I wanted to share an interesting issue I stumbled into while reading online. It was in a Jewish discussion group. The short version (without violating anyone’s privacy) was that one person would be having surgery in the days before Yom Kippur. She was struggling with the concept that she couldn’t fast, as she had to be eating and drinking frequently, in small amounts, after the surgery.
It took me a while to figure this post out. This was bigger than the observance of a specific commandment. This was a person who was having a weight-loss procedure. Her issues around food were likely larger than fasting on Yom Kippur. The people in the discussion group emphasized how important the surgery was to her long-term health. (Nobody embarrassed her by asking difficult questions.) Meanwhile, another person in the group was having shoulder surgery. She worried about how she would hold a prayer book. This seemed easier to solve, as it was a physical and not a psychological issue. Suggestions flew across the web: a music stand, a lectern, a friend who could help, etc.
As a kid, growing up in the Reform movement, there was a great emphasis put on fasting on Yom Kippur. Fasting was a sign that you were really invested in the holiness of the day. Yet, this wasn’t something done on other fast days, or even in terms of other mitzvot (commandments). My family was involved in the Jewish community every day, but, on Yom Kippur, I remember seeing people at our congregation putting a big energy into fasting that I hardly saw at other times of the year.
When I was in university and when I met my husband, I was introduced to people with many other ways of observing Jewish tradition (or not). His family is everything from secular to Lubavitch, with every variation in between. He pointed out that, if you’re sick, a rabbi would tell you not to fast. He pointed out that, in his extended family, there were people who fasted but did not attend synagogue, and those who attended synagogue daily, but couldn’t fast for health reasons. He reminded me that this isn’t clear-cut, even if it initially looks that way.
When we learn about Judaism, often as kids before bar or bat mitzvah age, we’re presented with a lot of information in binaries. It’s black and white, but that is also the way most grade school children absorb any new information, not just Jewish content. As we age, we learn that, in fact, the world is often more complex. It’s often multiple variations of grey (never mind chartreuse) instead.
Health issues, child rearing, our work lives – these all affect how we observe holidays. There is no universal measuring stick that indicates how this works, either. Things change over our lives, and having kids or an illness can affect our observances. Some people fast easily, and others build sukkot (temporary hut dwellings) without a fuss. Others cannot fast without serious issues, and I’d bet there are plenty of people in the Jewish community who hesitate, for one reason or another, to erect a sukkah on their own.
The thing that hopefully does remain constant, for everyone, is the emphasis on striving to be better people in the year to come. Wherever you are, in your Jewish practice, or in the way you treat others, or in your business dealings, you can probably grow and improve. We can choose to make change in our lives.
There are, of course, people out there who are Jewish but don’t think about mitzvot, attend any synagogue or fast. However, some of these same people may pride themselves in being ethical in their business, in how they treat others, or in how they treat animals. They may not even realize that these, too, are Jewish values.
There are also so many ways in which these are particular Jewish concerns that link us to other faith communities. One of the pillars of Islam is jihad and, no, it’s not all about holy war. For faithful Muslims, this concept is about striving – striving to be a better student, family member or worker, to be more religious or spiritual, and onwards. Christians often speak about love, but also it must be put into action. It’s work to make compassionate acts towards others a priority, no matter your religion.
Whatever your community, you can offer others a supportive presence that helps them become the people they aim to be. It’s in a community, whether it’s physical or an online discussion group, that we can unwrap our concerns and get help in solving obstacles that keep us from doing what we’d hoped in life (Jewishly, or otherwise).
I love Sukkot and am looking forward to spending time in the sukkah outdoors. However, it’s also a time to welcome people in as guests – and to build that supportive space. You may not build a sukkah or wave a lulav and etrog, but you can be a builder. Begin by supporting others as they strive towards being their best selves. It starts with a smile, a welcoming invitation or a positive response. Happy 5779! May it be everything that you hope to become!
Joanne Seiff writes regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.