Friday, September 29, 2006


Dedicated in honor of Jeff Asher, a ready friend and righteous advocate.

Question for the table: Why fast on Yom Kippur?

A. To cleanse ourselves via suffering.
B. To tell God that we’re really, really sorry.
C. Because we’re supposed to, stop asking questions.
D. Tradition!

Answer: (E) None of the above. Read on.

What are the three things every Jew needs to know about Yom Kippur?

Before I tell you, I have a request and a story.

Here is the request:

The reason that my wife and I decided to stay in America rather than return to Israel in 2003 was because of the crazy idea that the Art of Amazement book and seminars could help more people if we stuck around to promote it.

So far, it has been a success. The first two editions sold out, and the new Penguin edition seems to have reached a lot of people.

The problem is keeping it in print and on the shelves. How useful will the book be if it goes out of print? Or even if it's in print, if it's not available in the bookstores?

In order for Borders and Barnes and Noble (or any bookseller) to stock the book, it has to generate a certain threshold of sales. No one knows what this threshold is. According to one expert I consulted, selling a few copies per month in a given store is enough to keep it on the shelves. Another expert opined that a national chain may require only 5-10 copies a month in an entire region to consider a book viable.

Where you come in: would you help me and your fellow tribesmen by buying one copy a month from a local bookseller and finding someone to give it to? I assure you, I will not benefit financially from this. But keeping this book afloat is a major facet of my non-profit mission, and I am asking you directly to help make it a success. (If you agree and would like a separate monthly reminder, please email me at bookclub (at) jsli (dot) org.) Thank you.

Now here is the story.

When I first arrived in Israel years ago to study, it was the night before Yom Kippur. I showed up at the door of some old family friends in Jerusalem. They were, by our standards, very religious, although I’m pretty sure they didn’t see themselves that way. I didn’t have a clue what they were doing, but they handed me an English-Hebrew prayer book and said, “Listen, this is what we’re going to be doing; if you want to participate, here’s your guidebook.”

The anthropologist in me went gung-ho into the experience. I did everything they did. I didn’t eat for 25 hours, nor did I bathe or even wash my face. That was the easy part. The hardest part was not drinking for 25 hours. That was really hard – I don’t think we ever fasted from water when I was a kid. But completely abstaining from all food and drink is essential to a great Yom Kippur. It’s hard to transcend your body when you keep feeding it. Only after about 23 hours of complete fasting does that transcendent feeling kick in.

Since it was my first time, I didn’t know what to expect, and at the very end of the day, just before sunset, I completely forgot about my hunger and thirst. My parched mouth became an asset rather than a hindrance as I felt myself detaching from it. The “Aveenu Malkeinu” prayer vibrated from my feet to my head. I felt like I was floating.

Then, after sunset, something totally unexpected happened. Somebody in the synagogue blew a single sustained note on the shofar that lifted my heart even higher than I thought I could go. That sound carried my deepest aspirations upwards to infinity. I was parched, but in tears. They weren’t even Jewish tears. Just simple human tears of joy from self-realization.

Three steps to a great Yom Kippur:

1. Start with the bottom line.

The bottom line for Yom Kippur is that you want to end up with a new or improved behavior. You need to identify one mitzvah that you know you could be doing better. Maybe it’s controlling your anger. Maybe it’s giving tzedakah (10% of your net income to charity). Maybe it’s being on time. Make your list of what needs to be fixed. Your list should include things that other people are doing that you may have the power to work against (exploitation, gossip, etc.) You’re going to use this full list on Yom Kippur.

(Someone told me the other day that she had a disappointing Rosh Hashana. That’s too bad, but if so, it’s important to try to get the message of Rosh Hashana in your mind before Yom Kippur. Try this short propaganda film about Jewish ID).

The bottom line is that that area or those areas where you are finding it most difficult to change are possibly the main purpose of your being put back on this planet, to fix them. This is the purpose of your life!

2. Say “I’m sorry” to everyone who needs to hear it.

Here is a better (and funnier) explanation than I could ever make, from Stephen Colbert:

3. Commit to a serious change.

If one of the things that a person is trying to change is to quit smoking, or to stop shouting, or to stop any particular behavior, it’s not a serious commitment unless you have a plan. What are you going to do differently in order to avoid that behavior. If you’re serious about improving yourself, you won’t wait until the challenge comes – you’ll make a plan for steering away from the challenge. I would limit my plan to one or two areas. This is a great exercise to do with kids, to get them to find one area of improvement and make a plan.

4. Give Tzeddaka

“Hey – I thought there were only supposed to be three!”

Well, you know, the world needs more tzeddaka. You need to give more tzeddaka. It’s good for you, and it’s good for the world. These days before Yom Kippur are the final chance to fix your karma for the coming year. A few extra rubles in the pushke are good for you. Try it, it actually feels good, especially if you’re helping someone who is hungry for food or spiritual connection. Give generously these last few days and it will come back to you manifold. Giving generates good karma. Don’t hold back. Write those checks to those charities. They need it, but you need it more.


The goal of the fast is to help us transcend our bodies. For our bodies are the source of most of our regrettable choices. If you want a meaningful meditation to get you there, try getting a good Yom Kippur book, such as the Artscroll books Machzor, Yom Kippur, or Jonah (ask at your local Jewish bookshop or go to Spend as much time as you can engrossed in these texts. Read them, chant them, contemplate them, interspersed with contemplating your list.

Here’s another YK film, upbeat and musical:

(That thing he does at the end - “tekia gedola” - that means the long shofar blast at the end of Yom Kippur that I told you about above.)

By the time you get to the late afternoon, you will be ready for some serious movement. Get up on your feet and declare your regret for the shortcomings on your list and your desire to wipe the slate clean.

Measure of success?

How you behave immediately after YK, starting with how you break the fast. Be deliberate, be mindful, be thankful, be joyful, be generous.

If I have offended you this past year in any way, please let me know so that I can apologize. Better yet, hit me with a pre-emptive forgiveness and save us both some time. My toll-free hotline (you'll get it only if you watched the Colbert film) is 650-799-5564.

Wishing you an uplifting Yom Kippur and beyond!

Shabbat Shalom.

PS: tips for an easy fast:
Stop drinking coffee for two days prior.
1. Hold off on eating Saturday and Sunday until mid-day. When Monday morning comes, your body won’t pine for food so early.
2. Have a satisfying meal Sunday around 4 pm that is not too salty and no alcohol.
3. Make sure you are fully hydrated by 6 pm Sunday. Load up on grapes that are cut in half and swallowed without chewing.
4. Get a very good night’s sleep if you can.

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