An “Easy” Fast?

“Tzom Kal = “Have an easy fast.”

On fast days, this is one of the greetings our Jewish vocabulary prescribes for us. We wish each other an “easy fast,” hoping, perhaps, that the day in which we show our devotion by refraining from eating, drinking, wearing leather, sex, and anointing ourselves with oils or perfumes, is “easy.”

I have never felt comfortable with this greeting.”Easy”? Is it supposed to be “easy”, particularly regarding Yom Kippur, the only biblically-mandated full-day fast?

Leviticus 16:29-31 —

“בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי בֶּעָשׂוֹר לַחֹדֶשׁ תְּעַנּוּ אֶת-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם, וְכָל-מְלָאכָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ הָאֶזְרָח, וְהַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכְכֶם. כִּי-בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם, לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם:  מִכֹּל, חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, תִּטְהָרוּ. שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן הִיא לָכֶם, וְעִנִּיתֶם אֶת-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם–חֻקַּת, עוֹלָם.”

“This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must afflict yourselves and not do any work—whether native-born or a foreigner residing among you—because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins. It is a day of sabbath rest, and you must afflict yourselves; it is a lasting ordinance.”

The command is reiterated in Leviticus 23:27-32 and Numbers 29:7.

ta’anu ‘et nafshotékhem” – “You must afflict your souls.” R

ענוה – humility.
לענות – to answer, to respond.

So “ta’anu” – perhaps, creatively, “make your soul humble”? Or even, “answer to your soul”?

If the commandment on this day is “ta’anu ‘et nafshotékhem,” and the essence of that is affliction, denial, humility, and response, we don’t fulfill our obligation if it’s “easy”. Let the fast not be so overwhelming that we cannot do our duty in worship, but let it not be easy. Let it be meaningful, spiritual, difficult. Let it be powerful, worthwhile. Let it facilitate stark reflection and self-evaluation.

I don’t know the etiology of the prescribed phrase “tzom kal”. This year, instead of wishing each other an “easy fast,” let us wish each other a “G’mar Chatimah Tovah,” – a wish for being sealed for good in the Book of Life. Let us be comforted, in the presence of community, as we all struggle for meaning and self-reflection this Yom Kippur.

Gimru Chatimah Tovah!

ADDENDUM: According to Tali A., a different Israeli greeting for fast days is tsom mo’il (צום מועיל), wishing for an “effective fast.” Interesting stuff!


Stream of Consciousness

Day 3 of training concluded at camp.
Did you know before you can get calluses on your fingers from playing the guitar you have to endure blisters?
Really, it’s only been three days?
Tonight was the first night I didn’t fall into my tent.
And it took me fifteen minutes to find my tent instead of thirty. I didn’t have to hunt today.
I made some new friends.
I remember almost everyone’s name. Almost 100 people.
The rule of three: there should always be three people traveling together. One to get hurt, one to stay with the injured one, and one to get help.
Getting hurt is not a requirement. Generally, we encourage against it.
Shoes should always have back straps.
Music is amazing, and infuses everything.
Seven more days of training to go.
It feels like it has already been an eternity since I got here. That’s camp.
Is it still bedtime if I’m in a sleeping bag?
Lailah tov.

Misnaged in the Woods

Here I sit in my tent, after a sufficiently long day of packing, driving, meeting new people, singing, communing with nature, farming…

What Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” does not tell us is how the narrator felt five steps into his journey on the lesser-traveled fork. He tells us that his choice had ultimately “made all the difference,” sure — but what about the immediate feelings? Was he immediately sure? Had he chosen with conviction? Five steps into the journey, did he stop in his tracks and ponder retreat to the more-common road?

Rarely have I stood five steps into what promises to be a relatively long road and known with conviction that it would make all the difference. And here I am, knowing, somehow, that my life will be changed by the experience I have ahead of me. Knowing, somehow that the change has already begun.

Today, I weeded in the farm’s edible plant forest. I watched later as seventy people sat silently, each alone but in community, in that farm. I was privy to meaningful sharing in which no one made a single sarcastic remark, no one rolled their eyes, no one was disparaging. I watched as flame emerged from only wood and friction. I taught today; but more than that, I learned.

As I sit in my tent in these dark woods, I can hear the lake rushing out to my left. I can hear the occasional animal creeping by. I am taken by the sound of small branches falling periodically on my roof.

I am surprised by how comfortable I feel to be here. I am pleasantly surprised by how calm I am. And yet, excited. More to come.

In the Wake of Tragedy: Who is to Blame?

