What is my intention with fasting on Yom Kippur?

Yom Kippur is threatening to smash open the Gates of Heaven and let them crash loudly behind us before we’re even ready. For many of us, there’s a lot of important work that we’ve done to get ready for this moment. Personally, I spent the month of Elul preparing for the High Holidays. I coordinated events and rituals for my community and did some really necessary self-work and reflection in anticipation of the Jewish new year – Rosh Hashana.

For example, I wrote several kavanot, intentions, for myself and my community this past month as I reflected on where I’ve been and what I need. When I started writing, I used the phrase “May you…” as the stem for each line. I tried to separate the “you” from “me” (I felt a little preachy honestly) and then, about halfway through the “you” felt more like I was writing to myself rather than writing to create distance from myself. I started feeling “May you…” a lot during these reflective days both in the imperative sense and in the sense of allowing myself to do what’s best for me.  Through daily writing, I discovered themes in my own ways of being that are holding me back in or advancing my personal growth and relationships. I agreed to let go of things that were weighing me down and make space for moments or experiences where I can be fully present. It was a pretty palpable area of growth!

Even so, as we get closer and closer to Yom Kippur and the Days of Awe dwindle, it undoubtedly feels like there’s never enough time to reconcile all I’ve done that’s been misguided and all the self-work I wanted to accomplish in the last several weeks.

Speaking of which, in some communities that I’m a part of we’re having one specific conversation related to teshuva, repentance, and self-work. Many folks are asking, “What do you do when your grievances with yourself (the things you cast away during Tashlich) are around disordered eating and exercise?” This is because on Yom Kippur, one of the customary rituals for the holiest day of the year, the act of fasting often conceptualized as your last chance to repent, may be misaligned with the important self-work folks who are recovering from eating disorders prioritize daily.

If you Google “Yom Kippur and eating disorders” you will come up with 43,100 results in 0.52 seconds. You can read a lot of interesting articles and personal narratives about how fasting isn’t teshuva when you have an eating disorder, the strange correlation between Orthodox Jewish women and the prevalence of eating disorders, and how you cannot fast (even for religious reasons) if it will threaten your life. One widely-referenced article says, ” For individuals who suffer, or are in recovery from, an eating disorder, eating on Yom Kippur is a holy act. Rather than finding “purity” or “spiritual growth” through denying themselves food, the act of eating itself is an act of teshuva.” And regardless of Google’s consensus or what a rabbi tells you, every person needs to make their own decision about what’s best for their body and their recovery – ideally, with the help of a team of medical and mental health professionals.

I will be fasting this year. One thing that I found that was particularly helpful for me in making this decision was intention setting. Many articles suggest that people who have a history of disordered eating might find it helpful to ask themselves, “What is my intention with fasting on Yom Kippur and can it be achieved some other way?” You could also ask, “What part of me is making the decision if I’m choosing to fast?” Examining your intentions is a good way to judge if it’s a responsible idea to fast and if your rationale is guided by spiritual motivation or disordered eating.

If you’re struggling with food I encourage you to take some time to revisit and evaluate your intentions around fasting on Yom Kippur. For some people “because it’s what we do” isn’t safe or enough of a justification to condone fasting on Yom Kippur.

This year, I’ve done this work for myself and I’d like to offer two intentions that I am holding with me as I anticipate and participate in the Yom Kippur Fast:

Tisha B’Av:

Tisha B’Av is one of the saddest days of the year. It’s the day that we mourn the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Babylonian Talmud tells us,

To not mourn at all is impossible, as the decree was already issued and the Temple has been destroyed. But to mourn excessively as you are doing is also impossible, as the Sages do not issue a decree upon the public unless a majority of the public is able to abide by it.” (Tractate Bava Batra 60b). 

I’m interpreting this to mean that we mourn the destruction of the Temple at certain time periods that are designated for mourning, such as Tisha B’Av. The sorrow we feel on Tisha B’av must necessarily be time-limited – temporary.  However, if we don’t make space to feel the weight of this sadness, our persistent, always present joy risks feeling false or inauthentic. Similarly, an article from Aish mentions, “The point of the [Tisha B’Av] is not to wallow in pointless grief or melancholy. Judaism guides us to always live with a sense of purpose. Take the sadness and use it as a catalyst to rebuild. Replace destructive emotions with constructive actions. Resolve that today will bring us [the] opportunity to realize our spiritual potential.”

Just as we cannot bear the weight of immense sorrow every day, so too we cannot sustain ourselves by fasting interminably. The spiritual intention of fasting on Yom Kippur is time-limited and can be used as a tool to guide our choices in the year ahead. And, since one day of atonement doesn’t feel like nearly enough to rectify all our wrongdoings, we make time each day (e.g., through daily prayer or though apologizing) to be aware of our actions and how others experience us. This one day, Yom Kippur, is symbolic. This one practice, fasting, isn’t meant to be interminable just as the sadness we feel on Tisha B’Av isn’t always weighing us down.

Fully inhabiting your body:

I recently learned with Rabbi Jane Kanarek, PhD at a Sleichot service. Her teaching followed a series of Jewish texts which narrated all the ways (financial and otherwise) that our bodies matter and have worth. With this sentiment at the forefront, she proposed that we reimagine fasting on Yom Kippur in this way: fasting allows us to, momentarily, fully inhabit our body and experience all that it can do in its most depleted state and all that it needs to be its strongest. Only when we’ve understood the full worth of our bodies and realized that we can do so much more if we are dedicated to taking care of them can we do the work of teshuva.  She implied that you must mentally inhabit your empty (uninhabited) body to bring enlightenment and awareness to all that you need to feel strong and whole. This theme of wholeness and returning inward is essential to the High Holidays rhetoric, but in terms of fasting, the wholeness comes from when the fast is broken and you do what’s essential, replenish and fill yourself, to put your best self forward in the year ahead. Your intimate awareness with yourself and your needs demonstrates why this fast is time-limited and why the real teshuva occurs when we move beyond the symbolism of fasting and emerge from behind the Gates of Heaven prepared for whatever our bodies encounter next.

I wonder if any of you can relate to the difficulty of prioritizing this necessary self-work and awareness during the High Holidays when there’s so much to hold and coordinate on behalf of your community, work, family, and friends too. This tension, or rather sentiment, has me thinking a lot about Pirkei Avot 2:16, “you are not expected to complete the work, but neither are you free to avoid it.” That’s how I’m approaching teshuva this year. That’s how I’m facing the seemingly insurmountable task of introspection and yearning for wholeness. It’s also how I’m approaching the necessity to do both community and self-work. They’re inextricably linked and neither can be completed or thrive in isolation – we need our whole self and our whole community now, through the High Holidays, and beyond to be our strongest and to even have a shot at achieving our goals. In fact, the responsibilities are too big for one person to expect to complete on their own. What do you think?

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