Why do we fast? Why do I fast? I have been fasting on Yom Kippur for seventy years. I fasted even when I rebelled against my Jewish heritage and refused to follow any, not just some, of the halachic practices I had been taught. I fasted even when I worked on Yom Kippur.
In fact, I was fasting at seventeen, after hitchhiking my way home from the Westinghouse warehouse where I worked and walking south on Bathurst Street, when a man came out of a synagogue, ran over to me in my work clothes, and asked me to please come in and turn a light on. I agreed. But as I walked towards the synagogue, I warned him that, though I had no problem turning the light on, he might have a problem since I was a Jew. The grip of horror overtook him. He stumbled. He mumbled. Of course, I could not be permitted to flip the switch. I walked away. But I continued to fast until the first star appeared in the sky that evening.
Why did I fast? Why do I fast? After all, in Exodus 23, God asks Moses to come up to the Lord, not alone, but with Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu as well as seventy elders of Israel. However, only Moses would be allowed to come near the Lord. Moses, after receiving the backing of the people of Israel, set up altars at the foot of the mountain, arranged for the appropriate sacrifices, and scattered blood on the heads of the gathered masses, “the blood of the covenant which the Lord now makes with you concerning all these commands,” (Exodus 24:8) For Moses had just completed writing down all of God’s commands.
When Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the seventy elders ascended the mountain with Moses, “they saw the God of Israel.” All of them —not just Moses — saw God. Not directly, but as a reflected image: “under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity.” (Exodus 24:10) What did this elite group do when they saw the Lord even if only in his reflected purity and glory? “They beheld God, and they ate and drank.” And they ate and drank. Moses had failed to heed God’s command that only he was to be ushered into the presence of God. Only he was to “come near the Lord.” (Exodus 24: 24)
Yom Kippur is a day in which we are supposed to re-experience what occurred on Mount Sinai. The story continues with Moses spending forty days and forty nights on the mountain in the presence of God. We fast, not because of those forty nights. But because Moses disobeyed God and allowed the elite of Israel to see God’s reflected glory. What was the matter? Was Moses worried that the other leaders would not believe him if they themselves had not been given a glimpse of God? Had Moses gained access to the purity of the divine, to the fire that appeared from the midst of the clouds on the mountain, by catering to his political base?
We fast because the elite leaders of Israel ate and drank after they caught a reflected glimpse of God. They ate and drank. We fast to remind ourselves that, no matter how much we confess and own up to our wrongdoings, God will remain hidden from us. We fast in the ultimate recognition that Yom Kippur is the acknowledgement that God will remain hidden. Just as there will be no food for the body, the image of God will not be available to us as food for the soul.
We fast, I fast, to remind myself that I cannot be present before God and that God cannot present Himself to me even in the form of a reflected image. We fast, I fast, in acknowledgement that the goal of encountering God must remain elusive and that the function of the elders, of the high priests, was not to come close to God, but to judge what is right and what is wrong about both myths and ideas. (Obadiah 1:21) We fast to remind ourselves that it is the people whom we must face, and it is not God whom we must approach. It is not God with whom we should come face to face.
As one of my former post-doc students wrote, ascending to some wonderfully air-conditioned Olympian vantage point is neither desirable nor possible. We must remain immersed in our history and live among and with the people even as we decipher what is true in myth and in ideas.
We must love the Torah. We cannot consume it. The Enlightenment pursuit of a ground for certainty is a quest for a fool’s paradise. Fasting is a reminder.