An oft-repeated joke is of a passionate golfer who was battling the urge to play on Yom Kippur. Succumbing to his urge, he played early in the morning so he could still attend services. Miraculously, he scored a hole-in-one on every green — afterwards realizing in agony that he could not brag to anyone about it! But really, what’s the big deal? Perhaps golfing makes him feel spiritual, of walking on expansive greens, surrounded by forest, birds chirping. What about hiking or riding a bicycle — if that’s your spiritual calling, why not?
One could argue: I believe in G-d, in spirituality, in Torah, in mitzvot, but I want to channel my connection to G-d by what’s meaningful to me, by kayaking, for example. If an activity is more personal to me, then G-d cherishes my kayaking even more if I purposely do so on His holy day. Observing Yom Kippur as prescribed by Jewish law is fine for some, but G-d understands my sincere intent. One could equally say, G-d would understand that if I eat breakfast on Yom Kippur, I could focus better on my spirituality.
I read with great interest an article published by the Chronicle in the September 2020 issue, about a gentleman who climbed Mount Everest on Yom Kippur while fasting, and it really got me thinking. Firstly, I was confused: the author noted that he blew the shofar sounds tekea, shevarim, and teruah, but for all I know, blowing shofar with these sounds is done in synagogues of all stripes on Rosh Hashanah, whereas it’s not blown on Yom Kippur except for one blast immediately following Yom Kippur.
That notwithstanding, finding a personal “spiritual experience” on a hike (or any such activity) might make oneself feel more spiritual, but the idea of all the mitzvot, including abstaining from certain activities on Yom Kippur, is about serving G-d, thereby expressing one’s devotion to the Creator. I wonder how hiking on Yom Kippur serves G-d. There is a distinction of personal satisfaction, which can come from any activity (e.g., art, music, food, success in business, etc.). Might one rationalize that a personal satisfaction on Yom Kippur is a means toward G-dliness?
We know there is a physical world; we also believe just as strongly in a spiritual world. We might not see the spiritual realms with the naked eye; I can’t see radio waves either, but I know they exist. There’s an instrument for tapping into those waves — the radio. There’s an instrument for tapping into G-dliness —Torah and mitzvot. Indeed, the word “mitzvah,” in addition to meaning “commandment,” also has the connotation of “tzevet” in Hebrew, meaning “companionship”; we are in G-d’s companionship when we fulfill His wishes by following His commandments. These pathways are how a finite being “touches” an infinite G-d.
If Thanksgiving falls on a Thursday, I can still celebrate it a day later when my family is able to come together. Jewish holidays are different — G-d sets aside that specific time period by imbuing it specifically with channels and energies. Yom Kippur is on a certain day, once a year; no other day suffices. And only certain modes of behavior on that day set the path aright.
The service of G-d may be done with positive actions — mitzvot — and also by refraining from what G-d has prohibited in His Torah. Although I was not yet born when pitcher Sandy Koufax sat-out the first game of the World Series due to Yom Kippur, it permeates the Jewish consciousness to this day. And speaking with those who were alive, for some it was a watershed moment in their lives. While refraining from a hike might not have the same ripple effect, in one’s own corner of the world it could make a difference, to oneself as well as to those around him or her, by serving as a proud example to those who know of one’s sacrifice, while also affecting the spiritual realms.
There is nothing wrong with spending time hiking or kayaking; it could be a noble endeavor, so long as it’s within the timeframe that G-d has designated for it.
Joshua Becker, of Milwaukee’s East Side, teaches Spanish for the Shorewood School District and is a freelance writer and editor. His website is JoshuaBeckerWriter.com. His wife and teenage son put up with his overuse of puns.