Kol Nidrei: Physical and Spiritual Hunger

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Physical and Spiritual Hunger

Kol Nidrei, September 18, 2018
Rabbi Jaymee Alpert

We just began a fast.  For 25 hours or so, we will refrain from eating all types of food and from drinking all beverages.  It’s been about an hour since we started this fast, and if you’re like me, you might already be thinking that this holiday would be so much more enjoyable if at the end of services, we were heading home for a festive meal – with challah, and special holiday dishes, sweet desserts, etc.  But as you know, that is not how this holiday goes.

Why do we fast on Yom Kippur?  Why do we put ourselves – our bodies and our minds through this exercise each year?  What does it do for us?  Perhaps the most straightforward reason to fast is that Yom Kippur is a day set apart by the Torah for us to “practice self-denial” (Leviticus 23:27).

Early on, ‘self-denial’ was interpreted as refraining from food and drink, as well as not bathing, using perfume, or wearing leather shoes.

Later sources add to the meaning of the fast.  The Shulkhan Arukh (Orach Chaim, 610:4) says that on Yom Kippur we seek to emulate the angels who wear white, and who need neither food nor water in order to exist.

There is a tradition that Yom Kippur is supposed to give us a sense of the world to come, as Rabbi Eli Rivkin suggests, “just as in messianic times, when eating and drinking will no longer be needed because the physical world will have been elevated, the negation of the physical on Yom Kippur “is a taste of that.”

As a child, when I would ask about fasting, in addition to the reasons I just mentioned, my teachers would say things like, ‘well, on Yom Kippur we’re not supposed to think about regular, mundane things.  If you don’t eat, you won’t be focused on eating.’  I don’t know about you, but when I don’t eat, pretty much all I think about is eating.  And I wonder if this might be part of the point as well. By choosing not to eat or drink, we shift our focus.  We change our routines.  We give ourselves a new perspective.

We choose to fast.  Yes, the Torah commands us, and yes, for some, there might be a bit of familial guilt involved, but ultimately, we choose.

Here in this community, many of us are blessed.  Many of us have the choice to abstain from eating and drinking for 25 hours, comforted by the knowledge that tomorrow night after the final tekiah gedolah, and Havdallah we will break our fast.  We will have plenty to eat and clean water to drink.  But not everyone is so lucky.

After steadily declining for a decade, global hunger is on the rise and now afflicts 815 million people around the world.  That’s about 1 out of every 9 people.  According to the World Health Organization, the rise is due to ongoing violent conflicts and to severe climate-related events.  3.1 million children under the age of 5 die annually because of malnutrition, and an additional 155 million children under 5 are too short for their age because they do not have enough nutritious food to eat.

In America, 41 million people live in food insecure households, including more than 13 million children. 1 in 6 kids in this country faces hunger. 12.5% of California’s population lives in food insecure households – that’s nearly 5 million people.

Last winter, the Second Harvest Food Bank released the results of a food insecurity study for Silicon Valley, and the results are shocking.  1 in 4 people in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties is at risk for hunger.  1 in 4.

Despite the unprecedented wealth in this area, approximately 720,000 people in these two counties live in a state of food insecurity.  According to an article that appeared in The Guardian last December, “Hunger and the housing crisis go hand-in-hand. In Santa Clara County, the median price of a family home has reached a new high of $1.125m, while the supply of homes continues to shrink.  A family of four earning less than $85,000 is now considered low income. These realities mean food insecurity cuts across lines of race, age and employment status.”

For 1 in 4 people in our area, fasting is not a choice.  Hunger is real.  Fasting is real.  And for millions of people around the world, and for thousands of our neighbors, fasting is a regular reality.

For those of us who are lucky enough to choose, what do we get out of fasting beyond practicing self-denial?  I believe that fasting on Yom Kippur gives us an opportunity to focus differently.  While it’s true that we are still focused on food – on not eating it, it is also true that we slow down a bit – both biologically and emotionally.  These 25 hours allow us to process differently – we’re not racing out of services tonight precisely because we are not rushing home or to friends for a big meal.  We are not racing out of services tomorrow afternoon, because there is no lunch to go home to.

We talk about hunger and food and abstaining from food, because the absence of food is part of this holiday.  Hopefully, choosing to fast will give us greater empathy for people around the world and throughout the Bay Area who do not have this choice.  Empathy often leads to action, so I urge you to donate what you would have spent on meals this Yom Kippur to Project Isaiah, Second Harvest Food Bank, Mazon, or another food-oriented charity of your choice.

