It’s fascinating to see the wide range of intense emotions that fasting has generated on Virtual Talmud, from gratitude and appreciation to distaste, even disgust.
I think one of the reasons we may have such strong feelings on the subject is that fasting stands outside of much of our day-to-day experience of Judaism, with its emphasis on thankfulness, divine service, celebration, and giving back to the world. Fasting draws on another facet of Judaism, one that is generally less pronounced–that of penance.
As Rabbi Grossman reminds us, the Torah tells us that on Yom Kippur we are to “afflict our souls” as a part of the way we make atonement. We don’t bathe, we don’t eat, we don’t drink, we abstain from sexual intimacy. It can feel foreign, like someone practicing self-flagellation to cleanse himself or herself of sinfulness which, in a way, it is.
Perhaps it’s our ambivalence about fasting and other forms of penance that we recognize when we wish fasters a ‘tzom kal’–an easy fast. If the purpose is to afflict our souls, wouldn’t an easy fast sort of defeat the point? It’s clear that we fast for a variety of reasons, and some find it more meaningful than others. But I think the different philosophical bases for fasting may be part of why this practice is harder to get behind emotionally than many others in Jewish life.
May we all have an easy–and meaningful–fast.