Have an Easy Fast

A Yom Kippur sermon

Rev. Douglas Taylor


“Now is the time for turning.  The leaves are beginning to turn from green to red and orange.  The birds are beginning to turn and are heading once more toward the South.  The animals are beginning to turn to storing their food for the winter.  For leaves, birds, and animals turning comes instinctively.”  Thus begins a reading full of imagery about autumn, but this is just the lead in.  The reading is about Yom Kippur, but it begins by showing how the natural world just turns because that is part of what it means to be the natural world.  The reading goes on, “But for us turning does not come easily.  It takes an act of will for us to make a turn.  It means breaking with old habits.  It means admitting that we have been wrong; and that is never easy.  It means losing face; it means starting over all over again; and this is always painful.  It means saying: I am sorry.  It means recognizing that we have the ability to change.  These things are hard to do.  But unless we do turn, we will be trapped forever in yesterday’s ways.”  (from hymnal, #634, Jack Riemer)

A predominant theme in the Yom Kippur season is that of turning.  Turning from callousness and indifference, turning from pettiness and hostility.  Turning and returning to that which is holy, that which is good.  Turning back to our best selves.  “Now is the time for turning.”

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day of the Jewish year.  It comes as the tenth day of the Days of Awe, the first day of which is Rosh Hashanah, the new year.  The ten days of the new year are called the Days of Awe because people feel fear as well as reverence during this special time of judgment and forgiveness.  Yom Kippur, in particular is a day of fasting, of self-reflection, and of seeking and offering forgiveness.

One of the techniques of spiritual cleansing is fasting.  Many people celebrate Yom Kippur by take no food or water from sunset to sunset.  This year, Yom Kippur begins at sunset tonight and lasts through to sunset tomorrow.  A common greeting on at this time is “Have an easy fast.”  Fasting is a spiritual practice common to many religious groups.  I used to wonder why people still put themselves through this physically denying spiritual practice, until I found the following quote in (of all places,) a Christian Spirituality book by Marjorie Thompson.  “In ancient Jewish tradition,” she writes, “fasting had two primary purposes.  The first was to express personal or national repentance for sin. …  The second purpose of a fast was to prepare oneself inwardly for receiving the necessary strength and grace to complete a mission of faithful service in God’s name.”  Nowadays people generally see fasting as somewhat senseless, even repugnant.  Images of ascetic abuse through this life-denying, restrictive spirituality linger in the public mind.  But many who fast do so with moderation and find it to be a time of reflection on life and on that which sustains us spiritually in the way that food sustains us physically.  In previous years I have fasted (of food only, I’ll still took water) from sunset on Yom Kippur through until the next evening.  I already know that my schedule this evening and tomorrow is not going to allow me to fast, but as a semi-observant non-Jew, I will find a sunset to sunset this coming week during which I will fast this year.  I encourage any of you who are in decent health to fast for Yom Kippur.  Perhaps you will find you need to take part in this in some modified way, as I am.  If at all possible, try it and see what it is like.  The topic for our reflection is forgiveness.

Forgiveness is one of the major themes of Yom Kippur. There is a prevalent story about forgiveness that has a way of turning up in UU minister’s columns about this time of year.  In the story a humble shopkeeper sits down to make a list of all his misdeeds and sins over the course of the year, a common activity during the ten Days of Awe for observant Jews.  At the same time, however, the shopkeeper made a second list as well, detailing the woes in the world attributable to God.  When he finished he looked at the two lists and said out loud.  “All right.  I was not honest about the freshness of that fruit I sold last month, but you let that little girl down the street die from disease.  I let my temper get the best of me when I was talking with my brother, but you created mosquitoes.  I took your name in vain when I hit my thumb with the hammer, but that storm a few weeks back ruined a lot of the crops of the farmers in this area. …”  And on it went until at last the shop keeper said, “So I’ll tell you what; If you’ll forgive me, I’ll forgive you.  We’ll call it even and start fresh with the new year.”

This wonderful little story got me thinking.  First, about the tenacity often found in Jewish stories.  I love that.  The other thing that struck me was that this is the holiest day of the year for the Jewish people, and they spend it going through the remarkably difficult task of moral inventory and the seeking and offering of forgiveness.  Every year!  In a sense, Yom Kippur is Judgment day, and it comes every year.

I met a Unitarian professor once who shared the following outline of his own spiritual discipline.  He said that before he went to bed, he would pour himself a cognac, sit in his big easy chair with the lights low sipping his drink, and he would think back on the day and try to see the ways in which the things he had said and done that day had hurt someone, or caused another pain. And he would also think on the things others had said or done which he had found hurtful.  And then he would say a little prayer of forgiveness and go to bed, knowing that tomorrow would be a new day.  I have found that one can even do this daily ritual without the alcoholic drink.

As Unitarian Universalists we often say that every day is a new day, and that the beloved community is something we live for in the present.  If this is truly our belief, we must accept, therefore, that every day is also judgment day.  We ought not put off to another day the important matters of the soul.  Most of us, however, do not have the time and the where with all to do a daily personal moral inventory.  So when an opportunity such as Yom Kippur presents itself, we would do well to take heed.

