On Fast Days, Hunger and Emptiness

By: Elan Babchuck

“I shouldn’t be this hungry.  I shouldn’t be this hungry.”

I’ve skipped breakfast before.  I’ve gone seven, eight hours between meals on days when my schedule unexpectedly overflows.  Even on other fast days like Yom Kippur, I don’t remember feeling this hungry, this empty, this low.  Especially not at noon.

Something was different on Tuesday.  The mid-July Rhode Island air was oppressively thick, the heat unrelenting.  I spent the morning glued to the computer screen, my hopes lifted ever-so-briefly by the fleeting possibility of a ceasefire.

For a moment, I daydreamed that Providence’s many diverse faith communities would come together for the noon vigil and celebrate that our brothers and sisters a world away had laid down their arms.  For a moment, I re-wrote my prayer to reflect this glimmer of hope, this promise for the future.  For a moment, I felt full.

When it fell apart and the violence resumed, my stomach dropped.  Back to emptiness.  Back to despair.  Back to the task at hand: to write a prayer that could somehow reflect the complexities of the moment, the tenuousness of our very existence, the sorrow deep in our souls.

Jewish fast days, we are taught, are particularly auspicious days on the Jewish calendar.  Of course, fast days tend to be particularly somber days, as we mourn a myriad of historical calamities that befell the Jewish people.  But they are also opportune days, when we have God’s ear and a chance to fix the causes of our communal destruction.

Back to my rumbling belly.  Tuesday was a tough fast day for me.  I couldn’t stop thinking about food all day.  Every Huffington Post clickbait article I predictably clicked had something to do with all the foods that I MUST TRY RIGHT NOW.  The painters working down the hall in the Temple’s library ate the most fragrant, delicious-smelling lunches you can possibly imagine.  But for thirty minutes, from 12-12:30 PM, I didn’t think about food once.

Tuesday’s Interfaith Vigil for Peace was just what our community needed.  We sat shoulder to shoulder in Manning Chapel at Brown University.  We prayed in various native tongues, from various faith traditions, and – for sure – from various political viewpoints.  But none of those differences mattered, at least for a half hour.  We were all hot.  We were all hungry.  We were all crushed by the latest news.  We were all in mourning.

On Wednesday morning, the 18th of Tammuz, I ate a particularly full breakfast, still making up for Tuesday’s lost calories.  But as I sat there reading more upsetting news about the Gaza conflict and sipping the coffee that I so missed the day before, I began to understand a harsh reality – I still felt empty.

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