When I was a child, the 10th of Tevet didn’t mean much to me. I often thought that had the fast days commemorating the destruction of the Temple been siblings in a sitcom, the 10th of Tevet would have been that awkward one, the one who never knows what to do with his hands or where to stand in a room full of people.
The Ninth of Av, commemorating the destruction itself, always impressed me. Every year, we sat on the ground to mourn together, and the ancient words of Jeremiah’s Lamentations clawed my flesh.
The 17th of Tammuz, commemorating the breaching of Jerusalem’s walls, evoked terrible images. Even as a child, I shuddered to think of the burning homes and the battles in the streets, the summer light glinting on red swords and the wails of the bereaved and the wounded.
The 10th of Tevet, however, marks an event that I couldn’t relate to: the beginning of the long Babylonian siege on Jerusalem. When the Babylonian army gathered around the city, the bloody swords and burning ruins were still over a year into the future. Why should we mark this day at all, I wondered. Why add another fast day to the list?
As a mother, I think of that day in that still-whole Jerusalem, and shiver.
I think of that day and I see a woman. She holds her infant in her arms, and knows: This child’s days are numbered. The food supplies will run out. The milk will stop flowing.
She holds a child in her arms, and the child is alive. But death, an ever-present promise, is in her arms as well.
Beside this woman, her oldest son is playing with a wooden sword. She smiles at him, but she knows: Sooner or later, he will need to wield a metal blade. Will his arms be strong enough? Or will one of the swords gleaming beyond the wall, gleaming in that very moment, be the one to take his life?
Her daughter is there too, a maiden-to-be. The woman pats her hair, and knows: Her daughter won’t bloom into a well-fed, healthy woman. And if the walls will fall, who will hold her daughter, then?
This woman isn’t any one particular woman. She is everywhere, a constant in the ever-changing tale of human strife. She held her children through every season of slaughter, through all the eras of war. She’s boarding flimsy boats as we speak now, holding her children, wondering whether all of them will make it to the other side. She’s watching her grown children joining armies. She’s hugging starving babies in Aleppo, too dehydrated to shed tears.
And as a mother, her despair shakes me. Regardless of her particular plight and circumstances, her story is in some ways my own.
When we mourn the fall of Jerusalem’s walls and the destruction of our Temple, we commemorate particular geopolitical events. And our history supplied us with an interpretive context for understanding them: the walls fell and the Temple was ruined because we sinned and filled our city with bloodshed and idolatry and hatred. The heavenly Jerusalem won’t stand where the earthly Jerusalem is corrupt.
But the 10th of Tevet is different. The lag between the beginning of the siege and everything that followed — the very lag that made this fast difficult to relate to as a kid — allows it to stand on its own, separate from the story of corruption and destruction. And it allows us to reflect on human suffering without immediately applying an interpretation that makes sense of it, or drawing conclusions for our time.
Come the Ninth of Av, the grand story will take center stage again. I will reflect upon injustice. I will think of right and wrong. I will think about the kind of city we should aspire to, the kind of policies we should implement.
But tomorrow, on the 10th of Tevet, I will think about a woman with an infant in her arms. I will think about her fear and uncertainty and despair. I will think of her, wherever she stands now, be it in ancient Jerusalem or in modern day Aleppo, in war-torn Africa or, yes, even in Gaza. I will think of her, and I’ll know: Regardless of right and wrong and truth and policy, this woman deserves my compassion, and my thoughts.
We need days like this. We need times to pause and acknowledge the pain of other people, no matter the context, no matter what we choose to do next.