There are several fasts in the Jewish calendar.  The Tenth of Tevet, Seventeenth of Tamuz and Ninth of Av are days of national mourning, commemorating the fall of Jerusalem, destruction of the Jewish Temple and loss of independence and sovereignty.  The Fast of Esther (on the 13th of Adar) and the Fast of Gedaliah (on the 3rd of Tishrei -- see Jeremiah 41:1-7) also commemorate events when Jews were put at risk of massive elimination by our enemies.  (If contemporary rabbis had the convictions and moral authority of the religious leaders of years past, they should have pronounced the Holocaust Memorial Day as a fast, as well).
     Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) is also a fast (see Leviticus
23:26-32).  However, fasting is its only resemblance with the other above mentioned days.  Yom Kippur is the only fast commanded to us by G-d in the Torah.  It is the holiest day of the year and, unlike the other fasts, when Yom Kippur occurs on Saturday -- we fast on Shabbat.  Although observed by all Jews on the same day (the 10th of Tishrei), it is not a day of national commemoration but a day of individual reflection, soul searching and atonement.  On this day the enemies that each of us is facing are from within, such as arrogance, dishonesty, disrespect, distrust, divisiveness, faithlessness, gossip, hatred, ignorance, jealousy, narrow-mindedness, pessimism, selfishness, temptation, vulgarity, etc.
     The fast reminds us of our fragility, weakness and mortality.  It focuses our attention to the way we live;  to our morality;  to our deeds and actions;  to our attitudes and relationships with relatives, friends, colleagues and neighbors.  It gives us the opportunity to repent and seek forgiveness.  The Mishna (Yoma 8) teaches that repentance must be sincere.  "If one says ‘I shall sin and repent, sin and repent’ -- this day does not atone for his sins".  Also, atonement is effective only for sins against G-d, but for sins against other people atonement depends on asking and receiving forgiveness from the injured.  Maimonides (Laws of Repentance, Ch. 2) teaches that the injured must not be cruel, but they should be forgiving and respond charitably to appeals for forgiveness.
     As we approach the Ten Days of Repentance, from Rosh HaShana to Yom Kippur, let us remember that every day may be our last (Avot 2:15) -- the day to atone, seek forgiveness and forgive.  Yom Kippur is a reminder of that and an opportunity to elevate our actions and character to a higher level of holiness.

-- Judah Ari-Gur


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