The Heart of Fasting, Part 1

Yom Kippur is a day of repentance and atonement in which we express our humility and deference to God by going without anything to eat or drink. Since fasting can be quite difficult, in the days leading up to Yom Kippur Jews traditionally wish each other “an easy fast.” There are many websites that describe how to make fasting physically easier and hints to make time pass more quickly as well.

However, as important as this advice is, I want to discuss financial and social aspects of fasting that loom still larger in God’s scheme of things.

When I was younger, I thought it would be wonderful to be a prophet, to speak God’s promises to his people in the present and for the future. As I became more familiar with the biblical prophets, I had second thoughts, for the prophets did not only speak God’s promises, but also his rebukes and his warnings. To be a prophet was to swing almost wildly from the heights of God’s glory and promises to the depths of God’s near-despair over the condition of his people.

In Isaiah 58:1-12, God commissions Isaiah to speak to Israel about the matter of fasting. We do not know if this passage speaks about the Yom Kippur fast or fasting more generally. Yet, in either case, it speaks to us, as it did to Isaiah’s contemporaries, about the essence of fasting on Yom Kippur and the reward that awaits those who choose to fast as God’s way.

Isaiah 58:1-4 begins in the depths, where Israel fasted in a way that did not please God.

“Cry aloud; do not hold back;

lift up your voice like a trumpet;

declare to my people their transgression,

to the house of Jacob their sins.

2 Yet they seek me daily

and delight to know my ways,

as if they were a nation that did righteousness

and did not forsake the judgment of their God;

they ask of me righteous judgments;

they delight to draw near to God.

3 ‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not?

Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’

Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure [or, profit]

and oppress all your workers.

4 Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight

and to hit with a wicked fist.

Fasting like yours this day

will not make your voice to be heard on high.

On the surface, Isaiah’s contemporaries seem to be the kind of people we would like to have more of in our congregational communities. They pray daily, know God’s ways, seek for God to exercise judgment against sinners, and delight to draw near to God. They expect God to hear their prayer—and he does hear them and respond to them, but his response was not what they expected or wanted to hear.

God sees past these outward signs of spirituality to Israel’s heart, where he sees their utter lack of spirituality. Through Isaiah, God lays bare Israel’s sins, specifically their sins against the poor. For even as they sought God daily, they oppressed their workers. The fact that they employed workers tells us that the people Isaiah is addressing were among the more prosperous and privileged in Israelite society. Today, their numbers are greater: they are owners of businesses and their stockholders.

How do they oppress their workers? By demanding an extreme amount of work and paying as little as possible. This enables them to increase their own wealth at the expense of their workers. Every penny they withhold from their workers goes directly into their own pockets. This is what employers sometimes do to their employees because they have power over them in a society with a tight labor market and little “upward mobility.” I suppose they consider their workers fortunate to have jobs at all in these tough times.

As a small business owner for many years, I am fully aware of the temptation to pay employees less so I could take home more. My decision to resist this temptation was one of the most important decisions of my life.

Then, God asks three rhetorical questions in Isaiah 58:5:

5 Is such the fast that I choose,

a day for a person to humble himself?

Is it to bow down his head like a reed,

and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?

Will you call this a fast,

and a day acceptable to the Lord?

The answer to these three questions is “No. A person may put on the external signs of humility, wearing rough sackcloth and sitting in ashes, but their harsh treatment of their workers makes their fast unacceptable to the Lord and their prayers ineffective. Yet they wonder (verse 3) why God does not see their fasting and acknowledge their humility.

Now God asks two more questions in Isaiah 58:6-7 that go right to the heart of the matter.

6 “Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of wickedness,

to undo the straps of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke?

7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry

and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover him,

and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

The answer to these two questions is “Yes.” Isaiah informs Israel of God’s chosen fast, in which a person consecrates themself to feed them and bring them into their home. As young believers, my wife Anna and I took these verses literally. It was right to interpret them so, but foolish to think that we could fulfill them without the wisdom, resources, and structure provided by without a lot of wisdom and structure, which we did not possess.

Isaiah does not only address individuals, but identifies a societal problem. For it seems his privileged contemporaries are prone to thank God for their prosperity without giving the slightest thought of benefitting others.

This is the way they treat their own flesh, for all Israel is one flesh and, in another way, all humanity is one flesh. So much for loving your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18)! Since the entire Torah and the Prophets depend on loving God and neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40), this is very much a grave sin.

The notion of privilege should be understood in context: the privileged are simply those who are better off than some others. It is possible to be on the poor side, yet still be able to help those who are in deeper poverty than we are.

So what happens when we resist the temptation of greed and seek to help the poor? In the next blog post I will discuss the rewards that are in store for those individuals.

Tzom kal (may you have a good fast)!

This article was written by Rav Carl Kinbar. Click here for part 2.

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