With this in mind, I have begun to make my list for this year.  Before I started doing this for Yom Kippur, the closest I ever got to this kind of personal moral inventory was when I would list my strengths and weaknesses during some of those soul-searching times of seminary.  But weaknesses are not necessarily sins or moral misdeeds.  My weaknesses are things like, “I need to improve my self-care skills.  I have poor organizational skills.  I have trouble asking for help when I’m in over my head.”  These are not moral issues.  Nowhere does it say “Thou shalt not write thy phone messages on little scraps of paper and then lose them.  To lose your little scraps of paper is an abomination before me.”  It doesn’t say that.

This moral self-inventory people go through during the Days of Awe are about specific actions, not general character flaws.  We need to push ourselves with questions like, “was I honest in my dealings with other people, was I greedy, did I think of the needs of others, was I kind?”  How about the commandments.  Have I broken any of the commandments?  If my wife says I have a few gray hairs and I say, “No I just have some hair going blond.”  Is that a sin?  Is it lying, as in “thou shalt not bear false witness”É”Even unto thy whiskers”?

Part of making this list is figuring out just what goes on the list.  Lingering animosity toward a family member; a grudge against a coworker or a neighbor; displays of disrespect to your parents, your boss, your children; and any special promises made and not kept:  All this and the like would go on a person’s list.

Let me tell you another story told during this season.  This is about what is happening in heaven during the Days of Awe.  One of the ways people used to speak of God was to say God is like a king or a judge.  This was a helpful way for the people to understand God.  A story grew from this concept of God as a judge.  In the story there is a heavenly court where two angels act as lawyers for the people.  Senegor, the good angel defends the people.  Kategor, who was the HaSatan, accuses the people.

HaSatan, incidentally, it the title of a member of the Persian court.  The role of the HaSatan was to present opposition to all of the king’s proposals.  This was to help the king see where he might be going wrong.  Something he might otherwise not see with everyone else in the court trying to please the king and make the king feel smart and special and all that.  So, surrounded by “yes men,” the King had the HaSatan to test the proposals.  The HaSatan was, in our modern vernacular, the devil’s advocate.  This court figure became a part of the heavenly court and we see him in Hebrew scripture (which some of you will know as the Old Testament.)  He is in the Book of Job, only he is missing the first syllable of his title and is know from then on a Satan.

Back to the story.  Each year there are three books open before God.  The Book of Life, the Book of Death, and the Book of Judgment.  The names of good and saintly people are already inscribed for the year in the Book of Life.  The names of the wicked are already inscribed for the year in the book of death.  All the rest of us have our names listed in the third book, the Book of Judgment.  Throughout the ten-day period known as the Days of Awe, each person’s name comes up for review.  Senegor argues that the name should go into the Book of Life.  Kategor wants it to be entered into the Book of Death.  The books remain open for the whole ten days, and people spend this time confessing, atoning, and repenting to help assure that their name will be found in the Book of Life for another year.  Nothing is final until the books are sealed shut at the end of Yom Kippur.  So you have until Monday evening.  Now, I don’t want you to get too worried about this because the story holds that Kategor has never won a case.  But then, Kategor is clever and catches good people in their daily life.  Many a person, it is said, has lost their life to evil ‘though their names had been in the Book of Life.  One accounting Rabbis have offered to try to explain evil is to say that God created a wonderful world and it is up to us to find a way to end evil.

Stories like this one spur people to act on the lists they have made.  Making a list is not enough.  To get to forgiveness, there are a few more steps involved.  Forgiveness is not an easy thing to grasp intellectually; nor is it easy to follow through with in daily life.  In previous years, it has been one of the most trying lessons for my children.  Forgiveness really involves three steps: confession, atonement, and repentance.

Confession:  First you must admit to what errors you have made over the course of the year.  Maybe it is just a list of names, maybe it is a more detailed list.  Making this list, either mentally or in a journal or in a letter, is a powerful cleansing activity.

Second, Atonement: You need to follow through on your list.  Call up those people you have injured or hurt and say, “I am sorry.”  Call up people who have hurt you and say, “I forgive you.”  Now is the time of turning.  Now is the time of reconciliation.  It doesn’t do you any good to hold onto your anger and animosities against others for long times.  Let it go.  I’m not saying, “let people be mean to you” or “let others walk all over you;” but there comes a time when your anger towards others is hurtful to your own soul.  Let it go.  Maybe you will burn you list in a small fire and say a little prayer to God, to the universe, to yourself, saying, “I am sorry, forgive me.  I forgive you.”  And further, to atone, to be ‘at one,’ we may need to do more than just say “sorry.”  Sometimes we need to make amends.  Often, people will perform service to atone with God and themselves; service such as donating money to charity, visit the sick and imprisoned, feeding the hungry.

Often making amends leads into the third step to forgiveness, which is Repentance.  We promise ourselves we will return to the path of goodness.  We promise ourselves to not repeat the wrongs that were on our list this year.  As the leaves are beginning to turn colors and the birds are starting to turn to warmer climates, so too, we turn inward to consider the process of forgiveness:  Confession, Atonement, and Repentance. We promise to return to our best selves.

In world without end

May it may so