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Become an angel for a day - by fasting on Yom Kippur

Can you picture a photograph of yourself as an angelic young child?

    Detail from Marc Chagall's The Triumph of Music
    Detail from Marc Chagall's The Triumph of Music

    Can you picture a photograph of yourself as an angelic young child? One in which your face bursts with innocence and excitement.

    Tim Lott, the Guardian writer, recently quoted George Orwell's challenge accompanied by his question. "What have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece?" You no longer look like that child, nor would their voice sound like yours. Indeed, every part of your body has probably changed since the photo was taken. Orwell answers that you share nothing in common, "except that you happen to be the same person".

    Your adult self will have exceeded some of that child's ambitions, but in other areas, you may have fallen short. If you could have a conversation with your younger self, you might feel slightly embarrassed trying to explain the multitude of distractions that prevented you from fulfilling their aspirations.

    Yom Kippur is our day for reflecting on those areas where we have not yet reached that potential. As part of that process, we are commanded to afflict ourselves (Leviticus 16: 29). The rabbis understood that this did not mean self-harm, just a day's abstention from food and drink. To this they added prohibitions from washing, wearing leather shoes, anointing and sexual relations, which may lead us to wonder whether we would not do a better job repenting if we felt more at ease. How do these discomforts support our introspection?

    Some rabbis see fasting as an expression of our urgent need for God's forgiveness. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the 19th-century German scholar, suggests that for each of our imperfections, we must plead for mercy before the divine court like a prisoner on death row. Viewed like this, it makes perfect sense that we don't eat, drink or enjoy physical pleasures on that day. We need to focus on pleading our cause.

    Yom Kippur invites us to come as close as we can to pure spirituality

    It's a powerful interpretation, but a depressing one. More encouraging is the explanation of the 13th-century Rabbi Aharon Halevi in his Sefer Hachinuch. Yom Kippur, he says, is the day when we set matters aright, apologising for what we have done wrong so that we can move on to live better lives. But if that's the case, why fast?

    William Cobbett (1763-1835) was a radical journalist and MP. He was also an astute observer of society. He suggested that despite their many grievances, people with full stomachs will never stage revolutions. They are too comfortable. His statement helps to understand Yom Kippur. With our bodies pampered, most of us are too content to engage in the requisite introspection to upturn our lives. That's why we have a day of discomfort, jolting us out of our routine and enabling us to engage in deep reflection.

    Surprisingly, this process can be a very happy one. It is told that the founder of Chasidut, the Ba'al Shem Tov (1698-1760), was baffled by the popular custom of cheerfully chanting the Yom Kippur confession. Why sing about our sins? One day, he passed a noble's estate where he spied a maid singing as she swept the muck out of the stables. "We are like that maid," the rabbi explained. "As we confess our wrongdoings, we clear the dross from our lives and emerge purer giving us good reason to sing."

    This may not sound like affliction, but in a beautiful paradox Yom Kippur is also meant to be one of the happiest days of the year because it's the day we repair our relationship with God (See Mishnah Ta'anit 4: 8). Rabbi Riskin, Chief Rabbi of Efrat, has observed that the Hebrew word commanding affliction on Yom Kippur could also be translated as obliging us to sing. Fasting and abstaining from other physical pleasures on that day detaches us from our bodily needs, transforming us into something close to spiritual beings. That's why the Ramban argues that on this day even the harshest heavenly prosecutor cannot find fault with us, even he must concede that we are as perfect as the angels.

    Yom Kippur invites us to come as close as we can to pure spirituality. Our glimpse of this spiritual existence empowers us to stretch our imagination to picture a world without jealousy or greed, without war, terror or starvation - the world we must strive to build.

    I'd like to think that the child who peers down at us from the picture understands there is no one on this earth who is perfect, so we never could fulfil all their dreams. But, recognising our soul searching, and our fast, they might just smile at their older self; looking generously at our struggle to be better Jews, to fulfil their most noble dreams and to make the world a better place. For this is what God does on Yom Kippur.

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