neighbors, and to make sure the hungry are fed. It is a day to make our society a little bit better because we are here, serving the Almighty. It is a day to struggle so that we may empathize with the struggles of others.
In a magnificent stroke of divine irony, Hashem says that the day of self-deprivation should be a day when we feed the poor and the hungry! We should not only “afflict” our own souls, but “draw out” our soul (Yeshayahu 58:10). That is, be generous to those who are truly suffering. The day of self-affliction must become a day of compassion for those who have no choice in their affliction.
When we come to fast in this manner, then Hashem says our righteousness will shine forth as the noonday sun, and we shall gain the reputation of “repairers of broken walls”. In other words, we will earn the reputation for being builders, rather than destroyers. Then, “he who sees in secret will reward us openly”, and will be our protection in all that we do.
Yeshua put it this way…
You are light for the world.
A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.
Likewise, when people light a lamp, they don’t cover it with a bushel basket but put it on a lampstand, so that it shines for everyone in the house.
In the same way, let your light shine before people, so that they may see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven.
For this is the meaning of the Torah and the Prophets… including Leviticus 16 and Yeshayahu/Isaiah 57, 58.