The True Value of Yom Kippur

To all of our readers, please let me be among those wishing you a Shana Tovah or “a good year” in Hebrew. In the Jewish faith, we are taught that Rosh Hashanah is a new year for everyone, not only the Jewish people, so a Happy 5779 to all! May it be a year of great sweetness, health, peace, and plenty. As Rosh Hashanah concludes, those of Jewish faith enter the Days of Awe. No matter how religious you may be, it is an annual opportunity for meaningful introspection. I take account of the good things I have accomplished over the past year as well as the times I gave into the lesser angels of my nature. I reflect on how I can make the good even greater, and minimize or avoid the bad.

The Days of Awe are a time for looking in the mirror and asking tough questions. Am I a good husband, father, and citizen? How can I be a better one? Am I living the values I preach? Who have I hurt with my actions this year, and how can I make it right? For those old enough to remember, I’m sure I’m not alone in also taking the opportunity to ask myself if I am the person I promised myself I’d be on September 12th, 2001.

The Days of Awe conclude with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when I ask G-d to forgive all the negativity that has accrued in my moral ledger over the past year. To show my genuine sense of contrition, like many Jews across the world, I fast. An obligation I have accepted since my Bar-Mitzvah, the Yom Kippur fast has not always felt valuable to me. Perhaps a product of adolescent egocentrism or my relatively privileged upbringing, I did not understand the insightfulness of the act during my teenage years and even into my twenties. I would frequently hold the position that an omniscient G-d knew my heart, and so I felt that the act of contrition was an unnecessary step.

Little did I understand that the fast has meaning that transcends this top level symbolism of remorse. Perhaps most profoundly, the fact that all Jews fast during Yom Kippur, no matter their station in society, means that for one day even the wealthiest among us knows what it is to feel an inescapable hunger. This provides us an opportunity to empathize with the hungry and less fortunate, those who experience an involuntary version of this ritual. Rather than sympathy or pity, we are roused by a personal remembrance of what they are experiencing, and righteously motivated to lend a helping hand.

Notice the difference between the motivating forces at play. Sympathy is what motivates acts of charity. The etymology of charity comes from the Latin caritas, meaning “from the heart”. Charity is motivated by the feelings of the giver, and their literal kindhearted desire to create a better world and help their fellow human being. However, empathy is also motivated by a sense of justice. It is fitting that the equivalent concept to charity in the Hebrew is tzedakah, which roughly equates the Hebrew word for justice. The desire for justice cares not about the feelings of the giver, but is only concerned with the well-being and dignity of the recipient. Tzedakah is an obligation, and charity is a choice.

The great thinker Maimonides is noted for creating his Ladder of Tzedakah, which provides a stratification for how objectively good acts of charity are based on the very extent of the way they the recipient and their dignity. It makes sense that as one ascends the ladder, the recipient is afforded ever-greater degrees of anonymity, and the giver assumes less public credit for their actions. The highest act of tzedakah is to empower the recipient by providing them gainful employment, in turn making the former recipient a giver.

Let me be clear. I’m not indicting charity as a force for good in our society, nor am I belittling the objectively positive motivations and results of charity. I am simply noting that this distinction between charity and tzedakah exists. Without both, we are incapable of creating a better society.

And it is the enabling of that difference between sympathy and empathy that moves me to the position that the fast is so valuable a practice that it should be considered by all, no matter your faith or lack thereof. The two terms, though often conflated, communicate a world of difference. To all who participate, I wish you an easy and meaningful fast.