The Fast Track to Adulthood

A few years ago a friend of mine asked me why we fast on Yom Kippur. Which is a serious question in normal standards, but he happened to ask me this at 3:30 in the morning while we were driving home after working a night shift.

In my sleep-deprived and exhaustion-laden state, I was mentally preparing myself to give him something resembling a half-ass answer, when I was rudely interrupted by errant sprinklers hitting the windshield and scaring the bejeezus out of me. So instead I burst into hysterical giggles, which made him start laughing, because we were in a matzav kapit.

A brief pause for translation:
matzav – Hebrew; literally “situation”
kapkit – Hebrew; literally “spoon”

A slang term that means you are so whatever, that even mentioning the word “spoon” will set you off in uncontrollable fits of hysterical, and sometimes maniacal, laughter.

Of course, I’m writing about this which means some part of my subconscious still wants to provide him an answer, despite the fact that we don’t work together anymore.
Also it’s a question that many people ask each year, regardless of age and level of religious observance.

So, disregarding the fact that he may not even read this – why do we fast on Yom Kippur?
Answer: Because the Torah says so.
This is kind of such a cop-out answer; there are lots of things written in the Old and New Testaments which lots of people don’t do all the time. Let’s be honest – it’s the kind of answer that parents give to their toddlers after a 35-minute Q&A session.

Just shut up and eat your french fries.

Just shut up and eat your french fries.


It’s also the kind of answer that he wouldn’t approve of, and would result in an eye-roll and “no, really”. And I would have to either delve deeper into that answer or provide another one.

So why do we fast on Yom Kippur?
Answer: Because Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement.
True; that is the literal translation. It’s a day to atone for our sins and purify ourselves. But do we really need to devote an entire day to apologizing for past wrongdoings?
I remember a situation many years ago when I was at a friends’ wedding. It turns out one of my former high school classmates was also there; we hadn’t seen each other in about 7 years. After genuine surprise at seeing each other, and the obligatory “hey what have you been up to?” had been exchanged, he looked me straight in the eye and said “I’m sorry I was such a jerk to you in high school.”
It took me completely by surprise, but I readily accepted because he was really sincere. (Also because he wasn’t one of the worse ones, but we’ll let that pass)

People are capable of apologizing for things they did or said throughout the year, and many times those apologies are done on full stomachs. Sometimes those stomachs are full of alcohol, but the point remains – we don’t have to fast to apologize. And we don’t need a special day to apologize either.

So why do we fast on Yom Kippur?
Answer: Because Yom Kippur is a day for our soul
Yom Kippur is the day where our souls are weighed and judged, and everything we did during the past year is held against us (for good or bad). As such, souls are purely spiritual and don’t need food or water to sustain themselves.

Just, you know, a really heavy feather for the afterlife.

Just, you know, a really heavy feather for the afterlife.


Because this day is primarily for our souls, we put our physical needs aside for one day. We don’t eat or drink, or wear comfortable shoes, or shower (you get the idea) to show how serious we are about this whole thing. And the more religious ones spend the entire day praying for our souls even though by the end we are so deliriously hungry we can’t concentrate on the prayers we’re saying, much less stand up straight at all. The prayers lose none of their importance or significance, but the hunger and caffeine withdrawl make it really hard to focus.

So why do we fast on Yom Kippur?
Answer: Because fasting makes us weak
Physically, emotionally, mentally, psychologically – across all boards we are not strong. Blood sugar plummets, mouths go dry, spots appear in our vision, extremities get light and shaky – we become very uncomfortable and start to behave rather stupidly.

Yeah, pretty much.

Yeah, pretty much.


Without complex carbohydrates and dihydrogen monoxide, our synapses don’t fire the way they usually do – and that’s when it isn’t 90 freaking degrees outside and the AC doesn’t work.
Studies have shown (and dystopian YA novels have confirmed) that weakness is a bad thing. It is not good to be perceived as weak, because then you are seen as young and stupid. You are not trusted with certain pieces of information, because if you are weak there is no way you can deal with [fill-in-the-blank here].
Just like in most coming-of-age novels, the person in question must go on a journey of some kind whereby they undergo a transformation of sorts in order to prove to the naysayers and haters that they really are capable of understanding what is going on around them.
Most of the time, said journey involves admitting the said weakness. And that makes them strong.

So why do we fast on Yom Kippur?
Answer: Because fasting makes us strong

When you admit that you are weak, it shows understanding of yourself, and that in turn shows strength. It shows that you have turned a corner (or whatever phrase you want to use here that means the same thing). You’ve matured; you’ve grown up; you’re a real boy/girl/alien life form.
Admitting weakness allows you the opportunity to grow and get to listen in on all the juicy secrets that the grown-ups didn’t think you could handle. Admitting your weaknesses brings you one step closer to adulthood.
It’s also one of the most difficult things that everyone faces in their life. And it does not get easier over time. One only hopes that, as time goes on, we don’t have to do it as much because we learn from past mistakes, which means we have less to feel sorry for. But even so, we still have to apologize for the things we did do.

So why do we fast on Yom Kippur?
Answer: Because we are adults and understand that we are accountable for our actions
There’s a reason that fasting the full day only starts once you celebrate your Bar/Bat Mitzvah. It’s because you are now responsible and accountable for your actions and therefore must admit when you did something wrong. (Up until that point your parents fasted for you in addition for themselves, so chalk that up to parental love and devotion.)
Now I had no idea what I was atoning for when I was 12, even with my stellar Jewish-Day-School education. And despite the inter-linear translation now available to me I still don’t get it. But that doesn’t remove me from the ritual or revoke my responsibility.

But there is something that I never liked about apologizing in public and as a group, even though it makes us strong like a mighty faggot.

I will admit that I may have taken this too far...

I will admit that I may have taken this too far…

It’s because apologies are only as powerful as they are individual. When you apologize en masse the apology becomes diluted. Especially when the list of transgressions is decades-old Hebrew that most people don’t understand, much less actually transgress, leading many rabbis to translate and put them into a modern context.

So why do we fast on Yom Kippur?
Answer: Because it’s embarrassing

Atoning in public where everyone can see and hear does seem a bit forced, and there is no small amount of embarrassment involved. I know it’s how Nooshkin feels when I make her apologize for being not nice to her friends, especially in front of said friend’s parent/s and whoever else happens to be there. But we live in a day and age where if there are no witnesses then it did not happen, and this idea is not novel.

Observing Yom Kippur in public, and not in private, shows our strengths and weaknesses to everyone in our community, and it allows us to acknowledge theirs as well. We fast and pray (and wander the empty streets of a pseudo post-apocalyptic Israel) together.

As adults we carry that responsibility with us, regardless of how uncomfortable we may feel. And, especially in a group setting, there is a lot of power that comes with that kind of responsibility.

So why do we fast on Yom Kippur?
Answer: Because we are Spiderman

Doing whatever a spider can.

Doing whatever a spider can.

We fast on Yom Kippur because we are just trying to do whatever we can to get by, even if it means swinging around in our underwear from time to time.

And I can live with that.

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