During Yom Kippur, we are commanded to "afflict ourselves." "עינוי נפש" The gemara has a very lengthy discussion of what this could mean. Does it mean we don't have sexual relations, does it mean we physically hurt ourselves? No, the gemara concludes, it means that we don't eat or drink. But how do we know that?
Any NFTY in Israel alumni knows that there is definitely affliction when someone wanders in the desert. In every NFTY in Israel trip, hike for three days in the Arava desert, we sleep outside, we complain, we moan...this desert is the same desert that Moshe and the Israelites wandered through.
Why did God afflict us in the desert? God just brought us out of Egypt and out of slavery, isn't it a time to provide for us and take care of us? I want to suggest that the desert is where religious experience begins. We go to a place where you have no where to hide. It's an open, vast, and dangerous place. When we fast and don't have food and water, we become more like animals following instincts of survival. Fasting is about confronting your nefesh/self/soul. One is forced to face the physical side of being.
The desert is about a journey and so is Yom Kippur. It's not just about the day, or the time in the desert. It's what we take from it and how we grow and become better. From this weak vulnerable state, how do we act, behave, and change? How do we come out of Yom Kippur? I know that all four of my NFTY groups came out of the desert as better people. They all overcame challenges. They were patient, strong, and helped others. I wish all of you the same for Yom Kippur, when you're tired, hunger, and cranky, that you all still have patience and love for one another. That you confront God from not just an emotional and mental place, but also a vulnerable and physical place. And ask God for forgiveness and for a wonderful future.
So NFTY, if you're sitting in services, and not feeling connected, think about the desert, think about how you grew and changed. You are a better person, probably for many challenges you faced this year, but also because of the times you were most vulnerable and came out triumphant. That's what Yom Kippur is about...going into a vulnerable state to become a better person. Be proud of yourself.
I wish you all a meaning fast and Yom Kippur. Gmar chatima tova! גמר חתימה טובה!
Our not so afflicted selves in the desert this past summer! Happily overcoming challenges together!