About one third of the of the 562,000 Americans who will die this year from various types of cancer, will die due to their own behavior. Smoking, over eating and drinking, and physical inactivity will do them in. The same set of self indulgences will also afflict those who die from heart disease this year. The lack of self restraint so evident in much of modern life leads us first to unrestricted pleasure seeking; and then increasingly to self induced suffering.
People spend billions of dollars on pills, diet books and gym memberships but lack the self discipline to control themselves. A recently released report (7/7/11) on obesity rates found that in the last 15 years adult obesity has doubled, or nearly doubled, in 17 states. Two decades ago not a single state had an obesity rate over 15%. Now 49 of the 50 states have an adult obesity rate of over 20%. And young people are leading the way in increasing self indulgence.
In the majority of states (30 out of 50) the percentage of overweight or obese children is at or above 30%. We have largely lost the spiritual value of self restraint that is so important in the Catholic, Jewish and Muslim tradition. That self restraint was realized every year by voluntary community fasting.
But why should people restrict their culinary pleasures? More outrageous, why should we afflict ourselves by fasting? Don’t most people think that being happy is the most important thing? Isn’t eating one of the most accessible pleasures we have? Why should religions restrict our pleasures? Why should the Torah decree a day of fasting? (Leviticus 16:29, 23:27). For twenty-four hours Jews (in good health) are supposed to afflict their souls by abstaining from eating or drinking anything. What we do not eat may be even more important than what we do eat.
All animals eat, but only humans choose to not eat some foods that are both nutritious and tasty. Some people do not eat meat for religious/ethical reasons. Jews and Muslims do not eat pork for religious/spiritual reasons. And on Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement Jews do not eat or drink anything at all for twenty-four hours.
And every year for the entire month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from first light until sundown, abstaining from food, drink, and marital relations. The Quran says “Oh you who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that you may (learn) self-restraint,” Qur’an 2:183.
What is the Torah and the Qur’an trying to teach people by decreeing the importance of fasting? What spiritual benefits occur when we fast?
First of all, fasting teaches compassion. It is easy to talk about the world’s problem of hunger. We can feel sorry that millions of people go to bed hungry each day. But not until one can actually feel it in one’s own body is the impact truly there. Compassion based on empathy is much stronger and more consistent than compassion based on pity. This feeling must lead to action. Fasting is never an end in itself; that’s why it has so many different outcomes.
But all the other outcomes are of no real moral value if compassion is not enlarged and extended through fasting. As the prophet Isaiah said, “The truth is that at the same time you fast, you pursue your own interests and oppress your workers. Your fasting makes you violent, and you quarrel and fight. The kind of fasting I want is this: remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free. Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor” (Is 58:3-7)
Second, fasting is an exercise in will-power. Most people think they can’t fast because it’s too hard. But actually the discomfort of hunger pangs is relatively minor. A headache, muscle pains from too much exercise, and most certainly a toothache, are all more severe than the pains hunger produces. I have on occasion fasted for three days, and found that after the first twenty four hours the pain decreases slightly as the stomach becomes numb.
The reason it is so hard to fast is because it so easy to stop. The food is all around, and in easy reach; all you have do is take a bite. Thus the key to fasting is the will power to decide again and again not to eat. Our society has increasingly become one of self indulgence. We lack self discipline. Fasting goes in direct opposition to our increasing “softness” in life. When people exercise their will-power and fast, they are affirming their self-control and celebrating mastery over themselves. We need continually to prove that we can do it, because we are aware of our frequent failures to be self-disciplined.
The third outcome of fasting is improved physical health. Of course, one twenty-four hour fast will not have any more effect than one day of exercise. Only prolonged and regular fasting promotes health. The annual fast on Yom Kippur can, however, awaken us to the importance of “how much and how often we eat”. For many years research has shown that when animals are somewhat underfed, receiving a balanced diet at below the normal quantity for maximum physical health, their life spans were prolonged from 50% to 100%. With all the additives placed in food these days a reduction of total food intake has to be healthful.
