Judaism is, at its core, an agrarian religion. That is to say that our roots quite literally lay in the soil, in the natural cycles of the year, the seasons (at least as they exist in the land of Israel), and an understanding of the interconnectedness of all things.
Many of us wonder about the timing of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Isn’t it odd, that just as the colors are changing, an early sign as to natural decay, that we would start our new year? In Israel, however, the end of the hot summer marks the beginning of the rainy season, by far the most important season for the creation and sustanance of the plant life upon which our forebearers relied.
While Rosh Hashanah and the ideas of renewal and rebirth, sweetness, and beginnings seem upbeat and carefree, Yom Kippur is often more difficult for us to comprehend. If we begin the year with (over)consumption, we somewhat quickly shift to a period of abstention, we literally fast. In Jewish tradition and culture, which is obsessed with food, what is the meaning of this conscious and intentional removal of food from our most important of days?
For us as Jews, recognizing the sources of foods that sustain our lives, must be an intentional act. In our Jewish codes of food ethics, known as kashrut, we are told not to boil a kid in its mother’s milk. While we all can understand the cruelty of this act, most commentators believe that what is most offensive about it is that it mixes milk, a symbol and giver of life, with meat, quite literally the product of death.
If food is necessary for life, then its absence must be necessary for our simulation of death. And this abstention gives us an opportunity to think about our sustanence, spiritually as well as physically. As we repeat incantations and formulations designed to convince our creator to be merciful and grant us continued existence despite our manifold flaws, we may also think about our responsibilities to the systems that sustain us on a day to day basis.
There is a tradition that Yom Kippur is an elaborate ritual meant to be reminiscent of our final moments of life. Traditionally, we wear white, symbolizing the simple garb meant for Jewish burial. We take all of the Torahs out of the ark, leaving it exposed, like a coffin, and we confess our sins and repent. We also refrain from all earthly pleasures, among them, sex, and food. Many Jews refrain from wearing leather belts or shoes. We do this to attempt to approach this moment, simulating our death, absent of the impurities which often keep us from attaining our highest spiritual potential. Ultimately, we recognize death and life as part of the same cycle, but only in the separation, do we find the convergence. In facing death, we hope to inscribe ourselves in the book of life.
In fact, this intense focus on separating life from death pervades kashrut and other Jewish customs, from the laws of slaughtering meat to ensure the transition from life to death is as quick as possible, to the salting of meat to remove any blood, to a prohibition against eating animals that are scavengers, eating other animals that may have been dead for some time.
This focus on separation, comes into play on a larger scale as well. As Jews, as compared to other religions that often focus on life after death, our duty is to impact the world we currently inhabit. We know that our current world often conflates life and death. For an illustration of this, we need not look further than industrialized farming, which literally takes millenia of decomposed organic matter in the form of petroleum to power huge operations that do not have no time or consideration for the animals while they are alive. The resulting waste indtroduced into this system often runs off into our water supply, further tainting the potential for future existence. The first step in repairing the world, is to cause less damage to it.
Yom Kippur offers us an opportunity to step off of the wheel of consumption, to remove ourselves from a system that sustains us with cheap food at an incredible hidden cost, if only for a day. If we take the fast as an opportunity to set an intention for our consumption post-break-fast, we might find we are able to make changes to how we approach our food, our environment, and by extension, our lives.
May your fast be meaningful. Tzom Kal. And may you be sealed in the book of life for a happy and healthy new year, Gmar Chatima Tovah.