The Siege of Jerusalem
This week is the fast of the 10th of Tevet. The Babylonian empire first laid siege to Jerusalem on the Tenth of Tevet, 423 BCE, cutting it off from the outside world. This not only laid the groundwork for the destruction of the Holy Temple but also caused horrific suffering for the besieged population of Jerusalem, thousands of whom died from starvation and disease. Another tragedy lies within this day, however, that is less obvious. Jerusalem is meant to be the source of inspiration to the world and the place from which Torah and the word of G-d reach out to everyone. A siege prevents supplies from entering a city, and it also prevents any communication from the city reaching the outside world. Ever since Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, laid siege to Jerusalem, the voice of this Holy city has been muted. It ceased to be the spiritual beacon for the world, it lost its role as the primary center of Torah study, and the “word of G-d” could no longer be heard coming forth from its gates. Other voices now issued from Jerusalem — the sounds of the Crusaders, the Moslems, and all her other conquerors and their cultures drowned out the sounds of Judaism. Even though the physical siege ended with the destruction of the Temple, Jerusalem remains under a spiritual siege. We fast on the Tenth of Tevet because the glory of Jerusalem as the moral and spiritual center of the world has not been fully restored — it is as if the siege of the Babylonians still continues to this day.
Fasting – Means to an End
About eighty days of the year we are commanded to feast, while we are forbidden to eat or drink for six days of the year — a 13 to 1 ratio of feasting to fasting. Rather than being ascetic, Judaism clearly rejoices in life and seeks to enjoy and also elevate the material world through the commandments. We have even been described as “gastrocentric,” since virtually all Jewish celebrations and festivals involve food. The purpose of the fast days is to achieve a certain mood or state of mind, not self- torture. Maimonides states:
The Torah commands us to cry out [to G-d]… when any tragedy strikes the community… This is part of the process of repentance — when a misfortune occurs and the community prays, cries out and assembles, they will realize that this has happened as a result of their sins… And the Sages further obligated the community to fast on the occasion of any tragedy…
The prophets mention the obligation to mourn the exile through fasting, but they stress that the fast is primarily a means to gather the entire community together for prayer:
Blow the shofar in Zion; decree a fast; call an assembly; gather the people; summon the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children… and let them say, “Have pity, G-d, upon Your people…”
In the book of Jonah, G-d calls upon Jonah to inform the citizens of the city of Nineveh that unless they changed their ways, corrected the injustices in their city and refrained from theft, G-d would destroy their city. The people of Nineveh took the warning seriously: The people of Nineveh believed in G-d, so they proclaimed a fast and donned sackcloth. Even the king proclaimed a public fast day, and concluded his command with the following words: Every man shall turn back from his evil way, and from the robbery that is in their hands. The Talmud points out that the fasting, sackcloth and mourning of the people of Nineveh were means to an end, vehicles to behavior modification. G-d considered the end result in His favorable judgment of Nineveh: And G-d saw their actions that they turned away from their evil way…
While the examples above are on a communal level, this principle applies to us as individuals as well. The end result of a day of fasting should be self-improvement and positive change, or at the very least, acknowledgement that there is a need for change. The external aspects of the fast days are important, but the internal aspects are even more critical. If a person observes the fast meticulously, does not let a drop of water pass his lips or a crumb of bread enter his mouth, but does not engage in reflection or introspection, he or she has missed the point. The prophet Joel rebuked the Jewish people for precisely this fault when he said, “Tear your hearts, not your garments!” Fasting for an entire day is certainly not pleasant, but this unpleasantness helps us to identify with the suffering of our fellow Jews throughout the exile. Through this process we should be inspired to improve our lives and become better people.