Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Why Do We Fast?

Alright, so it's now smack-in-the-middle of Sukkot, and here I am writing about fasting... which would certainly have been more appropriate two weeks ago. Hey, such is life. Deal with it.

This actually does stem from a conversation I had with one of my sons immediately prior to Yom Kippur, though. He asked me why we fast. Obviously, he had Yom Kippur on his mind, as well he might - he doesn't fast well - but it's a good question.

Well I thought about the question for a minute or so, and came up with something I thought I should write down.

We fast because we can.

Alright, so it's a little simplistic, but not very much so.

See, it occurred to me that we are probably the only creatures on the planet that can fast, and that somehow that's connected with the reason we do it. (Animals can refrain from eating, but that's not the same as fasting. They do it because their bodies don't require food at certain times, because there is no food available, or because they are sick.)

Think about it. How do we really differ from the rest of the animal kingdom? Monkeys make tools. There are some dolphins, whales and maybe even gastropods and apes that are smarter than we are. Yet, none of them has dominated the planet as we humans have. Naturists will tell you that there are a number of animals that have developed complex family structures. But not one of them has developed an actual civilization. None of them have notions of commerce, religion, written language, property rights, laws... (Hmm... Sounds like John Lennon's Imagine, actually... )

In short, nothing but Man seems able to think, and act, based on things beyond immediate self-preservation; the here and now. Perhaps the key distinction between man and the rest of the animal kingdom is our ability to act based on our beliefs, in ways that are not evidently in concert with our physical needs.

So if we wanted to demonstrate our Humanity; If we wanted to show God that we are His special creation, and therefore deserving of some slack when we don't always do what He wants of us, how should we do that? By doing an act which is clearly not to our evident benefit, out of choice, not necessity. (We don't fast because we're not hungry; we fast despite our being hungry.) So fasting becomes, in a real sense, a simple yet profound statement about what we really are.

In other words, we fast because we can.