Fasting, Vows, Failing, Vows

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Yom Kippur is over, and I have eaten the traditional pizza. So that’s all right.

I was thinking to myself, on Wednesday afternoon, about why I fast on Yom Kippur. I don’t always fast, actually, and my observance changes quite a bit in other ways, year to year. Mostly, I attend services in the evening (the Kol Nidre service, about which more later) and the morning. I don’t generally attend the afternoon service or the last sunset service. In the afternoon, when I am not at services, I generally sit at home; sometimes I will read Jonah and/or the Avot, but sometimes I won’t. If there is housework to do, I won’t refrain from doing it because of the Yom. I listen to secular music, and might watch tv or play video games. Essentially, my observance of Yom Kippur is done by two o’clock or so, except that I stay hungry.

So why do I fast? Why not just draw a line under the day and have lunch?

Before I answer that, I should probably talk for a bit about my feelings around halakhic observance. I don’t keep the Law—I don’t keep kosher, I drive on Shabbat, I don’t wear a yarmulke. I tend to think that the Laws are not applicable, in any literal sense, to me or to most Jews today. I do light candles on Friday nights, I do pray using the traditional Hebrew prayers and songs, I do fast on Yom Kippur. I don’t feel that people who do keep kosher or wear fringes under their shirts are in any sense more Jewish than I am. I place a lot of importance on thinking about the laws and traditions, not to instinctively reject the authority of the past, but also not to do things that aren’t helpful. So on some level, I have decided that fasting is helpful. But I don’t know that I have ever really thought it out.

And it occurred to me, as I thought about how easy and harmless it would be to break the fast, that really I fast so that when I choose not to fix myself a small sandwich or heat up some noodles, I really make that choice. I don’t have to fast, but I fast to show myself that my will is strong enough to choose to fast.

At the beginning of the Day of Judgment, we sing (or listen to) the Kol Nidre, probably the most revered of all the prayers in the year’s liturgy. Only it isn’t a prayer at all, really. It’s a legal fiction, a bizarre denial of liability. Kol Nidre means all vows, and the text of the prayer (or “prayer”) simply says that all vows entered into over the next year are not to be held as binding. That those who are forsworn will not be bound by their oaths. There is no mention of the Divine; the statement of absolution is only implied to be a petition for Divine mercy. It’s a very, very odd thing to be the holiest of prayers. In the end, the answer is pretty much tautological: it’s holy because we hallow it; it carries such weight because we place that weight on it.

To me, Kol Nidre is about acknowledging how far I fall short of my goals. How every year I promise myself that I will improve, and every year I let myself down. On Yom Kippur I am given another chance to vanquish my pride and my indolence; on the next Yom Kippur I hope to be given another chance. I don’t expect that I will win, as those sorts of battles are never complete until finally lost; I hope to continue to try. That’s one of the beauties of Kol Nidre, I think, at least for me: it tells me that it knows that I will make those vows and break them, and the hope to keep trying.

In addition to my old, familiar, almost comforting foes of arrogance and sloth, I have been troubled in the last few years by gluttony. Gluttony of a particular kind, that is: I give in to the munchies. Potato chips and corn chips, particularly, have a kind of terrifying fascination for me, and I nearly every day get hold of a bag of chips and eat until the bag is empty. I have managed (with the assistance of my Best Reader) to at least limit the portions by having smaller bags. But I rarely resist the urge to eat them. And, you know, that’s OK—I’d probably be a bit healthier if I were to cut down on the salt, but it’s not at a dangerous level, and in truth I get a fair amount of enjoyment out of it. What’s really dangerous, though, isn’t eating chips when I want chips, but that feeling of being unable to stop.

Being hungry on Yom Kippur and not eating was a reminder to myself that these things are choices, that I am perfectly capable of resisting the lure of the munchies. If I can do without food or water (or even tea!) for twenty-four hours, I can do without salty treats for an evening. I’m not giving them up, mind you, but I can and hope to make better decisions about when and how much to eat.

And if I can do that, I can make other good decisions, too: about doing the housework, about listening more carefully, about admitting error, about putting other people’s important needs ahead of my minor comforts, about doing tasks rather than putting them off. Will I succeed in that? Only occasionally, but maybe more next year than last year. If I fail, if I’m forsworn yet again, I can keep trying. That’s my Yom Kippur lesson for this year, anyway.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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