Yom Kippur can be a tough day.
The prayers are especially intense. There is a lot of standing. There is a lot of repetition. There is little singing. It can be hard to get in the mood.
It is physically uncomfortable and mentally exhausting.
Fasting without water or food.
It can be rough to be in that state and also be pregnant, nursing, or looking after little kids, who–depending on their ages–either are not fasting or can’t even grip the concept of it because they are, let’s face it, inwardly focused.
It can be rough even without being pregnant, nursing, or looking after little kids.
Not everything in the Torah is easy. Some of it is physically hard. Some of it doesn’t make sense. Some of it is open to interpretation.
But Yom Kippur is so…plainly stated. But the physical toughness of it is just kind of a happenstance, because the Hebrew is “you shall afflict your souls.” Via physical means, but it is people’s souls that are getting a second chance.
Imagine: The year has just begun, ten days previous, and you are already getting a second chance.
A synagogue we attended for several years is led by a great man. He is everything a rabbi should be: brilliant, thoughtful, kind, well-spoken and well-respected as a teacher and thinker. On Yom Kippur, as he prayed on behalf of the congregation, he would always struggle to keep his composure. Unsuccessfully. He cried. I have to imagine because not only was he thinking of himself, and his loved ones, but also his congregants and his students. He kept people’s secrets and shared their burdens. He knew who was sick, who was dying, who was struggling to have children, who was financially drowning, who was grieving. His soul was afflicted.
So, when I see an article about how it’s too hard to fast with little kids and I get cranky and I don’t want to be that way (and my husband doesn’t like it when I’m a raging bitch either) and oh, whatever, I’ll just eat instead, I get livid.
Because: fasting on Yom Kippur is kind of a privilege.
It means you are well. Even if it makes you a little ill by the end of the day, if it makes you queasy, cranky, gives you a migraine, or gives you the shakes, even if it means you should take to your bed in the air conditioning and let your spouse take care of the children (link in Hebrew to our rabbi’s opinion about this) instead of going to synagogue, it means you are, overall, a healthy human being.
If you should be eating and drinking on Yom Kippur, however, perhaps you have a chronic, serious illness, like insulin-dependent diabetes. Perhaps you are on medications that cannot be skipped because it will put you in grave danger. Perhaps you are so weak that you can’t possibly skip a whole day’s worth of calories. Perhaps your pregnancy is so tenuous or dangerous that you can’t afford to risk even the slightest amount of dehydration.
As an observant Jew, being told by a doctor or a rabbi that I had to eat or drink normally on Yom Kippur would make me a) really frightened or b) really sad or c) both.
If you are healthy but in danger of being incapacitated, you can drink or eat in very tiny amounts at intervals of 9 minutes, and it is not considered “breaking” your fast. I did it in 2003, when I was like two seconds pregnant. (Same rabbi mentioned above, who guided us through fertility treatments, advised me to do so. He was literally the first non-medical person to know we were pregnant.) It is a project to keep up with this kind of leniency. Which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t if you need to, but it’s not like a good time with pretzels and beer or anything.
Yom Kippur is partially about mental toughness too. I always say that I only wake up thirsty on fast days. (Not entirely true, but true enough.) I usually spend a lot of the evening in the bathroom…getting rid of the liquid I took in all day and worry about what I am going to feel like 18 hours later. But, you know, I do it, the fasting. I did it even before I was “Orthodox.” It’s something a lot of Jews do.
The good news is that Yom Kippur’s arrival not a surprise. Everyone knows exactly when it is. So plan for it. Rather than wring your hands in advance and say, oh, I just don’t think I can, wean yourself off caffeine, load yourself up with complex carbs and Powerade, plan your kids’ meals in advance, pump bottles, or leave snacks in their reach so they’re not pestering you all day. Hire a babysitter. Feel thankful. It is ok if you’re not a perfect parent for just one day.
Of course, being two days before Yom Kippur, I should probably be less judgmental. But, you know, just airing the brain here.