More important, since our society has problems with overabundance, fasting provides a good lesson in the virtue of denial. Health problems caused by overeating are the most rapidly growing health problems in affluent Western countries. A good example is the increasing spread of diabetes. Sixteen million people in the United State have diabetes.
Diabetes can lead to blindness, kidney disease, heart disease, nerve damage, amputations and sometimes death. The prevalence of the disease is related to high rates of obesity and a sedentary lifestyle, which increase the risk of developing the disease. Thus going without any food, or even water, for a twenty-four hour period challenges us to think about the benefits of the very important spiritual teaching; less is more.
Fourth in our list of outcomes, fasting is a positive struggle against our dependencies. We live in a consumer society. We are constantly bombarded by advertising telling us that we must have this or that to be healthy, happy, popular or wise. By fasting we assert that we need not be totally dependent on external things, even such essentials as food. If our most basic need for food and drink can be suspended for twenty-four hours, how much more need is there for all the nonessentials. Judaism doesn’t advocate asceticism as an end in itself. In fact it’s against Jewish law to deny ourselves normal pleasures. But in our overheated consumer society it is necessary periodically to turn off the constant pressure to consume, and to remind ourselves forcibly that “Man does not live by bread alone.” (Deuteronomy 8:3)
Fifth, fasting serves as a penance. Though self inflicted pain may alleviate some guilt, it is much better to reduce one’s guilt by offsetting acts of righteousness to others. This is why, for Jews, contributing to charity is an important part of Yom Kippur. The same is true for Muslims during Ramadan. Indeed, fasting that doesn’t increase compassion is ignored by God. Also, the concept of fasting as penance helps us understand that our suffering can be beneficial.
Contemporary culture desires happiness above all else. Any suffering is seen as unnecessary and indeed evil. Though we occasionally hear people echo values from the past that suffering can help one grow, or that an existence unalloyed with pain would lack certain qualities of greatness, many today seem to think that the primary goal in life is “to always be happy and free of all discomfort.” The satisfaction one derives from the self-induced pain of fasting provides insight into a better way of reacting to the externally caused suffering we have to experience anyway. Taking a pill is not always the best way to alleviate pain especially if by doing so we allay the symptoms without reaching the root cause.
Sixth, fasting is good for the soul. It often serves as an aid for spiritual experiences. For most people, especially those who have not fasted regularly before, hunger pains are a distraction. But for some people who are by nature spiritual/emotional individuals, they will find a one-day fast may be sufficient to help induce an altered state of consciousness. If you enter the fast with the idea that fasting can help you feel something special you are more likely to experience it over the next few years. Yet note that Jews are prohibited to fast prior to Yom Kippur; eating a good meal prior to Yom Kippur Eve is a mitzvah (religious duty), because Judaism opposes excessive asceticism.
The seventh outcome of fasting is the performance of a mitzvah, which is, after all, the one fundamental reason for fasting on Yom Kippur. We do not do mitzvoth in order to benefit ourselves, but because our duty as Jews requires that we do them. Fasting is a very personal mitzvah, with primarily personal consequences.
Fasting on Yom Kippur is a personal offering to the God of Israel from each member of the family of Israel. For over 100 generations Jews have fasted on this day. A personal act of fasting is part of the Jewish people’s covenant with God. The principal reason to fast is to fulfill a mitzvah.
The outcome of your fast can be any of a half dozen forms of self-fulfillment. But simply knowing that you have done one of your duties as an adult Jew is the most basic and primary outcome of all.
Finally, fasting should be combined with the study of Torah (the five books of Moses specifically or Scriptural texts in general). Indeed, the more one studies, the less one needs to fast. A medieval Jewish text states, “Better to eat a little and study twice as much, for the study of Torah is superior to fasting.” Fasting is a very personal, experiential offering. However, though study is also a personal experience, it takes place with a text and/or a teacher. The Divine is often more readily and truly experienced in dialogue with others than in personal self-affliction.
Rabbi Maller’s website is: RabbiMaller.com