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The Fast of the 10th of Tevet

Tomorrow, December 25th, we will observe the dawn to dusk Fast of the 10th of Tevet. The fast begins at 5:59am. Any other fast day that may fall on a Friday or Saturday is either postponed to Sunday or observed on the preceding Thursday. However, if the 10th of Tevet would fall on a Friday (as it does this year) or on Shabbat, we would fast then too - just like we do when Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat!  

What is the reason that the 10th of Tevet is given such importance?

The 10th of Tevet commemorates the day the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem before the destruction of the First Temple. As a consequence, the Jewish people became subjugated to a foreign power (shibbud malchuyot) and therefore, were no longer subjugated to G-d alone. In allowing this subjugation to occur, G-d demonstrated that His relationship with the Jewish people had been downgraded. At that point in history, the destruction of the Temple was not a forgone conclusion. It took the Babylonians almost three years finally to conquer the city and destroy the Temple.

If the people of Jerusalem had taken to heart the message implicit in the siege and worked to restore their relationship with the Almighty, the Babylonians would never have succeeded in penetrating the city and destroying the Temple. The 10th of Tevet was meant to be a wakeup call for the Jewish people. However, instead of getting up, they pushed the snooze button. The tragedy of the 10th of Tevet lay in the failure of the Jewish people to appreciate the importance of their direct relationship with G-d and allow a foreign power to dominate them both physically and spiritually.

There is an interesting difference between the 10th of Tevet and the other fast days that are connected with the destruction of the Temple (17 Tammuz, 9 Av & 3 Tishri). All of the other fast days represent the beginning of a process that leads to greater disaster. For example, the Temple was set on fire on the 9th of Av but only collapsed on the 10th. The 10th of Tevet however, is the only day where the totality of the tragedy happened on that day: the siege, which represents subjugation to a foreign power, a downgrade in the relationship with G-d and a lack of a proper response by the Jewish people. This is the reason why the observance of the other fast days is flexible whereas the 10th of Tevet is fixed. The prophet Yechezkel uses the same terminology regarding the 10th of Tevet - “b’etzem hayom hazeh” (on this very day) - as the Torah uses for Yom Kippur. Thus, as it is with Yom Kippur, if the 10th of Tevet were to fall on Shabbat – we’d fast.

The purpose of fasting next Sunday is not to commemorate an ancient event, one that is irrelevant to our lives, but rather, to use history as a springboard to reflect on the present. We need to ask ourselves if we are any different than our ancestors. What is the nature of our relationship with G-d? Where are we spiritually? By abstaining from eating and drinking, we prove to ourselves that we have the strength to control even our most basic needs for the sake of a greater good. That being the case, what type of changes do we need to make in our lives if we are to upgrade our connection with G-d?

What follows is: 

Blog: 1. Another perspective on fasting from a former neighbor of mine in Ramat Beit Shemesh, R. Dovid Rosenfeld. 

Blog: 2. In preparation for the onset of 2021, “10 Insights on How to Live Life Fully,” gleaned from Dr. Edith Eva Eger, who was sent to Auschwitz at age sixteen. She is now ninety-three and a practicing psychotherapist specializing in treating trauma. She wrote her first book, The Choice, at the age of 91 and just released her second book, The Gift. These life-affirming books are filled with her wisdom about how to live our lives more fully.

Blog #1:

Fasting always seemed so counterproductive to me. Most of the Jewish fast days commemorate catastrophes which occurred in our distant past. When tragedies occur, we are taught to mourn and understand the loss, and to correct the mistakes which begat them. We must look into ourselves and repent the faults which cause such tragedy to be.

But fasting seems so counterproductive. It makes us weak and listless, in no shape to do the heavy introspection required for true self-improvement. If repentance is truly the goal of the day, why not keep our productivity at its optimum, setting aside a day for contemplation and self-examination? We should be picking ourselves up and repenting – doing something about our faults. Instead we starve ourselves, so that by the end of it we‘d rather nap than introspect.

Further, is moping around, feeling sad about past calamities the Jewish way? Isn’t Judaism a religion of positive doing, of working to correct our flaws rather than sitting around feeling bad about them?

My teacher Rabbi Yochanan Zweig once had the very difficult experience of visiting a woman in the final stages of terminal illness – who sadly, looked as bad as her prognosis. What do you say to such a person? How can you reassure her, cheer her up, make her feel positive about so hopeless a situation? And so even the seasoned rabbi he is, he entered her hospital room only with the utmost of uneasiness.

To his surprise, the woman he visited was not only content and accepting of her fate. She was glowing. She exuded a joy and a happiness with life rarely found among the healthy.

During the course of the visit, Rabbi Zweig found the guts to ask her what he felt he just had to ask: How was she able to be so happy and positive in her condition? How did she overcome the apparent sadness of her situation to become so full of life and vitality?