This past week, the world saw a terrible tragedy. Twenty children under age seven and seven adults, including the gunman’s own mother, dead at the hands of Adam Lanza in the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. I don’t need to sum up the story more than this for you — enough is available on the news channels (but click here for more information from ABC News if you need it).

What is clear to me, however, is that no one knows who to blame for this massacre — and it is amazing to me just how many people don’t blame the shooter. A twenty-year-old boy (no, I would not call him a “man”) picked up a semi-automatic weapon and opened fire on school children. I am angry. I am angry at him, and I am angry about the fact that the media seems to feel that the most effective places to place their blame for the massacre are anywhere but on Adam Lanza. I’m sorry, Adam Lanza is at fault here. This event was cold and calculated, no more obvious than when you hear that he went into the school with two semi-automatic weapons and wearing a bullet-proof vest. Yes, there are contributing factors; but in modern society too often do we refocus our lenses on “contributing factors” rather than hold people accountable.

We talk about Nature vs. Nurture. We talk about environmental factors. Are we really so naïve that we can’t see that the boy might be at fault for his own actions? Just a simple scroll down my Facebook Newsfeed shows me how many directions this story is taking.

What we’ve heard:

Adam Lanza’s mother was a gun enthusiast who took him to the shooting range, and so it’s her fault that this tragedy occurred. By the way, she is dead. Her son killed her.
Society doesn’t talk enough about mental health, and so it’s our fault that this tragedy occurred.
Society doesn’t talk enough about gun control, and so it’s our fault that this tragedy occurred.
It’s too easy to get a gun, and not easy enough to reach a mental health professional, and so it’s our legislators’ fault that this tragedy occurred.
The media glorifies school shootings by the way they report on them, and it’s the mass media’s fault that this tragedy occurred.
– Adam Lanza may or may not have had Aspergers, and it’s the Autism’s fault.

Believe me, I understand the need to resume power in a situation that leaves us powerless. We need explanations, we need words, and so we find causes that are dear to us by which we can prevent this situation happening. I don’t discount these — in fact, I encourage them. Friends, lack of access to guns is not the answer — there is simply no way for us to prevent effectively from people getting guns if they really want them, and our money and time is better spent in other endeavors. Let us focus on education. Let us focus on emergency drills that equip us to respond to this kind of situation. Let us be angry. Let us learn from our fears. Let us focus on healing from pain and suffering. Let us support these families and friends who are trying to cope with inconceivable loss — loss of life, loss of potential life. Let us count our blessings. If there is anything we could do to prevent this from ever happening again, let’s do it. But it is not healthy to redirect the blame for the massacre in Newtown off of the one who planned and executed it. Nor is it healthy to blame ourselves.

Sacred Trash

Handwritten inscription to an English copy of the Holy Bible published by the Jewish Publication Society in 1939, given as a gift to the author of this poem by his friend in 1944:

The Old Prayer Book by Jacob Cahan

This book of prayers, old and
stained with tears,
I take into my hand
And to the God of my fathers,
Who from ages past has been
their Rock and Refuge,
I call in my distress
In ancient words, peace,
With the pain of generations,
I pour out my woe
May these words that know
the heavenly path,
ascend aloft unto God on
To covey to Him that
which my tongue cannot
express. All that lies
deep hidden
within my heart,
may these words,
simple and true,
speak for me before God
Entreating His mercy
Perchance the Heavenly
God who hearkened to my
fathers prayers,
Who gave them courage
and strength
To bear all of their sorrow
and degradation
Yet ever to hope for
redemption —
Perchance He will also
hear my prayer and
hearken to my cry,
and be to me a protecting
For there is none to
help or sustain me,
But God in Heaven.

I have no words to supplement Cahan’s beautiful, heartfelt, incredibly personal prayer. This text, in the author’s own handwriting, was found inscribed in the front pages of a copy of an English Bible just saved from the geniza. I wonder – what other prayers, written and dreamed, have been buried among our sacred trash?

An Old Message As If New

In 1927, a Jewish writer in Paris published one of the most stunning and optimistic memoirs of Jewish identity composed to date. He opens with this, speaking to his yet-unborn grandson:

     When will you be old enough to understand me? My eldest son is nineteen years old. When will you be born? In ten years, perhaps fifteen…. When will you read what I here set down? About 1950, 1960? Will people still read in 1960? What form will the world then take? Will the mechanical have suppressed the spiritual? Will the mind have created a new universe for itself? Will the problems that trouble me to-day exist for you? Will there be any Jews left?
I believe there will. They have survived the Pharaohs, Nebuchadnezzar, Constantine, Mohammed; they have survived the inquisition and assimilation; they will survive the automobile.1

Replace “automobile” with “iPad” or “cell phone,” and it could have been composed in 2009.

