During the Yamim Noraim there are two fast days that are observed: Yom Kippur and the lesser known Fast of Gedalia, commemorating the assassination of the last governor of Judea prior to the destruction of the First Temple. One of the key purposes to both of these fast days is to free us from our daily needs in order to give us time to concentrate only on the tasks at hand: t’shuvah (repentance), t’filah (prayer) and tzedakah (charity). On the holiest day of the year, Jews practice a form of self-denial, refraining from pleasure and denying our bodies nourishment, in order to draw ourselves closer to God.
During the climax of our worship on Yom Kippur morning, we read the stirring words of the Prophet Isaiah, who challenges us to use this fast day as a reminder that if hunger and want still exist in our world, then our prayers are not yet finished: “Is this the fast I seek? A day of self-affliction? Bowing your head like a reed, and covering yourself with sackcloth and ashes? Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not THIS the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked, to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isaiah 58:5-7).
We read in Mishneh Torah that if a stranger comes and says, “I am hungry. Please give me food,” we are not allowed to check first to see if he is honest or not; we must immediately give him food (Laws of Contributions to the Poor, 6:6). The Rambam and those before him understood the importance of feeding the hungry.
Hunger is something that we still face today on a massive scale, both in North America and throughout the world. There are an estimated one billion people in the world who suffer from hunger and malnutrition; who do not choose to deny their bodies proper nutrition (www.thehungersite.com). As of 2006, there are over 36 million Americans, including over 13 million children, who suffer from hunger or are food insecure (www.mazon.org). These are the minions we should be thinking about as our stomachs growl during our High Holiday worship.
At this most holy time of year, we willingly deny ourselves sustenance in order to more readily recognize the pain of those who suffer hunger throughout the year. Rather than focusing on our own hunger during our ritual fast, we turn our thoughts and our actions to the millions of people around the world who cry out daily in hunger.
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