Yesterday was Yom Kippur or “Day of Atonement”, one of the holiest days in Judaism. On this days, Jews around the world atone for their sins and ask forgiveness from those they have wronged over the year and from God.
One of the traditions of Yom Kippur is fasting. The idea is that you are afflicting the body and soul with an act of self-denial as you repent for your past sins. One is meant to put aside physical desires and instead focus on spiritual needs through prayer, repentance, and self-improvement.
While the Yom Kippur fast is an important ritual, it is never at the sake of jeopardizing one’s health and so Jewish law says that people who cannot fast for health or other reasons, should not fast.
Now this post isn’t meant to pass judgement on anyone’s traditions, beliefs, or decisions. I completely respect and understand anyone’s decision to fast or not fast, regardless of health reasons. I respect the manner in which anyone observes this holiday or their choice not to. This post isn’t about anyone else besides me. It’s about my own personal experiences and struggle.
That being said, I’ve always had a hard time not fasting on Yom Kippur. Over the years I’ve tried many different techniques. Some years I fasted as long as I could until I dropped low and then broke the fast. Other years I intentionally let my blood sugar run high for the day so I wouldn’t drop low. Some years I didn’t fast at all. And while I knew that having type 1 diabetes “excused” me from fasting, I approached this Yom Kippur with an uneasy feeling and internal struggle.
Why was I so conflicted? After all, Jewish law is very clear that not fasting for health reasons is not only completely acceptable, but encouraged. After giving it some thought, I came to the conclusion that it came down to two main points.
- To me, I didn’t want it to appear like I was using my diabetes as an excuse, or a way out of something undesirable. I’ve been very careful my whole life to not use my diabetes as an excuse for special privileges when they weren’t necessary or to let my diabetes stop me from doing something that I wanted to do.
- While I know this is not really the case, I could never shake this feeling that somehow I was missing an essential component of this holy day by not fasting, that I wasn’t fully experiencing it in the way that I should.
With this knowledge of where my struggle was coming from, I went on a search for something that could help me come to a sense of inner peace and acceptance over this issue. The internet is a great place, and with a little searching, I came across two websites that had just what I needed to hear.
The first came from Everyday Health and was an article on Fasting Safely With Diabetes. In it, there’s a quote that says, “In the Jewish religion, it is considered a mitzvah (a good deed) if one must eat for health reasons.” What was most striking is the idea that eating for health reasons is not just “acceptable” but is actually a good deed!
The second confirming text came from an article from aish.com in the Ask the Rabbi section about Eating on Yom Kippur. The article stated, “Just as on Yom Kippur it is a mitzvah to fast, in certain circumstances the mitzvah is to eat on Yom Kippur. Even if the person wants to fast like everyone else, God sometimes gives a unique test- in this case to eat on Yom Kippur, to remain healthy and serve God.”
What I took from this article was this idea that for people who are healthy, fasting is their challenge. But for me, someone who would really like to participate by fasting but shouldn’t, my challenge is actually eating on Yom Kippur. My test is different, but not inferior, it is still a mitzvah!
Finally after many years, I began to understand my situation differently. To see that my participation in this holy day may be different, but is not any less meaningful. Not fasting on Yom Kippur is truly one of the few things that I’ve had accept that I can’t really do with my diabetes. But this year and from here forward, I embrace this fact. When I was able to come to a place of inner acceptance, I knew that I would be able to defend my decision to not fast not by feeling inferior, but by feeling proud!