As we sit on the eve of Ta’anit Esther and Purim, I am keenly aware of how Edmond Fleg’s words ring so true in today’s American and global Judaism. Jews have endured and survived so many trials. I am also keenly aware that, having originally published this book in 1927, he could have never known that Jewish security would come crashing down once more, not a decade later, to face one of the most horrific crimes against humanity the world had yet seen. So, now, we can edit Fleg’s words: Jews have survived Pharaohs, Nebuchadnezzar, Constantine, Mohammed, and Hitler.

Fleg’s work reads like a journal. He dictates his own personal experiences, reflects on epiphanies he had along his journey of rejection and then rediscovery of Judaism, and poses questions he cannot answer. It is clear that Fleg is aware of the contemporary persecution of Jews around him; he addresses the political situation immediately post “Great War” and talks about impressions of Jews that surround him. He is greatly influenced by his immersion in secular society, finding, as all modern Jews strive toward, a sense of balance between the secular world and his Judaic roots.

     A Jewish Race?
It seems that all the anthropological types are found in Israel: broad-headed Jews, long-headed Jews, white Jews, yellow Jews, black Jews. Could Israel then only be a race in the spiritual sense? Could these different bloods for one blood because there flowed in them but one thought?”2

Fleg leaves us to read on his book without addressing this question – he leaves it hanging in the air so we feel it weighing on us throughout the rest of the experience we share with him. It was just twenty-four years before Fleg’s publication that Otto Weininger attempted a self-hating answer to this question. Weininger was a precocious Jewish psychologist (converted to Christianity at the start of his professional career) who published a 600-page textbook entitled Sex and Character in 1903 at age 23. The book contained a chapter entitled “A Jew Must Free Himself from Jewishness,” where Weininger asserted that Judaism was a racial psychosis inherited from parent to child, and undoubtedly irreversible. In contrast to Fleg’s beautiful words, Weininger’s sentiment here is haunting:

The Jewish race offers a problem of the deepest significance for the study of all races, and in itself it is intimately bound up with many of the most troublesome problems of the day. I must, however, make clear what I mean by Judaism; I mean neither a race nor a people nor a recognised creed. I think of it as a tendency of the mind, as a psychological constitution which is a possibility for all mankind, but which has become actual in the most conspicuous fashion only amongst the Jews.3

(Weininger then committed suicide because he felt that was the only way to purge the world of his “inferior” Judaism. The book itself was not published in English until 1906, when it achieved post-mortem recognition.) In today’s day and age, while we might try to be more “P.C.” than Fleg, we certainly recognize the same sentiment: Jews today come in all different colors, shapes, and sizes. Whether we are racially unified is a question more than anything of semantics, and social pressures, since the idea of Jews as a “Race” became taboo after Hitler (inspired, by the way, by Weininger’s work).

At the climax of his memoir, after having dictated his loss of faith and then his exploration through other faiths before his full-force return to Jewish commitment, Fleg leaves his reader with twelve statements, answering concisely and compellingly the question, “Why am I a Jew?” His answer is as follows:

I am a Jew because born of Israel and having lost it, I felt it revive within me more alive than I am myself.
I am a Jew because born of Israel, and having found it again, I would have it live after me even more alive than it is within me.
I am a Jew because the faith of Israel demands no abdication of my mind.
I am a Jew because the faith of Israel asks every possible sacrifice of my soul.
I am a Jew because in all places where there are tears and suffering the Jew weeps.
I am a Jew because in every age when the cry of despair is heard the Jew hopes.
I am a Jew because the message of Israel is the most ancient and the most modern.
I am a Jew because Israel’s promise is a universal promise.
I am a Jew because for Israel the world is not finished; men will complete it.
I am a Jew because for Israel man is not yet created; men are creating him.
I am a Jew because Israel places Man and his Unity above nations and above Israel itself.
I am a Jew because above Man, image of the Divine Unity, Israel places the unity which is divine.4

As we celebrate commitment to Judaism this Purim, and every day, may we be inspired and able to affirm our faith and our devotion to our spiritual nation, as Edmond Fleg felt so inspired to articulate in 1927. His words resonate today just as loud as they did when he penned them eighty-five years ago.

1 Edmond Fleg, Why I Am a Jew, trans. Louise Waterman Wise (New York: Bloch Publishing, 1929), xiii.
2 Ibid., 63.
3 Otto Weininger, Sex and Character (New York: G.P. Putnam, 1906), 303. Accessed from Cornell Online Library by HTzE, 6 March 2012.
4 Fleg, 93-95.

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