And its Awakening
Yom Kippur is once again upon us (starting tonight, Wednesday night).
Are you excited?
That’s ok. I don’t know many people who are…
Does the thought of it fast approaching make you uncomfortable?
Me too — if I’m honest with myself.
Are you uncomfortable that you’re uncomfortable?
If you feel uncomfortable, you’re in good shape. It means you’re alive.
Yom Kippur is meant to be slightly uncomfortable by design. People tend to associate fasting (and long services) with pain, but a 25-hour fast shouldn’t induce pain if one is physically healthy. What it does is it makes us a bit restless and a tad uncomfortable.
Even towards the beginning of the fast, you can feel the awkwardness when you come home from Kol Nidrei, and don’t sit down to eat.
My wife and I usually look at each other and are like, “what are we supposed to do if we’re not eating?”
Eating is a central part of human life. It satisfies our craving for flavor, fullness, nutrition, and is nearly essential for socialization. All food is, in a sense, “comfort food.” When food is pushed off-limits to us, we are naturally put on edge.1
Most of us were raised or currently live in a country built on the values of “life, liberty and the pursuit of comfort” (or something to that effect). We’re uncomfortable about discomfort, and awkward about awkwardness. And so we must ask: What could possibly be the value of pursuing discomfort?
The Torah-mandated, externally-induced discomfort of Yom Kippur is meant to produce a situation in which we must look to something deeper — something other than a snack to settle our minds.2
Our first instinct when we need to calm our nerves just might be to reach for that lingering pint of Ben & Jerry’s. When we remember that we’re no longer eating Ben & Jerry’s, we can settle for the other brand of ice cream in our freezer. But where can go to resolve our anxiety when we recall that it’s Yom Kippur and we can’t use food to make us feel better?
And while we’re at it, where does our anxiety and general Jewish neurosis stem from?
The human mind is capable of astonishing feats of memory, organization, computational intelligence, creativity, imagination and intuition. At its core, however, buried beneath layers of cognitive and psychological machinery, is the “soft, [almost] silent voice,” which we all possess. It urges us to do the right thing, and is willing to wrestle with all the psychic forces that oppose it:
Post-modern philosophers such as Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, and psychologists starting with Freud, have framed human conscience as a nuisance that makes life more complicated than it should be, and saddles us with guilt when we violate it. Others, who have taken their cue from some of the above-mentioned thinkers, have chosen to wage war on conscience in tandem to their war on the Jews.3
Modernity has in many places followed suit by wishing away and washing away conscience and morality, and yet, at the end of long days in our modern, complicated lives, when we put our heads on our pillows, our conscience doesn’t seem to have gone away.
It’s true that we often feel bad about things others would like us to feel bad about, but I’m trying to point at our own inner sense of right and wrong.
How do we feel when either, a) we don’t rise to the challenge of doing the things we know in our heart of hearts we should be doing, and b) when we do what we knew in our heart of hearts we should never have done?
There is nothing more uncomfortable than violating our own conscience. Yom Kippur is an opportunity to resolve that discomfort, but it requires courage.
Experience has shown, and Jewish literature abounds with the fact that our conscience can be muted and numbed through distraction. Through a well-choreographed combination of staying busy and fleeting pleasures, we can avoid facing our own standards. The discomfort may crop up in odd dreams, “random” thoughts, back pain or stomach troubles — or most significantly, increasing complexity and heaviness in our lives.
Yom Kippur asks of us to push through the discomfort of a bit of a stomach rumbling, so we can hear for the first time in a while our soul rumbling within us.
Where are we?
How are we living life?
Are we doing enough of the good we know we’re capable of doing?
Are we doing enough to avoid the harm we might be doing to ourselves and others?
Are we leading the inspired lives we genuinely want to lead?
The truth is that it’s not Yom Kippur that is uncomfortable. It’s we who are all slightly uncomfortable with ourselves.
This is ok. In fact, it’s great. It means we’re alive. It means that our standards and aspirations for ourselves still exist pristinely within our hearts. It also means that we’re willing to bring them to bear with the realities of our lives. Let’s enter Yom Kippur courageously together and through the illumination of the One Who gives us life, and emerge more aligned with ourselves, and more comfortable and embracing of the people we’ve become.
Gmar chatima tova.
A more strict halachic illustration can be found in the following: the quantity of food that we’re Biblically forbidden from consuming is a k’kotevet (large date-sized volume). This legal threshold is actually larger than the much more common k’zayit (large olive-sized volume). The reason given in the Talmud is that while a k’zayit defines “eating,” and any less would be perhaps called “nibbling,” the larger volume of a k’kotevet is the measure of food that the Sages understood calms the mind when one is hungry. It is precisely the “calming of the mind” that is meant to be avoided on Yom Kippur. This is our traditional reading of the instruction of the Torah to “disturb our souls” — it is not about pain, but about discomfort (Yoma 80b).
This idea is developed much more extensively and profoundly in Rabbi Yehudah Lowe’s (the “Maharal”) “Discourse for Shabbat Teshuva.”
“This is what we are fighting against: the masochistic spirit of self-torment, the curse of so-called “morals,” idolized to protect the weak from the strong...Against the so-called “Ten Commandments” — against them we are fighting… Conscience is a Jewish invention. It is a blemish like circumcision.”
-Adolph Hitler (Hitler Speaks, by Herman Rauschning)