Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Not So Fast

One of the most famous chapters in the Hebrew Bible is Isaiah Chapter 58. General familiarity with it is due, no doubt, to the fact that it was selected by our Sages as the Haftara reading for Yom Kippur. However, its harsh and unrelenting critique of religious hypocrisy and the shallowness of mechanical ritual observance is most definitely the source of its immense and enduring power. 

Contemporaries of the Prophet Isaiah complained that despite their fasting and self-flagellation their prayers elicited no response from the Almighty. They cast doubt upon the omniscience of God and insinuated that He did not see their holy deeds or turned a deaf ear to their plaintive cries. The Jews simply could not fathom why their acts of piety had no results.

For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know My ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we afflicted ourselves, and you have not noticed?’

The prophet’s rejoinder to the people is clear and straightforward -  

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your debtors.
Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to afflict themselves?Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to Hashem?

Fasting had become a ritualistic activity, a kind of magic strategy for winning God’s goodwill. But the fast day was mere pageantry; there was no self-reflection, no introspection, no genuine change. Indeed, the same unjust, violent and selfish objectives pursued on ordinary days continued on the “sacred” days of fasting.

Isaiah does not stop at offering a critique of the fasting, however. He provides recommendations for a better approach to replace it:

Is not this the fast that I have chosen - to loose the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Is it not to deal your bread to the hungry, and that you bring the poor that are cast out into your house? When you see the naked, cover him, and that you hide not yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth as the morning, and your healing shall spring forth speedily; and your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of Hashem shall be your rear guard. Then shall you call, and Hashem will answer; you shall cry, and He will say: 'Here I am.' If you take away from the midst of you the yoke, finger-pointing, and speaking wickedness; And if you pour out your soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall your light rise in darkness, and your gloom be as the noon-day."

A true fast, the prophet insists, has nothing to do with abstaining from food and drink or with dressing in sackcloth; rather, it is a day of freeing the imprisoned and taking care of the poor, needy and homeless. It is a day of uprooting injustice and wickedness from our midst and of eradicating the forces of oppression. Were this to transpire on a fast day, the prophet tells us, God would unquestionably respond to the prayers of the Jewish people and alleviate their suffering.

We must ask one basic question about the lesson of Isaiah in this chapter. We can fully understand and sympathize with his condemnation of the hypocrisy of those who afflict themselves through avoidance of nourishment, expecting God to favor them, while continuing to pursue evil. We can also appreciate his emphasis on the importance of facing the REAL problems that plague Jewish society – indifference to the poor, exploitation of the needy, obsession with material goods and power and endless conflict over them. Addressing these issues would mean seeking to implement real, lasting change in our communities.

Why, though, does Isaiah claim that “this” – the struggle against injustice – “is the fast that God has chosen”? After all, a fast has a specific definition – it is a day of no physical indulgences, or at the very least, no eating and drinking. Isaiah should have said “forget about fasting – it’s not necessary – just do these things, care for the needy and the oppressed, battle the wicked and arrogant, and then you will be redeemed”. But he does not say that. He says that the fight for justice IS the fast. How can this be?

I believe that Isaiah offers a profound insight here that is relevant to every single one of us. Before revealing that, though, let’s consider a more general question, a perennial mystery that is deeply vexing and is worth exploring.

Religious people seem to have little difficulty observing rituals. Indeed, not only will they go to great lengths to keep the commandments, they even embrace additional stringencies that can invite further hardships and complications upon them. They may adopt stricter practices in the laws of kashrut, Shabbat, or the wearing of Tefillin, and this is part and parcel of what it means to be a religious Jew.

At the same time, for some inexplicable reason, religious people have tremendous difficulty keeping even the most BASIC laws that govern conduct between themselves and other human beings. They struggle mightily to refrain from gossip, slander, insulting or embarrassing others, cheating in business, and other such violations of the Torah.

Prophets and rabbis, from time immemorial, have commented upon and bemoaned this inconsistency and hypocrisy. How can we take our relationship with God so seriously while neglecting our relationships with our fellow men and women – especially when these relationships are also meant to be governed by the wisdom and laws of the Torah we revere? Why aren’t we just as careful, just as strict, just as amenable to self-sacrifice in the area of interpersonal mitzvoth as we are when it comes to the mitzvoth between us and our Creator? After all, these commandments are all written in the same Torah!

I would like to suggest that there is a very basic reason for this double standard. Religious ritual, because it is between the individual and his God, is thought to elevate the person, bringing him even closer to his Creator. In fact, when someone is more stringent in his observance, he may believe that this makes him superior to others who are less meticulous in their practice. In other words, at least in our imaginations, rituals can set us apart from and above our fellows and have the power to situate us “closer to God”, as it were. 

It is inherently appealing and relatively easy to embrace a lifestyle that reinforces our pre-existent sense that we are especially important to and adored by the Almighty, not to mention much more valuable in His eyes than most of the other inhabitants of this planet.

Laws that govern our interactions with other people, by contrast, have just the opposite effect. They emphasize that, in reality, we are NOT more precious, special or worthy than others simply by virtue of some minor religious, practical or material advantage we may possess. The homeless person who sleeps on the street is no less deserving of dignity than I am, no less entitled to a warm bed or a hot meal than I am, and no less of a beloved creature to God than I am. 

The person toward whom I harbor negative feelings or who owes me money or who works for me is just as significant a member of the human race as I am. I have no right to mistreat him, slander him or oppress him. I have to think about his feelings, his concerns, his welfare and his struggles. To observe these laws requires me to humble myself, to recognize that I stand in this world on an even playing field with those around me and that I have no inherent right or prerogative to place my needs and desires above those of my fellow human beings.

Let us return to the issue at hand – fasting. The purpose of fasting is to humble oneself, to break down one’s ego, drop one’s defenses, and honestly evaluate one’s character and conduct. However, fasting can also be transformed into a ritual action, a ceremony that makes me feel holier, purer, and closer to God. It can reinforce my innate sense of superiority, encouraging me to think even more highly of myself than I did previously and to feel even more entitled than I did before. This is precisely what was happening in the era of Isaiah (and what continues to happen today!). 

The fasting, rather than fostering humility and repentance, merely served to inflate the egos of the participants, causing them to expect even more from the Almighty and to be even less sensitive to the needs of those whom they believed were not as important as themselves.

This is why Isaiah explains that we have the concept of fasting all wrong. The essence of fasting is not pumping up your ego with an extra dose of piety through self-affliction but is focusing on your unworthiness, your flaws, and your defects. It is not about looking heavenward and saying “look how great I am, how much better I am than these less religious dullards, I must be so precious to you, Oh God, so please answer me.” 

Instead, it is about looking at the human beings around you who are created in the image of God just like you are and who have problems just like you do and who have families and emotions just like you do and who are suffering from poverty and oppression, and saying “I am NOT better than you are, I am not more entitled to blessing than you are, I have no right to exploit or mistreat you, and I have no right to sit idly by while you suffer the indignity and pain of being oppressed or persecuted.”

This, Isaiah says, is the essence of fasting – internalizing an attitude of humility and a consciousness of our shared humanity which will put an end to callous indifference and selfishness and will inspire the sincere pursuit of justice world over. Abstaining from food and drink is one way of opening our hearts to these insights but when we fail to “fast” properly we reduce the whole exercise to an empty, and even counterproductive, ritual. Not eating and drinking merely scratches the surface of what a genuine fast is all about.