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Parshas Vayechi (5774)

Asarah B'Teves: The Writing on the Wall

One of the four main non-Biblical fast days on the Jewish calendar is today, Friday, December 13th. It is known as Asarah B’Teves (the 10th day of the Hebrew month of Teves). On this fateful day over 2400 years ago, King Nebuchadnezzar began the siege of Jerusalem that resulted in the destruction of the First Temple three years later. As the Torah relates:

“It happened in the ninth year of [Zedekiah’s] reign, in the tenth month, on the tenth of the month, that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylonia, he and his entire army, came [to wage war] against Jerusalem and encamped near it, and built a siege tower around it. The city came under siege until the eleventh year of King Zedekiah. On the ninth [day] of the [fourth] month the famine in the city became critical; there was no food for the people of the land. The city was breached….” (II Kings 25:1-4).

Maimonides writes in Mishnah Torah (Laws of Fasts 5:1):

“There are days when the entire Jewish people fast because of the calamities that occurred to them then, so as to awaken [their] hearts and initiate [them in] the paths of repentance. This will serve as a reminder of our wicked conduct and that of our ancestors, which resembles our present conduct, and therefore brought these calamities upon them and upon us. By reminding ourselves of these matters, we will repent and improve [our conduct], as [Leviticus 26:40] states: ‘And they will confess their sin and the sin of their ancestors.’”

The Chayei Adam in Klal 33 adds:

'Therefore, each person is obligated to examine his deeds and to repent during these [fast] days. As it is written of the people of Nineveh: 'And the Lord saw their actions' (Jonah 3:10), upon which the Rabbis say: 'It is not said, He saw ‘their sackcloth and fasting’, but rather ‘their actions’ ‘ (Ta'anis 15a). We see hence that the purpose of fasting is repentance. Therefore, the people who fast but engage in pointless activities, grasp what is of secondary importance and miss what is essential. Nevertheless, repentance alone without fasting is also insufficient, because there is a positive commandment of Rabbinic origin to fast on this day.'

Although Asarah B’Teves is considered one of the “minor” fasts, it should not be taken lightly as it is the only fast that can occur on a Friday (as it does this year). In fact, if it were to occur on a Shabbos, it would be observed on that day as well, earning itself a standing similar to Yom Kippur.

The question that needs to be asked is why this fast day is different than all other minor fast days to the point that even were it to fall out on Friday or Shabbos we would still be required to fast. [Generally speaking, we don’t fast on Friday or Shabbos as it takes away from the spirit of Shabbos.]

After all, the only thing that actually happened on the Tenth of Teves was that the siege of Jerusalem began, which culminated with the destruction of the Holy Temple - so that it was really only a prelude of worse things to come, but not so bad in of itself.

I believe the answer is as follows. The Jewish people, led by Joshua ben Nun, entered the Land of Israel and dwelled there for 850 years - 440 years until King Solomon built the Holy Temple and an additional 410 years that the Temple stood – until Nebuchadnezzar came into Israel, destroyed the Temple, and exiled all the Jews to Babylon.

When the Jews first entered the Land, they came there with the hope and expectation of staying there forever, as G-d has promised them (see Genesis 13:15). However, G-d made their presence in the Holy Land conditional upon their following the mitzvos (commandments) of the Torah, as it says: “You shall observe all My decrees and all My ordinances and perform them; then the Land to which I bring you to dwell will not disgorge you” (Leviticus 20:22).

After the Jews broke their covenant with G-d and did not observe His decrees and ordinances, G-d sent them prophet after prophet to warn them to repent and change their ways, but they ignored all the warnings and continued to sin as before, until G-d finally sent Nebuchadnezzar to punish them.

As we read in II Chronicles (36:14-16)

“Also, all the chiefs of the priests and the people committed many treacherous acts, like all the abominations of the nations, and they defiled the House of the Lord, which He had hallowed in Jerusalem. And the Lord G-d of their forefathers sent upon them through His messengers, sending them early and often, for He had pity on His people and on His abode. But they mocked the messengers of G-d, and despised His words and scoffed His prophets, until the Lord's wrath ascended upon His people beyond remedy.”

But even then, G-d didn’t punished them right away, but instead gave them three additional years during which the siege was laid by Nebuchadnezzar around the Holy City so that they could still repent and come back to Him.

As we are taught in Yalkut Shimoni in the beginning of Eichah: “When that wicked man [Nebuchadnezzar] and his fellow kings came to Jerusalem, they thought they would capture it in no time. However, G-d strengthened the inhabitants of Jerusalem until ‘the third year’ – perhaps they would do teshuvah”.

The Jews of that time were able to see the writing on the wall – they knew that just outside the gates to the Holy City stood Nebuchadnezzar and his powerful army ready to destroy them – and they had a golden opportunity to save themselves and their beloved city and Holy Temple. Yet they ignored all the warnings and exhortations of G-d’s prophets and messengers and continued to head on a suicidal path which ultimately led to their exile and destruction.

Thus what happened to our ancestors on Asarah B’Teves was indeed the most tragic calamity of all – the fact that the Jewish people saw what was coming to them and had every opportunity to avoid it and to change the course of history through simply changing their errant ways – but they chose to ignore it all.

And this is a powerful message for all of us. How many times do we see the writing on the wall – whether it’s a marriage that is headed south but can still be saved, or a chain smoker who gets a heart attack and knows how bad it is for him, or a child that is getting turned off from Judaism but is still somewhat connected etc. etc. – but we tragically choose to ignore it?

Let us take a lesson from the very serious fast day of Asarah B’Teves and make sure that we do what we have to do – before it’s too late.

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