She answered, in essence, as follows: “Now that I have nothing else in life, I know what is truly important to me. Beforehand, I had a happy life – a good husband, wonderful kids, a good career, a high standard of living. I wanted for nothing. But now I really have a relationship with my husband and children. I have become so much greater a person, so much more appreciative of who I am and what God has granted me. My past life was a wonderful dream, but I could have lulled myself through the entire thing, never truly finding out who I am inside.”

And then, almost to his own surprise, the rabbi asked her an even more pointed question: “Do you feel it was worth it, that it was better that God gave you this illness than had He left you in your previous life?”

She answered without hesitating: “Yes, it is much better today, how I am now going to return my soul to my Creator.”

When we fast, we undergo the same experience in a much more benign way. Denying ourselves food and drink helps us strip away our outer layers – and recognize what is truly important to us. During the rest of the year it is easy to fool ourselves. What do we live for? Is that delicious steak lunch I was looking forward to what truly gives me happiness in life?

But when we live without such creature comforts, we can look deeper. What really gives meaning to my life? What is really important to me? When enjoying the superficial, we can distract ourselves with that. But when we must do without, we can see through it all and recognize what is truly significant to us.

Thus, the first step towards repentance is to fast. We minimize our physical pleasures – the things we usually think make us enjoy life. This is in part to mourn the loss. But it is also serves to help us reorder our priorities – to strip away the auxiliary and understand what life is all about. By denying the physical, we recognize that at our root we are spiritual people. Creature comforts are only a means towards our happiness, not our goal.

Later, after this basic message sinks in, we can do the real heavy repentance work. We can carefully analyze our behavior and figure out what we do right and what needs improvement. But the first step is to know ourselves, to look beneath all the comforts and superficialities we so often occupy ourselves with – and to figure out just whom we truly are.

Blog #2: 

  1. You don’t have crises; you have challenges.Dr Eger describes life as filled with suffering and struggle. Each challenge provides a chance to find hope in hopelessness. Every struggle is a gift, an opportunity to find light in the darkness. Dr. Eger states that, “My suffering made me stronger.”
  2. You always have choices.It is not what happens to you that is important; it is what you do with what happens to you. Life is difficult. “I will never forget what happened to me,” she shared, “I came to terms with it. I call it my cherished wound.” Life is a choice. It is much easier to die but, “I choose to live.”
  3. Live fully today.“I don’t take anything for granted. I have this one life to live and you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.” She describes life as being like one long day. “The morning sunshine isn’t coming back, so celebrate each moment.” Each second is precious.
  4. Pay attention to what you pay attention to.Your thoughts have the ability to create your reality, so be selective. Re-orienting your thoughts can impact how our lives play out since, “If you change your thinking, you change your life.” This was a lesson her mother taught her as they were being transported in the cattle cars to the death camp. Her mother told her, “No-one can take away from you what you put in your own mind.”
  5. The opposite of depression is expression, because what comes out of your bodies cannot make you ill. Dr. Eger spoke about the importance of feeling your feelings, that all our feelings are legitimate, and that there are no right or wrong emotions. “You can’t heal what you don’t feel,” so “Have a good cry. Go to the ocean and scream, or scream in the car and then laugh like a hyena.” She guarantees that grieving, feeling, and healing will make you feel better. Furthermore “My God gives me permission to feel any feelings without the fear of being judged.
  6. Love yourself and take care of yourself.Dr. Eger believes that we are born with love and with passion. However, throughout life we learn to hate and we learn the, ’us and them,’ mentality. “No one can replace you, so love yourself fully,” she advises. “When you get up in the morning do you look in the mirror and say, ‘I love you’?” Give up the need for approval and don’t let others bring you down.
  7. Be selective with your anger.Dr. Eger pointed out, “Once you get angry you give your power away. When you are angry you can’t hear you. I’m very selective with who gets my anger. Dissolve the anger; it is inconvenient, and I don’t like it. We must keep on walking.”
  8. Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself.“There is no forgiveness without rage.” Only God has the power to forgive. “I don’t have Godly powers,” she says. “Only God has the last word. I see forgiveness as a gift I give to me that I don’t carry. Forgiveness gives you ultimate spiritual freedom.”
  9. God is always present.Dr. Eger says, “I found God in Auschwitz. My God was always with me. God told me that everything is temporary, nothing is permanent.” Furthermore, “God has a plan for me, not only to survive but to guide other people and to be useful to them. My God is full of hope, full of light, full of love, and full of compassion.”
  10. Don’t give up. Dr. Eger describes herself as a woman of strength who is strong because of her Jewish identity. “We Jews never give up. My ancestors survived the desert and the Holocaust, so I say, ‘Keep climbing the mountain and don’t ever stop.’” Her life affirming mantra is, “Yes I am, Yes I can, and Yes I will.” After a lifetime of scaling the mountain Dr. Eger is still climbing, still giving to others, still trying to make the world a better place and still filled with curiosity about what will happen next.