Whether it is a choice or not, physical hunger is real, but it is not the only type of hunger we experience on Yom Kippur.  In tomorrow morning’s Haftarah, we will read Isaiah’s powerful words (58:5-7):  “Is such a fast I desire, a day for people 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 Adonai is favorable?

No, this is the fast I desire:  to unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke.  It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to ignore your own kin.”

The Yom Kippur fast is meant to spur us to action, and, I believe, these 25 hours are also intended to focus us on our spiritual hunger – ‘to break off every yoke.’  Yom Kippur gives us the gift of time.  For 25 hours we direct our hearts and minds differently – we allow ourselves to see big picture things and think big-picture thoughts.

So often we get tangled up in the day-to-dayness of our lives – work, errands, taking care of a child or a parent or both.  Our daily lives direct us toward a narrow scope – what needs to get done?  We go through our days ticking tasks off a list.  Before we know it, another year has passed and we wonder where the time went.  How is it possible that we are here observing another Yom Kippur?  How is it possible that I didn’t check more than one or two items off my life’s bucket list if I made time for any of those things at all?

There are more people in services during the High Holidays than at any other time of the year.  That is not judgement, it’s just so.  How do we use this time?  To be in community?  To socialize?  To reflect?  To pray?

The machzor offers us many, many prayers – do we say them?  Do we mean them?  Do these prayers speak to our innermost yearnings?  Do they describe a version of God that we believe in?  Talking about prayer is hard.  Actually praying is even harder.

Let me let you in a little secret – the prayers on the pages of our book, don’t automatically constitute real prayer.  Just because we sing along or read to ourselves does not mean that we are praying or even that we are present.  The prayers on the pages are a conduit, a vehicle to get us to open ourselves up to real prayer.

The themes of the day and of this season – teshuvah, tefillah, tzedakah – the refrain from U’Neaneh Tokef, ask questions for us to consider – what will my teshuvah be?

Whom have I hurt?  How will I apologize and more than apologize, how will I hold myself back from hurting them again?  How have I wronged myself?  How can I live more by my values?  What are my values?  It seems basic, but we can get so caught up in what is happening around us, that we sometimes forget who we are and we end up sacrificing our principles for appearances’ sake.

Tzedakah:  what role do I want it to play in my life?  Do I give enough to charity?  Could I give more?  And, tzedakah means more than charity – it means righteousness.  How will I bring righteousness into the world?  How can my contributions bring justice to my community?  To those around me?

Tefillah – what role do I want prayer to play for me?  I mentioned on Rosh Hashanah that it is ironic that we spend so much time in public on these High Holy Days doing something so incredibly private, and that’s why I said that prayers are not necessarily the same as prayer.  How do we open up our innermost selves when there are hundreds of people sitting in the same room?

At some point, most of us lose sight of who we are, we forget what is truly important, and it is difficult to come to the synagogue and to be asked to get to know ourselves all over again.  What are our secrets?  What are our demons?  What are we most afraid to admit to ourselves?  Are we willing to lay our souls bare even to ourselves?  And this is exactly when prayer, real prayer begins.  This is the moment we begin to address our spiritual hunger.

Most of us live much of the time in spiritually insecure lives.  Like so many Americans who live with food insecurity – not knowing when or from where their next meal will come, so often we don’t know how to feed our spiritual hunger.  It’s not that we aren’t spiritual.  If asked, I have a feeling that many would say that you are deeply spiritual – you feel a force bigger than yourself, you see the power and beauty in nature, you experience awe at different moments in your life.

It’s just that we come to services – today, or on Shabbat, or on other holidays, hoping to fill ourselves up with spirituality and then we feel let down if the prayers don’t always move us.  We feel frustrated if our prayers leave us unsatisfied and craving more or possibly, something else.

In an interview with the Baltimore Jewish Times, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s CEO, Rabbi Steven Wernick explains that “there is a difference between davening, the skill of being able to navigate the siddur, and prayer, ‘having the skills to really connect spiritually with some of the themes that are accomplished in the davening. Sometimes we are in such a rush to get through the siddur, to daven, that we forget about praying.’”

