Fasting is not fun. No coffee presents headache challenges. Some people get weak and others get tired. I get cold, which makes me way crabbier than being hungry could ever do. But I looked at the week’s events and saw that typical-blogpost-day-Thursday is Purim, a busy day from beginning to end, so here I am on Wednesday, the fast day of Taanis Esther. If you’re trying to make the fast go faster, I hope that reading this will help. (And if you’re not fasting, you can give tzedakah instead.)
No matter what we’re doing, today is an auspicious day for every Jew to do teshuvah, return to G-d. We learn this from Esther, who knew that before she could approach Achashverosh to save her people from annihilation, she first needed to fast in order to petition G-d, the true King, on their behalf.
These days, we talk a lot about our existential threats from within and without: the story of Purim shows that the power to change the course of global events starts within the soul of every Jew. As chronicled in the Megillah, precisely because it is applicable for all time, when we sincerely turn to G-d, He then affects the hearts and minds of the political decision-makers of the world to be favorably disposed towards Jews.
I know this notion really bothers the spiritually disinclined. And, trust me, even for the spiritually inclined, “sincerely turning to G-d” is no simple endeavor either. Before I even knew the word, teshuvah, I experienced it for the first time in 1987, while sitting with an elite group of smart, Jewishly-involved young women at the United Jewish Federation’s retreat for its Young Women’s Leadership Cabinet. The gathering was intended to cultivate “leaders” to help save other Jews, yet it became starkly clear to me as I watched a video about the plight of Soviet Refuseniks, that I was the Jew who needed saving. I wasn’t embarrassed to be the only one sobbing when the lights came on, because I knew I had confronted a painful yet undeniable truth about myself. Seeing the self-sacrifice on the part of the Refuseniks elicited an envy for their commitment to Judaism and a deep humiliation for the ignorance and apathy surrounding my own.
My whole life I had been asking, “why am I here,” and now I was asking why wasn’t I there. Soviet Jews couldn’t get married under a chuppah or perform a bris on a baby boy unless they also wanted a visit to the Gulag, yet their souls were on fire. I could freely and safely do anything Jewish I wanted to do here in America, yet I viewed my religion with total disdain. Forget my impression that Judaism was antiquated, sexist, and repressive; I couldn’t get past the fact that Judaism was nerdy.
Yet, through that epiphany, a light emerged from deep inside of me that I couldn’t extinguish even if I wanted to. I knew I had tasted a bitter truth and the only way to sweeten it would be to answer the question: what did those Soviet Jews know that I didn’t know?
The road back to my Jewish soul has often felt like a challenging climb, but I try to follow that inner light to help keep me on course. I don’t want to find myself sobbing again in a room full of people if I don’t have to.
(Does anyone out there want to share a teshuvah moment?)