Fasting is difficult. Most of us look forward to a juicy burger or gourmet ice cream, but not too many people I know look forward to a fast. So it’s been bothering me: Why is fasting a mitzvah? There must be some inherent spiritual lift behind it, otherwise it would not be part of Jewish life.
Recently, I’ve been reading A God Powered Life by Rabbi David Aaron. One chapter on the Kabbalistic concept of tzimtzum, constriction, opened up a revelation for me and helped me understand the power of fasting. He writes:
The Kabbalah teaches that before creation there was just the endless Light of God... God, however, contracted His endless light and withdrew it, moved Himself away from the center while making a space for the creation of vessels. [Vessels refer to time, space, matter, you and me.] God then projected a thin ray of His endless light into the vessels. This process of making a space and infusing every moment, every place and every one with the Presence of the Great I is the mystery and miracle of tzimtzum [constriction].
We, too, must perform this divine act in the service of God. First we have to move everything out of the way, get rid of the racket, and then we must bracket this moment and this place.
This struck a real chord in me. When God condensed Himself to focus His Light in a way that we could receive it, it was the ultimate act of love. God is Everything, but we couldn’t benefit from His greatness if it was in the full expansive state.
No matter what a wonderful friend or teacher I am, no matter how talented or productive I am, my child won’t respond to the sum of me. She can only have all of me if I condense myself, if I create a space and focus all of my love, kindness and gifts onto her. Nothing I do for the rest of the world will translate to love for her with that same power.
This is the real challenge of parenting and relationships. A part of us doesn’t want to stop. We want to move and create. Pulling back and committing to the moment takes a lot of energy.
But that’s precisely where the energy is. Tzimtzum: constriction for expansiveness.
Sitting on the Floor
Which brings us to the idea of fasting. In Hebrew a fast is called a tzom, similar to the word tzimtzum. When we fast, we feel anything but expansive. We feel hungry and restless; we can’t even think of plans beyond the next moment. Fasting narrows our world to the immediate present.
But where is the light, the benefit? What purpose could a full day of constriction have?
In sorrow is where we find comfort.
The constrictive experience of fasting is similar to a state of mourning. A person sitting shiva needs to stay with the process of grieving for seven days. They’re instructed to dwell with their sorrow. And yet, paradoxically, that is where they find comfort. The loss hurts, and the pain is intense. But in being with it, there is comfort in the discomfort.
In some mysterious way, our constriction mimics God’s constriction. We can relish every bit of life – whether feasting or fasting – in its most expansive way.
Fasting for a whole day allows us to condense ourselves into the experience. There we find that our Jewish world is not narrow at all. It is a vast and beautiful, complex story with a 4,000-year-old chain of steel. It is an adventure of growth and yearning. It’s a relationship with God and His Torah and His Land, and the realization that God, Torah and the Jewish people are all One.
On Tisha B'Av, sitting on the floor in mourning, is a transformational odyssey where we’re flung back and forth to our pains past and present, while all the time holding the glorious image of the future. Our joined hunger parallels the lack we feel. On this day we feel not only for ourselves, but for all the Jewish people; knowing with a knowledge as real as the hunger in our belly that we are collectively famished for connection, weak from struggle, and heavy from the pain of a fractured people.
Yes, all this is born in the place where we’re willing to constrict.
And when Tisha B'Av is over, it is just the beginning. We use tzimtzum to bring that power of unity to a deeper level.
What would it mean to the next person you spoke to if you looked them in the eye and listened to them fully without distraction?
How would your spouse feel if you put down what you’re holding and quieted your mind to make space for their words?
Loved. Cherished. Supported.
Tzimtzum is another way of saying: “You matter enough for me to focus all my energies on you.”
This Tisha B'Av, may we have the courage to be fully with the tzom, whole with the discomfort, and learn to condense our entirety for every other Jew.