Thursday, July 17, 2014

Fasting for Peace

Driving to work yesterday, I heard this story on NPR about Jews and Muslims breaking their fast together as they prayed for peace in the West Bank; they were part of a worldwide effort as a Jewish fasting holiday that commemorates the destruction of the Temple in and the Muslim fast of Ramadan happened in the same month.  I felt a pang of regret that I had not fasted.

I had heard about the fast in the hours leading up to it.  Rabbi Rachel Barenblat had mentioned it in her writing, and I briefly thought about attempting it myself.  I didn't do it for many reasons:  fear, laziness, not enough time to build up my resolve.

People might question why fast anyway?  What good would it do?  One of the commenters in the NPR piece explains, "Fasting is used by Judaism to beseech God, to say, look, we're withholding pleasure from ourselves. And we're withholding food and drink, because we really want you to recognize that there's something going on that needs attention." 

In this post, Rachel Barenblat says, "What does abstaining from food and drink for a day actually accomplish? I know that it won't change the external realities on the ground. But communal fasting is a very old Jewish way of connecting with others in grief and in hope. I hope that the fast will make an impact on we who are participating in it, and will inspire us to take action to bring peace and healing. And perhaps the fast will bring some hope to those who hear or read about it, and will inspire them to take action, too." 

She quotes Rabbi Jill Jacobs:  "As Jews, we know that fasting is one of our tradition's main expressions of a public crisis. While most of us don't believe that God will literally heed our fast and come to intervene, we nevertheless yearn for a way to express our sorrow and to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters. Publicly embracing an interfaith  spiritual action is a small step, but it is better than privately wringing our hands and beating our breasts."

I used to be a skeptic.  I would be one of those people sneering:  "Why pray?  Why fast? Go out and work with the poor.  They need action, not symbolic gestures."

But through the years, I've seen social injustice so huge that a simple action of mine won't provide the fix.  I'm thinking of apartheid in South Africa, which haunted me in so many ways in the 1980's.  I participated in many interfaith events which primarily consisted of prayer, song, and letter writing.

Once I would have thought of prayer, song, letter writing, and fasting as symbolic actions.  Now, I no longer do.

Do I think that God responds because of our actions?  Yes--and I think that others respond too.  Enough actions, symbolic and otherwise, and the world shifts.

Did my prayers create the end of apartheid?  Would it have happened anyway?  Perhaps the divestment campaigns of the 1980's did more to hasten the change?  I do not know.  Part of me says that it wouldn't have happened without the spiritual component.  Part of me would talk about geopolitical events and keep the spirituality out of it.

I am nourished by those memories of spiritual solidarity from earlier times in my life.  That's why I wish I had fasted on Tuesday.

Unfortunately, I'm sure there will be plenty of opportunities for shared spiritual actions in the future, even if peace blooms in the West Bank.  I'm hopeful that the next time I'll be quicker to say yes.

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