On Asarah b’Teves we began the descent into galus, questioning if we’d been abandoned
I used to sail energetically through fast days. Then I encountered motherhood, and for years I was pre-birth, postpartum, or simply too overwhelmed with needy little people to forgo food. Since then, my fasting proficiency has been in sharp decline; I never make it through without a nap and have learned to anticipate a mammoth post-fast headache.
What’s the rationale behind fasting?
The Selichos of Asarah B’Teves provide a clue: “Because our forefathers trusted in Hashem… they prospered and grew and produced. When they thrust Him away and related to Him with keri (happenstance), they deteriorated until the tenth month.”
Ohr Gedalyahu reads this piyut as an obvious reference to the Rambam’s explanation for our communal fasts. The Rambam designates fasting as a positive mitzvah from the Torah. He explains that when plagued with misfortune, we must turn to Hashem and recognize that our affliction is rooted in our own misdeeds. What we do matters.
“However, if we refrain from crying out, and instead say, ‘This misfortune is a natural occurrence of the world, it is happenstance,’ we engage in ruthless brutality, [for we then] maintain our wicked behavior and our misfortune will be multiplied, as it is written, ‘You have attended Me with keri (happenstance).’ ” (Rambam, Hilchos Taanis 1:1–3)
According to the Rambam, fasting should be our natural response to misfortune, an effective method to jumpstart the teshuvah process. Both the Rambam and the Selichos indicate keri, interpreting events as casual coincidence, as the root of our misfortune. When we misconstrue challenges — both public and private — as nature running its inevitable course, we distract ourselves from the true Cause, and from the change demanded of us.
Asarah B’Teves is a day shadowed in misfortune. It marks the beginning of the end of Bayis Rishon. Despite the many caveats, the anguished cries of our neviim, Klal Yisrael had been loath to accept the specter of Churban.
Until the Tenth of Teves.
On this day, our adversaries lay siege to Yerushalayim, imprisoning our people within its city walls. Klal Yisrael abruptly confronted the twin realities of destruction and exile and for the very first time, we voiced the inconceivable: Has Hashem left us? Has He stripped us of our privileged royal status?
Generations later, on this same day, another tragedy unfolded — the Targum Hashivim. The Greeks conscripted 70 Torah scholars to translate the Torah into Greek. Why was the translation of the Torah a tragedy worthy of fasting?
The Midrash Tanchuma (Ki Sisa) explains: when Hashem commanded Moshe Rabbeinu to transcribe the Torah, Moshe asked to transcribe the Mishnah as well. Hashem refused, explaining that in the future a gentile nation will translate the Torah into Greek and audaciously claim, “Anu Yisrael, we are Yisrael!” Hashem will challenge them to prove their identity: “The nation in possession of My secrets, the Torah shebe’al peh, is My true nation!” Yisrael, the sole bearers of Torah shebe’al peh, will be recognized as the authentic Yisraelim.
Nonetheless, the damage had been done.
Indeed, we have endured interminable suffering at the hands of the Romans, successors to Greece. Their descendants popularized the doctrine of replacement theology, otherwise known as supersessionism, which asserts that the Christian church has chas v’shalom superseded Klal Yisrael as Hashem’s chosen people. They claim, “Anu Yisrael, we are the true nation of G-d! We are the purpose of creation! See how the Jews have been tortured and exiled, persecuted and scorned. Is this not an indication that G-d has abandoned them and chosen us in their stead?”
According to the Ramchal (Daas Tevunos) the gentile nations embrace five minei svaros ra’os, five wicked fallacies of emunah, which, tragically, seeped into our belief system as well.
The fourth fallacy is eerily familiar: “Kesef nimas karu lahem — The Jewish Nation is spurned silver!” They have sinned to the point of no return and Hashem has chas v’shalom rejected them for other nations. The endless galus corroborates this evil belief; we have been cast from tragedy to tragedy, anguish piled high in a throbbing pillar of pain. The haunting gentile refrain “Anu Yisrael!” echoes from every misfortune we endure, casting the vulnerable among us into terrible doubt: Has Hashem abandoned us?
On Asarah B’Teves we began the descent into galus, questioning if Hashem had abandoned us forever. On Asarah B’Teves, with the Torah’s translation, our claim to the title Yisrael was challenged.
Where did that leave us then? How does that affect us now?
Maze of Pain
We’ve all encountered private moments of pain where life’s events are so inscrutable, so utterly lacking rational explanation, that we start to wonder: Does Hashem still care about me? Why has He not rescued me from this whirlpool of pain?
Sometimes when we contemplate the enormous challenges of neighbors and friends, we wonder: Will He extricate them before it’s too late?
Centuries after the tragedies of Asarah B’Teves transpired, when it seems to us the vicissitudes of life are without map or marker but simply unfortunate happenstance, when we wonder if perhaps Hashem has left us to chance, the words of Selichos ring true.
“When they… related to Him with keri they deteriorated, until the tenth month.” The legacy of Asarah B’Teves, with its twin tragedies, continues to haunt us. Because the feelings of abandonment, the niggling doubt, “Does He really care about me?” can lead us to think it’s all just mikreh, happenstance. And, as the Rambam explains, relating to tragedy from the passive perspective of keri is not only wrong, it’s “ruthless brutality,” because it distracts us from taking decisive action and instead leaves us mired in helpless misfortune.
The fast of Asarah B’Teves also serves as a rejection of the assertion “kesef nimas.” Our suffering is never an indication that we’ve chas v’shalom forfeited our status as Hashem’s beloved children. On the contrary, the trials we endure are Hashem’s reminder that we are forever His princely Nation, but we can and must do better, and He eagerly awaits our teshuvah.
Our rejection of “kesef nimas” has another component as well.
“Atah bechartanu mikol ha’amim,” Hashem chose us, loves us, and raised us high above all other nations of the world. But more importantly, He endowed us with the gift of significance — everything we do matters.
What other nation has the system of rain and drought synchronized with their good deeds, or lack thereof?
What other nation affects crop production with their adherence to the laws of Shemittah?
What other nation can annul decrees with the power of their tefillah?
What other nation can claim their actions, whether national or individual, truly matter?
To accept “kesef nimas” is to abrogate the outstanding power of both the nation of Yisrael and the individual within Yisrael. If we accept the Rambam’s assertion that our behavior can be the source of misfortune, then we must also acknowledge the inverse: Our mitzvos, tefillah, and teshuvah are mighty tools that bestow the world with brachah. Unlike the other nations who abide by mikreh; for Klal Yisrael, it matters.
Our fast days in general, and Asarah B’Teves specifically, remind us that even when things seem most arbitrary, misfortune is never mikreh. Instead of sinking into inertia, we’re galvanized to recognize that Hashem is drawing us firmly to teshuvah. And if we believe, as the nation of Yisrael, that our actions matter, then let us use this gift to actualize the dream we’ve yearned for, two thousand years and counting.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 722)
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