My daughter, a preschool teacher, has a child in her class with sickle cell anemia who is presently in the hospital. Yesterday she visited the hospital and was instrumental in cheering up the child. She was asked by the family and friends of the child to fast today since they were praying for the child's recovery and felt that fasting would be "giving back to God" for answering their prayers.
My daughter asked me what is the Jewish position on fasting. I thought that her visit to the hospital and perhaps making a contribution to an organization for sickle cell would be more in line with our beliefs. What are your thoughts?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
In Judaism, the purpose of a fast is to lower the volume on our physical pursuits in order to focus more acutely on our spiritual selves. This facilitates the process of "teshuva" - literally "return." We return to God, and to our essential state of purity.
Communal fasts are held on six days in the Jewish year, Yom Kippur being the most well-known.
So how could your daughter's fasting help her student? Because if the student is the catalyst (so to speak) to spur your daughter to teshuva, then the resulting good is partly in the student's merit. Additionally, all of humanity is one unit, and when one person raises their own spiritual level, it has a positive impact on others as well.
For example, in the biblical book of Esther (4:16), Esther agreed to see the King uninvited, and asked the Jewish people to fast for three days beforehand. Esther called for a fast, knowing that through soul-searching the Jews would forge a spiritual connection necessary to make her mission successful. And it paid off, for indeed the Almighty sees and hears everyone at their time of need. (see Mishnah Berurah 686:2)
Similarly, there was another fast during the Purim story: The Jews fasted and prayed on the 13th of Adar in preparation for their defense against Haman's decree. The Torah prescribes that whenever a Jewish army goes to war, the soldiers should spend the previous day fasting. This ensures that when they go out to battle, the soldiers will be well-focused on the fact that success or failure is in the hands of God. And the fact that the soldiers are physically weakened when the battle begins assures that any victory cannot be attributed to physical prowess!
As for hospital visits and charitable contributions, those are separate mitzvahs which are very important in their own right. To learn more, see the excellent book, "Love Your Neighbor," by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin.
May the Almighty send your daughter's student a full and speedy recovery.