Haven’t We Been Afflicted Enough This Year?

This year, I’ve noticed a trend on social media: people mentioning that we shouldn’t have to afflict ourselves this year on Yom Kippur because we’ve been afflicted so much by recent events. According to this thinking, if the point of fasting and abstaining from a variety of physical comforts is to purge our sins, maybe months of confinement, deaths of friends and family members, job losses, confrontations over racism and politics, and unbreathable air have wiped out slate clean?

It doesn’t seem fair that we have to go out of our way to suffer on Yom Kippur.

While speaking in this case about Selichot, rather than fasting, the RogueShul tweeted, “Who else feels like 5780 should be apologizing to us?”

Comedian Ashley Blaker said similarly, “We have now entered the 10 days when we need to seek forgiveness from those we’ve caused pain. When 2020 is ready to apologise, I’m all ears.”

They’re half-joking, but the sentiment echoes the vibe I’ve picked up on.

It’s true that completing the Yom Kippur fast cleanses the soul. But that’s only for sins against G-d and against ourselves. It doesn’t work for sins against other people unless we first ask them for forgiveness. You won’t be in the clear for swiping your neighbor’s Amazon delivery, screaming four-letter words at your mother over politics, or attending a shindig while you were supposed to be in quarantine unless you apologize to the parties you wronged first.

Early on during the lockdown, I was hopeful. Sure, there were a couple weeks of toilet paper hoarding and hand sanitizer stockpiling, but it didn’t last. Confronted by the mortality of family members and friends and forced to stay at home rather than mingle with others, a lot of people turned towards introspection. People talked about learning to appreciate little things, distinguishing wants and needs, reaching out with offers of help for people at risk, sending care packages and letters to people who were lonely. Weirdly, April and May felt like a spiritual reckoning, the kind we usually associate with the High Holiday season.

At some point, that changed. Finger-pointing picked back up. Someone was to blame, but how often did we accept that it might be us? Rather than reaching out to people in need and taking protective measures for the sakes of others even if we personally felt safe, we’ve hunkered down in our corners and thrown up barriers between our society’s divisions. Once again, we started counting our deficiencies rather than our blessings. We point out other people’s deficiencies and ignore when they do well.

My husband reminds me that it’s not the Jewish way to confesses one’s sins publicly, but I’ll tell you that there’s a person who looks an awful lot like me (and isn’t my twin sister) who did some of those things I listed. If our current situation is supposed to be some kind of purifying mikvah, some of us dipped while holding the proverbial sheretz in our hand (thereby disqualifying the whole process).

Then again, let’s just say that our suffering the last six months—collective and personal—has purged our past misdeeds. Fasting over Yom Kippur remains essential.

Minutes after Yom Kippur ends, we’ll pray the Maariv service. Just as on other weekdays, we’ll beg for forgiveness in that Shmoneh Esrei. Why do we do this after a whole day of purification from sin?

Rabbis and teachers of past and present have a lot of theories: Perhaps we were so anxious to eat that we’ve been rushing our prayers after the holiday. Perhaps we stepped on the toes of the person we were dancing with while singing, “L’shanah habah b’Yirushalayim!” at the close of the holiday. Maybe, since the wording in Shemoneh Esrei is collective, we’re praying not on our behalf, but on behalf of those who didn’t realize it was Yom Kippur and neglected to fast or do teshuvah.

Let this year’s Yom Kippur fast be like that post-Yom Kippur Shemoneh Esrei. Maybe we were so anxious to get over this awful year that we rushed past the chance to really relate to the people around us—or to God. Maybe we “stepped on someone’s toes” and were too preoccupied to notice. Perhaps we’re just pulling the weight of the community at large.

Fasting is physically uncomfortable, but it’s a gift.

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