There’s a very strange halacha that comes up this time of year and that is, namely, the law that requires us to eat on Erev Yom Kippur. You see, most things in relation to the actual day of Yom Kippur might be difficult for us to do, but at the very least they make sense. We understand them and we can relate to them. We would expect to pray, meditate, spend time doing serious introspection. We would expect to fast, perhaps, and to take out our sifrei Torah and hold them close.
But to specifically have a law that mandates eating before all of this? It’s strange to say the least, and seemingly difficult to relate to. And it’s not just that, but we actually told by Chazal that if we eat on Erev Yom Kippur it is as if we fasted on both that day, and Yom Kippur itself! How does that make any sense at all? Literally the opposite is the truth!
The Aruch HaShulchan proposes that the reason we have a commandment to eat on the day before Yom Kippur is that this is our way of showing that Yom Kippur is significant. Some say that it makes the fast easier by eating before, and so we do that by eating the day before. Others, as it happens, say that exact opposite — that it is so important to “suffer” on Yom Kippur (per the posuk) that the contrast between eating the whole day before and then not eating at all actually makes it harder.
Regardless, though, the point is that preparation is important. The hype and buildup to an event is crucial. Running into something without preparation simply does not work.
But there is another option here as well. See, on Yom Kippur itself we try to act in a way that is not 100% accurate or true to who we really are. We go way beyond what any normal human being would, or even could, do. We pray all day long. We don’t eat. We are totally connected to God. But we are simply not like that all of the time. It’s a façade, to some extent. And there is a real danger in this, because what happens when we wake up the next day and we realize that we are still the same physical beings we always were? What happens when we realize that we aren’t truly that great? What happens when we remember that we actually enjoy physicality — that we enjoy a good meal, watching a good sports game, or going to the movies? And that’s not to say that there is anything wrong with those activities, per se, but they are physical and human and certainly not that high level and ideal to which we enact on Yom Kippur… This is all to say, in other words, what happens the day after Yom Kippur, when we come back to reality?
Comes along the halacha that we don’t just fast when we do teshuvah. We also eat when we do teshuvah. Teshuvah is not just for one perfect day of coming closer to God, but rather it is for the whole year. The epitome of true teshuvah is making it real, and making it stay with you. It isn’t just about any single day.
Maybe we shouldn’t care quite so much about how nice of a restaurant we eat dinner in, or how nice of a car we drive. Maybe we should be spending a little bit less time in front of a screen. Indeed, that is one kind of teshuvah. But the other kind of teshuvah — a kind that is just as critical — is to say that the way in which I do all of these things will be different. To say I will never do X or Y again? To say that I no longer really care about food, or clothing, or cars, or movies, or anything physical? That’s not realistic. But to say I will engage with these things differently — that certainly is real.
We are physical being. One level of teshuvah is to say I won’t eat at all. But another level is to say that henceforth I will eat a little differently — to aspire to be different not just in an idealistic sense, but in the real, physical world in which we find ourselves in as well.