Reclaiming the Holidays

Jay Lavine, M.D.

The holiday season is approaching, beginning with Rosh Hashanah, also known as Yom Harat Olam, the birthday of the world. Human nature being what it is, traditions associated with holidays eventually begin to take on a life of their own, and we sometimes forget the true meaning and spirit behind those holidays. It behooves us, then, to try to re-­create ourselves from the ground up at this time of year as we observe the anniversary of Creation.

On Rosh Hashanah, we express the hope that we will be inscribed for a good year, a sweet year, so to speak, and so the tradition arose of eating honey, often with apples. But what is honey? It is essentially just sugar. Sugars are nutrients contained in the fruits and vegetables we consume. But excess sugar represents empty calories and contributes to the obesity epidemic. It leads to dental caries and may eventually make us lose our teeth. It raises the level of the blood fats known as triglycerides. It causes the loss of important minerals in the urine. And it promotes inflammation, now known to raise the risk of many chronic diseases.

Aside from the medical aspects, excess sugar consumption is symbolic of a gluttonous, hedonistic way of life in which immediate gratification becomes the driving force. It’s a pattern that often becomes established in childhood when children are given sugary treats as a reward. It remains the means of rewarding ourselves as adults whenever anxiety, depression, or other psychological disturbances induce us to reward ourselves.

Thus, a sugary kind of new year, which almost seems to describe a wasteful kind of existence, is not consistent with the real meaning of Rosh Hashanah. What we should be striving for is a year of substance, of significant personal achievements realized in the service of God, each of us according to our individual calling in life. The tradition teaches that every human being is important because each of us has a unique contribution to make to the world. Our customs and traditions should be meaningful and symbolic of that kind of life.

Rosh Hashanah is followed by a fast day ­­– actually two fast days, Tzom Gedaliah and then Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is one of two major fast days on the Jewish calendar, the other being Tisha B’av, the day that commemorates the destruction of the Temples as well as other calamities. A traditional greeting before Yom Kippur is “Have an easy fast.” But why an “easy” fast? As we fast and wear white (often a kittel, like the burial shroud), we put ourselves into an altered state of being, somewhere between life and death. Our heart is in our mouth as we contemplate our fate before the King of Kings. Since fasting helps us attain this spiritual state, why would we want to avoid the rigors associated with fasting? Have Jews become such comfort – and pleasure ­- pursuing people that they can’t put themselves out for God for even one day, afflicting themselves as commanded by the Torah?

A more suitable pre­-Yom Kippur greeting would be “Have a meaningful fast.” Yom Kippur is an awe-­filled day but not necessarily an unhappy day. In fact, the Talmud describes it as one of the happiest of holidays because of the knowledge that we will be forgiven if we make teshuvah (repentance) in the proper manner. Fasting does not mean unhappiness when we know that the outcome will be a favorable one.

At the conclusion of Yom Kippur, we break the fast. As an added “attraction” for people who come to services, some synagogues even sponsor break-­the-­fast events. The atmosphere often assumes that of a celebratory, gala social event marked by a gluttonous, all-out assault on the prepared delicacies, reminiscent of a Roman banquet or a lion devouring its prey. In my mind, what this kind of atmosphere symbolizes is an abnegation of everything Yom Kippur stands for: it says “enough with this Yom Kippur stuff and renouncing our past misdeeds; now it’s time for a different kind of return, not a return to God and the Jewish way of life but rather a return to the vanities of the world and to our old ways.”

Once I was driving a professor from a local university to a Jewish educational event, and on the way he related what one of his students had told him, something that impressed him very much. This non­-Jewish student remarked that, when his religious fast concludes, he will return to eating in a very gradual, measured way. In the spirit of the Jewish teaching that we can learn from all people, I thought how appropriate and meaningful such a return to eating would be for the Yom Kippur fast. We ease back into our normal daily routine in such a way that we keep the spirit of Yom Kippur alive within ourselves, determined not to return to the errant path to which we strayed. This is complete teshuvah (repentance) ­­– not just atoning but also resolving to try not to return to our former ways and commit the same transgressions all over again.

May we all have a New Year of substance, a meaningful fast, and success at clinging to the Jewish tree of life.