I believe it could be argued that fasting on Yom Kippur is one of the most intimate and spiritual traditions of the Jewish faith. The best explanation I have found for this comes from Gates of the Season: A Guide to the Jewish Year:
On Yom Kippur we seek reconciliation with God and humanity. Repentance (Teshuvah) involves a critical self-assessment of the past year and the resolve to avoid lapses in sensitivity in the future. Teshuvah requires discipline. Our fasting on Yom Kippur demonstrates our willingness to submit to discipline. How can we atone for our excesses toward others unless we can curb appetites which depend on no one but ourselves? To set boundaries for our own conduct in this very private matter is to begin the path toward controlling our public behavior.
In other words, in order to have the strength and courage to perform teshuvah, it is helpful, or even necessary, to prove to ourselves that we have control over our impulses and our cravings. Not eating or drinking for 24 hours is challenging, but it teaches us that we do have the strength to take on challenges and rise above basic urges. It reminds us that it is our mind, not our impulses, that have control.
As a parent and as a teacher, I often struggled with how to teach this to our children. The message of self-control and self-discipline is so important in this time of peer pressure and social media, but, since children are not able to fast, to make this lesson tangible for them during the High Holy Days, we can talk with them about how difficult it really is to say “no thank you” to temptations. For adults, choosing to fast is not easy, but we can do it, and we have Yom Kippur to prove it to ourselves every year. For students, choosing to not give in to peer pressure or choosing to say no to unhealthy experiences is also not easy, and they have Yom Kippur to remind them that they are strong enough to make difficult choices and to give them the chance to practice saying no thank you, even if it makes them temporarily uncomfortable.
I would challenge children to do something on Yom Kippur that will help them prove to themselves that they are indeed strong enough to overcome their cravings and fears when admitting to mistakes or when standing up for what is right. Here are some ideas that my students have suggested throughout the years...
“I will only eat fruit for breakfast, even though I really love cereal.”
“I will drink only water with my meals all day, even though I usually drink juice and milk.”
“I will not eat any sweets all day, even though I love having a dessert with my lunch.”
“I will eat a small breakfast and a small lunch, even though I usually eat until I’m stuffed.”
“I will not eat snacks between meals on Yom Kippur, even though I usually eat a lot of snacks.”
This Yom Kippur, consider challenging yourself and your children with a form of fasting that works to help remind you that you are, indeed, strong enough.