Of all the fast days that we commemorate throughout the year, Asarah B’Tevet is perhaps the most perplexing. The historical context upon which the fast is based is that this was the day when the blockade of Jerusalem was imposed. But it was more than three years later that the blockade culminated in the destruction of the Temple that we commemorate on Tisha B’Av. The destruction is a day that certainly deserves national mourning and fasting, but does the blockade, an event which was solely the precursor to the eventual destruction, deserve a similar level of commemoration and sadness — and what meaning can it have for us today?
In learning about this fast day, our sages teach us about three major events that took place during this period of the eighth, ninth, and tenth of Tevet. On the eighth of the month, the translation of the Torah was completed into Greek. On the ninth, Ezra the Scribe died and the tenth was the day of the blockade.
But what is the connection between these three events?
Perhaps one of the greatest challenges that we face as a people — both in modern times and ancient — is how and when to adjust to the norms of the outside world — and when we must make the decision to distance ourselves from cultural and social forces that could cause us harm.
One of the first manifestations of that challenge came when the Torah was translated into Greek. Our ancestors were faced with the question of whether such an act would dilute the significance of our holiest book by exposing it to the masses or alternatively was this a blessed development which would could enlighten humanity?
This dynamic serves to distinguish between Ezra’s actions in writing down the Torah, which had previously been only spoken, from the translation into Greek. For Ezra’s act also inherently “publicized” the Torah by making it accessible to the masses.
But the key difference is that he was motivated by a spiritual desire to preserve the sanctity of the words he was writing.
The Greek translators had no such reservations and their thinking was only of the interests of the Greeks and not of any connection to tradition or service of Hashem. The negative impact of this translation could not necessarily be realized when it occurred but centuries later we know that by manipulating and altering texts for different uses the effects can be disastrous.
Which brings us to the blockade.
Unlike the actual destruction of the Temple which was immediately appreciated as a devastating event in our nation’s history, the blockade’s significance could never have been understood when it was taking place.
So too our relationship with the world today and how we choose to interact with it.
When we and our children embrace outside forces, whether they be media, culture, entertainment or any of the thousands of stimuli that come from beyond our Jewish existences and into our personal spaces, we are unable to appreciate what the longer-lasting impact might be.
For while some might be positive and even necessary, others can be wholly damaging.
Therefore Asarah B’Tevet is perhaps a day when we are asking for Heavenly support to address that challenge.
A day when we are both acknowledging that the outside world has much to teach us, make our lives better and even inspire a greater connection to Hashem.
But at the same time, we must remain ever-cognizant of our need to preserve ourselves as a nation that takes pride in its uniqueness and in our Torah to act as the ultimate guide for how we lead our lives.