Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Fasting
With a recent religious fast on the Jewish calendar fast approaching, I was curious to find out how the modern English word, fast, came to mean simultaneously, the verb for refraining from eating and drinking as well as the adverb for speed.
Glancing at a dictionary or two, I realized that even linguistics experts aren’t sure how the word came to possess these two meanings. The Old English word from which both seem to hail is fæst. The word originally meant to make strong or firm, to hold or to guard. From there, it developed into the verb, fast, meaning to hold or guard firmly one’s vigil of protest or faith through abstention, and into the adverb, fast, implying that one who moves or does something fast is doing it with firm and strong resolve.
I initially found myself unsatisfied with both etymologies, in good part because these contemporary uses of the word in English present a ridiculous contradiction in terms. Anyone who has fasted knows that you and time don’t move fast when you’re hungry and thirsty; you and the day amble along with tormenting sluggishness, and time starts to feel indifferent to your discomfort as you dream miserably of chowing down as soon as possible. This is especially the case with the two religious fasts that Jews observe during the summer. They make the long, hot, humid seasonal hours feel even longer and hotter, especially since these fasts are sad occasions, recalling tragedies that happened to the Jewish people over the centuries. They are hardly the stuff of a good time.
Thinking a bit more creatively about this strange dual rendering of the word fast, I realized that, perhaps, the contradictory meanings of the word are precisely the point. I spend a lot of time moving fast, my life rendered as a breakneck race to consume the world, its riches and responsibilities. I say a whole lot of religious blessings over the food, drink and other pleasures that I enjoy daily and effortlessly. But they are often perfunctory and rushed, rituals to be checked rapidly off a list of obligations rather than rites to be slowly, thoughtfully recited out of an astonished gratitude for how blessed my family and I are. The rare times that my tradition requires me to fast, I think it’s actually inviting me to slow down to perform a personal mini-drama in which, for a day, I imagine being at the very edges of genuine hunger, want, and poverty.
Some critics of religion would warn me that playing at “poor and hungry for a day” can easily degenerate into a kind of class and cultural appropriation: a performance in which we beneficiaries of privilege pretend to experience genuine deprivation, perhaps even romanticizing it, only to then exercise our luxury of walking away from it. But they would be missing the point of fasting as a religious act. The point isn’t to appropriate deprivation but to appreciate it, howbeit superficially, as a way of preventing ourselves from becoming apathetic about it.
I find that my most meaningful fasts are the ones that I can connect to actions, however small, to feed chronically hungry and food-insecure people. I long ago developed the custom of carrying around in my car, all year long, a bag full of food and drink. As I drive through town, I hand out things to eat and drink to the all- too -many homeless people looking for help. During this year’s most recent summer fast, I committed myself to using at least part of the day to drive all over town, handing out food and water to whoever was on the street at that time. It helped me to make the connection that the prophet Isaiah made between fasting and feeding the hungry. He abhorred what he saw taking place among the people of his day, who he accused of "fasting while striking with a wicked fist". Without doing away with the ritual, Isaiah told whoever would listen to him that the most meaningful fast was the one in which we feed bread to the hungry, take the wretched poor into our homes, and clothe the naked. I’d like to believe that my own fast day feedings fulfilled the spirit of his words.
Cynics might dismiss my efforts as a mere acting out of my willful illusions about social justice; a feel-good spirituality assuaging my privilege-driven guilt without promoting real systemic changes to our culture of ruthless capitalist inequality. I suppose at one level they may be right. But I figure that while the world tries to eradicate that inequality, hungry people still need to eat, so I'm going to feed them. And I also refuse to abandon that basic human connection I’m able to make with my fellow citizens who are hungry on the streets, especially when I’m fasting: a momentary relationship of care forged by slowing down long enough to look them in the eye, offer them some small sustenance, and remind them that their existence is a precious world unto itself.
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama. (Jewish Publication Society, 2020)
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