Every year on Yom Kippur, an unplanned ritual plays out like clockwork. Sometime during the late morning or afternoon service, a few people pass out during prayers. During a service one year they were dropping like flies. The reason this happens, is because people have medical issues and need to take their medications or need to eat to maintain blood sugar levels. In addition, there are people such as pregnant women and nursing mothers and children under the age of 10 who are not permitted to fast because of health concerns. This worked out well for me one year. The synagogue tried to give every Kohen an Aliyah to the Torah, but since I was younger and not a member as long as the other Kohanim, I was not supposed to get an Aliyah that year. As it turned out, the Kohen who was scheduled to come to the Torah passed out, so they called on me. While I appreciated the honor, I didn’t want to receive it at the expense of another. Mitzvahs may be costly, but are not to be severe.
While it is a great thing to try to perform a Mitzvah the best we can, it is no mitzvah to endanger our lives by ignoring health warnings. I do appreciate the sentiment of these people. My grandmother’s mother was a diabetic and would fast on Yom Kippur even though she was told not to. When my grandmother would argue with her, she used to say, “Don’t worry. For one day, I can trust God to watch over me.” She was a woman of faith, and left a legacy of faith in our family, but it would have been the same endowment even if she took her medications and took care of herself on Yom Kippur.
As I watch people going to ascetic extremism on Yom Kippur because the Torah says you are to afflict yourselves, it makes me wonder how much is too much? Some people are prone to asceticism and self-flagellation, and extreme fasting feeds right into this (pardon the pun). If people, on some level, are trying to punish themselves by over doing their fasting and other severities, there is no mitzvah in it. Making yourself suffer or experience pain intentionally is not an act of righteousness. Holiness is not accomplished by oppressiveness toward ourselves or others.
I was chatting with a Hasidic cousin of mine and we were talking about the Al Het and Ashamnu prayers where a person beats their breast as they read the list of sins we individually or corporately have committed. I mentioned that if there are some sins I’m particularly sorry for, I hit myself harder. He looked at me and said I’m not allowed to do that. For him the point of the ritual is not to actually hurt ourselves, but to acknowledge our sins, purpose to do better in the future, and move on with our lives. The emphasis was on MOVING ON with our lives. His view is so simple, yet is very practical.
The point of Yom Kippur is not to punish ourselves, as if causing ourselves pain and discomfort is the goal. I once asked Dave, a man in my synagogue who survived the holocaust, if he fasted on Yom Kippur. He said he didn’t, because he fasted enough at Auschwitz. He had already suffered more than enough for a lifetime. The point of Yom Kippur is not to make ourselves suffer, but to protect and take care of our lives, acknowledge our sins, purpose to do better, and move on. It’s a good word for us because so often we get stuck on our sins or our past, and we let them define us. I believe that God’s desire for us is to move ahead with our lives and become the better versions of ourselves that He intends us to be.