Prayer is also challenging because it is hard to stay focused.  Pema Chodron, a Buddhist author, teacher, and nun teaches meditation, and acknowledges that it is easy to get distracted by our thoughts.  “Instead of clearing our minds and staying with our breath during meditation,” she says, “we often end up rewriting ‘War and Peace’ or singing all of the parts in our favorite libretto, and then we wonder where the time has gone.”

It is hard for us to stay present with ourselves and our deepest thoughts.  We are often afraid of what might come up for us.  It is scary to delve deep – after all, what if we don’t like what we find?  And, in this day and age, we are not used to focusing for extended periods of time.  We multi-task.  We have been conditioned to like distractions.

Just over two centuries ago, Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav introduced the concept of “hitbodedut” to the world.  Hitbodedut refers to an unstructured, spontaneous and individualized form of prayer and meditation.  Through hitbodedut one may establish a close, personal relationship with God and gain a clearer understanding of personal motives and aspirations.

The method involves talking to God in an intimate, informal manner while secluded in a private setting.  It’s kind of like an out-loud, experiential meditation.  Rebbe Nachman taught that the best place for hitbodedut is in the forest or a field.  He wrote, “When a person meditates in the fields, all the grass joins in his prayer and increases its effectiveness and power.”

During hitbodedut, you pour out your heart to God using your own language, because the point is to be as honest as possible, without obstacles like language in the way.  And no topic is off limits.

Hitbodedut is a time for expressing regrets, requests, complaints, dreams; it is a time to tell God you don’t know how to articulate your own thoughts and prayers.  It is also an opportunity to examine one’s behavior and motivations in the hope of moving toward the proper path in the future. In this regard, hitbodedut is a form of teshuvah.

Rebbe Nachman practiced what he preached and was known to go out into the forest every morning for an hour before the traditional Shacharit service.  I imagine it must have been quite chilly on January mornings in Ukraine, but regardless of the weather, Rebbe Nachman made time for daily conversation with God.  He practiced his spirituality.  I wonder if it got easier for him, or if like Pema Chodron, he just learned to accept the mornings when hitbodedut did not come naturally and he pushed through anyway to see what would come from it.

While hitbodedut has become a popular practice even for those who aren’t Bratslaver Hasidim, I have a feeling that most of us will return to services tomorrow morning without having visited the forest first.  That said, I wonder if there is some way to find time for hitbodedut over these next few hours.  What would it look like if we were to create a private space within this public sanctuary?  What would it be like if we were to allow ourselves to get lost in prayer?  What might that do to feed us spiritually?

Prayer is not supposed to be comfortable.  In fact, prayer should make us uncomfortable, because it is when we access the deepest core of who we are – it is the part of ourselves that we don’t even have words for.  It is the thought we are embarrassed to say out loud because it is that personal – the one where if we are brave enough, maybe, maybe we say, “O God, I know you know what’s in my heart even when I cannot say it to you.”

Praying is hard.  Prayer is hard.  But it is prayer that allows us to change.  It is prayer that enables us to dig deep and to come close to ourselves, and maybe even to come close to God.

What is the point?  To change our lives.  To live in a more present way.     To yes, still run errands, go to work, make dinner and so on, and also to see the big picture more clearly.  Prayer gives us permission to admit that we don’t have all the answers.  It gives us permission to relinquish control and to recognize a force bigger than ourselves.  Prayer allows us to acknowledge our spiritual hunger in the same way that we recognize our physical hunger during these 25 hours.

The Baal Shem Tov tells a story about a boy who recites the alef-bet over and over again.  Finally he cries out – “Dear God, I am giving you all of the letters and I know you will arrange them into the right words!”  I think about this story often on Yom Kippur – sometimes we don’t even know our own prayer.  All we can do is try to open up, try to allow ourselves to become vulnerable enough to invite God to parse our letters into words and prayers.

We have the gift of time on Yom Kippur.  We have these 25 hours to focus differently.  To pray differently.  To offer real teshuvah.  To be present.  How will we use the time?  How will you allow yourself to come face to face with your innermost self?  How will you use your physical and spiritual hunger to nourish yourself and those around you?

I have already asked you to donate to a food-oriented tzedakah if you are able.  And now I will ask you to take care of your spiritual hunger as well.  Take a moment or two to yourself over the next 25 hours.  Whether it is here or at home, in the sanctuary or outside by the trees, to ask yourself:

How will you feed your spiritual hunger in the coming year?

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