Shabbat Shuva/Yom Kippur: Questioning Fasting

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shabbat Shuva and Yom Kippur

I hope, for them’s that were observing Rosh Hashanah, that your holiday was beautiful and joyful. We’re in the middle of the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur- these days
are known as the “ten days” or the “ten days of repentance” (The first
day of RH was day 1 of the ten days, which ends on YK itself) in which
we are enjoined to examine our actions and make amends or apologies
where necessary.

The haftarah for the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is a
“combo pack” of verses from the books of Hosea, MIcah and Joel (this
is the Ashkenazi tradition), which taken together proclaim a message
of repentance and forgiveness. There are- at least for those
communities that read the section from Joel- allusions to the
practices of shofar and fasting on the Days of Awe:

“Blow a horn in Zion,
Solemnize a fast,
Proclaim an assembly!
Gather the people,
Bid the congregation purify themselves. . . ” (Yoel/Joel 2:15-16)

The rest of the passage proclaims God’s faithfulness to the people
Israel and their eventual redemption. The theological message of the
haftarah for “Shabbat Shuva” (Sabbath of Returning/Repentance) is
pretty straightforward: if the people examine their ways, God will not
forsake them. This makes sense as a prelude to Yom Kippur: we declare
our fasting as a communal commitment to cheshbon nefesh –
“soul-accounting”- secure in the faith that if we return in integrity,
we will be accepted. Divine forgiveness becomes a model for human
behavior- for if God accepts and forgives, shall we not as individuals
do the same with each other?

So far- so good.

Now, fast forward a few days to Yom Kippur, to the famous haftarah
from Yeshayahu/Isaiah, which throws some cold water on our plans to
fast, pray, and be renewed:

“Is such the fast I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush
And lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call that a fast,
A day when the Lord is favorable?” (Isaiah 58:5)

In the passages preceding this rebuke, the prophet imagines the people
complaining to God that they’re fasting and doing everything right,
but God isn’t heeding their prayer. This is no surprise, because
(according to the prophet’s evocative images) they may be fasting and
praying and doing the rituals of repentance but they are also carrying
on as usual with strife, selfishness and greed. Yeshayahu thus chides
the people for thinking that fasting alone constitutes t’shuvah; they
may be fasting, but they are not growing in compassion and justice,
and thus missing the point.

To me, the contrast between these two haftarot is both striking and
profound: on Shabbat Shuva, this weekend, we’re called to proclaim the
fast day, but on Yom Kippur, the haftarah tells us that the fast day
itself might be part of our problem or even a sign of our hypocrisy,
especially if we grow arrogant about our piety while in denial about
our lovingkindness. The resolution, I think, is to see the two
haftarot hinting at a process: first we gather together, because if
doing the hard work of a fearless moral inventory seems overwhelming,
at least we can support each other in community and grasp on to the
liturgies and rituals of Yom Kippur to prod our introspection.

Then, when we’re in the middle of the process, Yeshayahu comes and
says: be careful not to confuse the outward sign of the t’shuvah
process with the real inner work. Don’t confuse the day, which is the
container, with the contents, which is humble acknowledgment of our
imperfections and a commitment to create more compassion in our lives
despite those imperfections.

Thus there is the instruction: “solemnize the fast day!” and the
bracing question: “is such the fast I desire?” One leads to the other,
and the prophet’s question, framed as God’s demand, is really the
question all of us need to ask ourselves.

With warmest wishes for an beautiful Yom Kippur,


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