We Are Commanded to Fast

Tomorrow, when I go to shul for Yom Kippur services, I will carry in my jacket pocket a power bar, a small handful of dates, and a few salted peanuts.

There are many interpretations surrounding our fasting on Yom Kippur. One of those is that it is a reminder that yes, we can abstain from things like food and drink; that yes, we can endure hardship and inconvenience; that it be a reminder for us on all other days when we make the excuse “I can’t,” or worse “I can’t help it.”

I grew up with a disability, one that I and my parents were fully ready to admit. However, nobody, not my parents, not my peers, not my teachers, and certainly not myself, was ready to admit that it limited me. Most parents of children with disabilities want desperately for their children to succeed, as any parent should. Unfortunately, their good intentions and society’s insistence on seeing people with disabilities as inspirations and not as real people combines to create a veritable cult of “yes you can.” There is a very strong anxiety that children (and adults really) with disabilities will be held back by their disability, or worse, will use their disability as an excuse to get out of doing things. Children with disabilities learn quickly that the good child never says “I can’t.”

The reality of the situation, of course, is sometimes we really can’t. For me, declarations of “I can’t” were met with a stern, wrathful insistence that yes I could, accusations of laziness, exhortations to believe in myself and try harder, and the punishment of not being able to do anything else until I had completed the task I’d just said wasn’t possible. Any stumble or failure to perform was met with a lecture that if I’d just tried harder, I would have done better, or an admonishment to see this a proof of why hard work was important. The fact that I hadn’t measured up to abled standards was on its own proof that hard work and I were not on speaking terms. I had the dubious honor of being labeled “gifted” in addition to having a learning disability. This meant that there were some things I was quick at, that I had a good working memory, and that I was good at making connections. With these talents came the assumption that I should therefore be quick in other areas as well.

There were only two ways to earn the honor of having tried hard enough. I could stay up all night working on something, but if there was an error in it, I shouldn’t have been so lazy. I could devote every bit of time I wasn’t in class or in the bathroom to my work, and a transposition in the final product would let everyone, and myself, know that I could have tried harder to get it right. I could run my body into the ground by not eating, not sleeping, not showering, and still, half delirious, wanting so badly to call it a night, it wouldn’t feel like enough. One way to earn the coveted “dayeinu” was to complete the task to perfection. The other was to run myself so ragged that a doctor proclaimed me truly unable to do any more.

For many people who grew up with disabilities, the threshold for what is good enough has often been what will literally make you ill, put you in the hospital or in bed for days. Working and pushing myself to the point where medical intervention became necessary was highly praised. It was proof of my dedication, my work ethic, and my determination. A good child never said “I can’t.” But when a doctor said it, then the child was extraordinarily good.

Last year on Yom Kippur, I came within a hair of passing out. The woman who looked after me and made sure I ate and drank until I wasn’t shaking and dizzy and could see properly and stand up again had no praise for me. She scolded me for not listening to my body, for pushing myself too far, and for breaking with the meaning of the day. I’d been raised to see doing exactly that as a mitzvah, and now I was learning that it was the opposite of one.

It’s mind-blowing when you actually realize what it means that everyone around you doesn’t have the same standard. Everyone else is not actually just better at hiding being in pain or disoriented or horrifyingly overwhelmed. Everyone else is not just better at dealing with it, tougher, better at time management. When other people are tired and have pushed themselves too far, they rest. I am still struggling to be able even to recognize when I don’t really need to just try a little harder, push a little farther, when I actually need to rest.

I also grew up poor. I learned quickly that a bad child is one who cries to be taken to the doctor when they aren’t in real danger. A bad child costs the family groceries, and heat, and work clothes without holes and patches, and working appliances by being whiny. A good child forgoes all but the most necessary medical attention, and the best child must be persuaded and tricked by their parents into going to the doctor instead of school when very ill.

On Yom Kippur we are commanded to fast, and we do so for a variety of reasons, and one of those reasons is to challenge us to say “yes, actually I can.” For me, it is also a test. It is a test of my ability to listen to my body, to know when it needs food and rest before I hit “too far,” to believe that taking care of the body and limits HaShem has given me is a much much greater mitzvah than neglecting them and punishing them for the purpose of pride and self-hate. So tomorrow, I will have a power bar, some dates, and some salted peanuts in my pocket, and I will make sure the restroom isn’t far.


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