Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – January/2012 – Sacred Time

The month of Tevet, falling in late December – early January, contains the fast day of the 10th of Tevet (this year, Thursday, January 5) commemorating the start of the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylonia and culminated in the destruction of the Temple.  In 1951, the Israeli chief rabbinate decided to turn this day into a memorial day for Shoah victims whose date of death is unknown.  Despite this, in 1954 the Israeli Keneset passed a law creating a Holocaust Memorial day on the 27th of Nisan, a day approximately midway between the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and the celebration of Israel Independence Day. Nevertheless, the 10th of Tevet remains the official Yahrtzeit day for victims of the Shoah whose actual Yahrtzeit is unknown.

Sometimes, Jews complain that Judaism has too many holidays.  I sympathize.  However, I think the human being has an psychological need to mark and celebrate time. Freethinkers have a calendar of events that often include seasonal celebrations, such as winter solstice parties, as well as regular gatherings. I sometimes wonder whether the over-commercialization of Christmas is related to the relative paucity of sacred days of the Christian calendar.  If our calendar doesn’t give us enough of a variety of days to celebrate, then we will take the celebrations that we have and expand them.

Sacred days are event magnets.  Rarely does a holiday commemorate only one event.  Most Jewish holidays, like the 10th of Tevet, have multiple associations.  The Biblical festivals, which began as Harvest festivals, accumulated additional layers of meaning.  the 9th of Av, the day on which both Temples were destroyed, is also the day on which Jews were exiled from Spain in 1492 as well as other national calamities and exiles.

As Americans, we live our lives by the rhythm of the secular calendar.  The day of the week often determines when we will wake up, where we will go, and what we will do.  We know what the next holiday is because that gives us a break from our routine to look forward to.

To live a dedicated Jewish life, we live our lives by the rhythms of the Jewish calendar. We are aware of the number of days until Shabbat, and that determines when we wake up, where we go, and who we see.  If we know the day of the month, then we also know the phase of the moon and approximately how many days until the next holiday, which not only breaks our routine but also most likely will require some preparation to celebrate properly.

The Jewish calendar ought not be something to resent (or worse, to ignore).  Rather than seeing it as an intrusion on our lives, we might see it as an opportunity to examine a different dimension of our lives.  In the short, cold days of winter, isn’t it nice to have Tu Bishvat (February 8), Purim (March 8), and even Pesah (April 7) to look forward to?

Why I Do — and Do Not — Fast on Asarah B’Tevet

Today is Asarah B’Tevet, the 10th of Tevet, the first of three fasts in the Jewish calendar cycle related to the destruction of the Temple(s) in Jerusalem.  2,596 years ago and again 1940 years ago, the Temple in Jerusalem, the religious center of Jewish ritual, was destroyed.  Asarah B’Tevet commemorates the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II.

Ironically, given effect of the flattening of history by the Jewish calendar, the 10th of Tevet is commemorated a mere 7 or 8 days following Hanukkah, the celebration of the rededication and purification of the Temple.

Why I fast on Asarah B’Tevet:

  • Part of me longs for the restoration of the Temple rituals.  I eat meat, and have always wondered what it would be like to be part of a Temple ritual at which I present the life of the animal to God and watch it be slaughtered, or witness the raw power of the Yom Kippur atonement ritual.  For the vegetarian imagination, how powerful would it be like to present the first fruits from the pear tree in my backyard?
  • Mourning for the loss of the Temple represents the longing for a messianic world in which God’s presence is universally felt, and acts of war and intentional evil and hatred no longer exist.

Why I do not fast on Asarah B’Tevet:

  • There is something absurd about mourning for the destruction of Jerusalem as if 1948 and 1967 never happened, as if Jerusalem was not a beautiful and vibrant city over 700,000 people.
  • In 1981 and 1985-6, my first trip to Israel and my year studying in Israel, going to the Kotel, the western wall of the Temple, was a spiritual experience.  I felt connected to God through the thousands of years of Jewish history, suffering and triumph, focused on the Temple as mythic center of the world.  Since then, however, the Kotel has become an increasingly politicized tool for the imposition of a narrow set of Hareidi values on the rest of the Jewish world.  The Kotel is no longer a gathering place for the Israeli public for the celebration of national events.  My sense of mourning for the lack of a Temple is overwhelmed by my sense of fear that were such a place to exist, it would be a tool of oppression rather than a means for bringing people together.

In the end, I do fast, for at least part of the day, less in mourning over Jerusalem and the Temple, and more in mourning for a world of pluralism and understanding, in which our sacred places do not belong to one denomination or stream,  but rather are shared within Judaism as well as outside.