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The Avodah Blog

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen?

Rachel Lee was an AVODAH New Orleans Corps member in 2008-2009. She continues to work at her placement, Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools, as a staff member. She is interested in using theater as a tool for social change and community building.

This piece originally appeared on the Jews for New Orleans blog here.

Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying on sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?

Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter––
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

Isaiah 58:5-7

I read these words last year when I went to visit the AVODAH Bayit during one of their weekly programs leading up to Yom Kippur. The guest speaker was Rabbi Ethan Linden, a young, dynamic rabbi from Shir Chadash. His lesson was titled “Social Justice and Jewish Texts: The Moral Experience of Jewish Learning.” He warned us from the outset that the texts he had chosen were only 10 examples out of thousands of years of Jewish thought, and that he could just as easily have pulled quotes that proved opposite points. A rich discussion ensued, revealing a range of subtley different viewpoints within this group of young Jews who were in New Orleans with the common purpose of pursuing social justice in a Jewish context.

As we discussed this passage from Isaiah, my heart started pounding. I squirmed in my seat, unable to contain my physical reaction to these ancient words. I soon realized that my agitation was exactly the intention of the prophet Isaiah, as Rabbi Ethan revealed that this is the haftorah portion for Yom Kippur. “Isaiah is yelling at us,” Rabbi Ethan explained, “while we sit fasting, feeling deprived already, he basically lectures us, tells us that our fasting is not enough.” How had I missed this? Year after year I had the opportunity to take in the power of these words. Had the growling of my fasting stomach drowned out the admonitions of a prophet? “Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself?”

I was immediately drawn to Isaiah’s searing portrait of hypocrisy. Not only does he remind us that it is an abomination to fast for one day and consider ourselves absolved of all sins, he pushes us towards a much more difficult path of righteousness: loosing the chains of injustice, setting free the oppressed, sharing food with the hungry and providing shelter for the poor wanderer. We must engage these tasks not only for one day of the year, but every day of the year, every year of our lives. I was struck by Isaiah’s ability to bring together two contrasting visions of social justice, giving both equal weight. He expects us to both alleviate the immediate effects of oppression on individuals (share your food, provide shelter, clothe the naked) AND to work to end oppression altogether (loose the chains of injustice, break every yoke).

For much of my life, “feeding the hungry” was the only avenue I knew of to pursue justice. Every summer during High School, I taught English and drama to middle school students who were hungry for knowledge. Every summer they returned, having forgotten much of the knowledge I had implanted in their heads the previous year. I felt powerless to transform the school system that gave these Black and Latino students a lousy education while I excelled at private schools, surrounded by my affluent, white peers. I did not know the history of these separate and unequal systems. I did not know enough to call my experience what it was: segregation.

In her classic essay on oppression, Marilyn Frye compares the experience of oppressed people to a bird in a cage. If you look closely at just one wire of the cage, you would suppose that the bird could just fly free. There is nothing about this single wire keeping the bird imprisoned. However, when you take a wider view, “it is perfectly obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which would be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the solid walls of a dungeon.”

When I joined AVODAH, I expected to work with individuals living in poverty, to provide support and improve their quality of life. From day one, however, I gained a broader perspective of what it means to “break every yoke.” Within our first week we met with Davida Finger, a New Orleans native and esteemed member of the Jewish community, who fights for housing rights with the Tulane Community Law Clinic. We also met Mandisa Moore, another native New Orleanean who works with INCITE: Women of Color Against Violence. She explained the intersections of race, gender and sexual orientation and how oppression plays out along these lines. Throughout the year we met with many community leaders, some Jewish others not, who painted a bleak picture of systemic injustice in the Crescent City. Site visits to each other’s placements helped us recognize the connections between lack of affordable housing, a broken criminal justice system, fragmented public education, and the unequal distribution of environmental dangers. With each passing week the bird cage of oppression came more clearly into focus. The interlocking wires of race, class and gender were indelibly etched into my mind.

So when I came to this passage in Isaiah, I will admit I already had quite a bit of perspective on what it means to loose the chains of injustice. I did not read the passage through the eyes of a historian or biblical scholar, conscious of every bit of context. I was not neutral. But I was moved, deeply moved by a piece of Jewish text that shed new light on a topic that I already think a lot about. Here is what I heard in Isaiah that I had not heard before:

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice

It was a shocking revelation to hear Isaiah describe this work as “fasting.” The non-profit world seduces volunteers by promising them fulfillment. Feed the hungry to fill your spirit. Clothe the naked to fill your spirit. Build shelter for the homeless to fill your spirit. Isaiah says “No.” If we truly open our eyes to the causes of injustice, if we become aware of the many bird cages that allow poverty to persist, we will not be full. We will be profoundly hungry. Not hungry for physical nourishment––I ate extremely well during my year of communal cooking in AVODAH––but hungry for answers and hungry for change. We will experience the emptiness that comes with the realization that we are complicit. That we benefit from the bird cage of oppression. We will question what role we have to play in creating change. We will question our worthiness to be agents of change. The more we learn, the hungrier we will become.

Isaiah doesn’t say this directly, but I believe that this fasting, this hunger and humility, will bring us closer to God and closer to each other. This was certainly true in AVODAH. The work that we did was exhausting, complex and often incomplete. It left us hungry. For the first time in years I found myself wanting to go to services, wanting to participate in Jewish rituals and traditions that had once felt irrelevant to my life. Just as going to shul on Yom Kippur keeps our minds off our growling stomachs, these communal experiences are salve for our hungry spirits. They do not make the fasting any less necessary, but they do make it a little easier

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