‘Why Are We Still Fasting?’

candlesThe Three Weeks

For twenty years before our recent aliya, my wife and I spent each summer in Israel. And so, sitting in our apartment during July and enjoying the cooling Jerusalem breeze is not one of those unique, new immigrant, experiences for us.

For that same reason, observing the mournful period of the three weeks, the days leading up to the fast of Tisha B’av, here in the city where it all happened is not unique for us either. I have always felt especially attached to the tragedies of the past when fasting and mourning here in Jerusalem where I can simply cross the street and view the Temple Mount or walk to the Old City, descend into the “Burnt House” and touch the ashes and soot from the conflagration of 70 CE.

But, in a certain way, it can be even more difficult to mourn the destruction of our Temple here in Jerusalem rather than elsewhere, a fact that became quite clear to me just one week ago.

As we were finishing the evening services, I was approached by a fellow worshipper who, “steeling” himself for abstinence required in the coming weeks of sadness, commented:

“I’m sorry. I can’t ‘get into’ them. Likewise, I have difficulty fasting on Tisha B’av; that is, difficulty in understanding why I must fast today. ”

He then proceeded to explain:

“I look around me and see new construction taking place throughout Jerusalem. I see a once sleepy, sparsely populated eighteenth century village facing the challenges of the twenty-first century as a modern city, boasting one million residents!

“Each morning I gaze at the beautiful skyline of this city and see magnificent structures standing next to restored historical sites; I walk through the Old City and see a city rebuilt from the ashes, from the destruction of 2,000 years, including the 19 years while under Jordanian control, and I am expected to fast and cry over the destruction of ירושלים??

“I am required to tearfully wail about the mourning city that is destroyed, scorned and desolate as the Tisha B’av prayer states??? I’m sorry. I just find that too difficult to do. ”

And he added, simply: “Why, after all, are we still fasting?”

There was much I had to say in response, because he wasn’t the first one to ask that question. I recall that soon after the Six-Day War people all over the world-and especially here in Israel- asked that same question. Jerusalem had been liberated just weeks earlier.

Jews from around the country-indeed, from around the world, were streaming to the Kotel, the Western Wall, that was now open to Jewish prayer for the first time in nineteen years. The entire Jewish world felt a euphoria they had not felt for many years. And they now were expected to mourn!

In fact, there were even individuals who went so far as to compose revised texts for the “nachem” blessing, omitting all references to a desolate, destroyed or scorned city, so that people could feel that the message of the day was more current and meaningful for them. So, they too asked: “Why are we still fasting?“

But even they were not the first ones to ask that question.

Soon after Jews returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple, a delegation came from Babylonia and asked the Temple priests and the prophet Zechariah: “Shall we fast in the fifth month (Av) as we have done in the past?”

These people, living in Babylonia a generation after the return to Jerusalem some 2,600 years ago, asked the same question! “Why are we still fasting?” “Why are we still mourning?” “We are back in Jerusalem again! -“We are rebuilding our Temple once more!” “Why are we still fasting?”

So you see, my friend’s question from last week was not at all unique, and it is on the lips of many today as it was in biblical times.

And that it understandable.

And so, I dedicate this blog to those who care enough to ask the question, not because they hope to “escape” the mourning strictures of this period nor because they wish to avoid fasting. I address those who want to understand and appreciate.

The first and perhaps foremost reason for our continued mourning is that we haven’t yet learned the lesson. The Second Temple was destroyed, we are told, because of baseless hatred of one to another. So we must consider: have we repaired those sins already?Have we ridded ourselves of such hatred?Of slanderous speech?Do we no longer find joy and satisfaction when those who disagree with us are proven wrong?Or are shamed?I know that, having experienced the last Israeli election as a citizen, we have a way to go in improving how we treat each other. So, if we have not yet removed these tendencies from our nature then that is enough reason to mourn and fast. In fact, that is the reason why the Rabbis of the Talmud tell us that any generation in which the Temple was not rebuilt must regard it as having been destroyed in their time, because if we had improved our ways, if we had removed those sins that caused its destruction, the Holy Temple WOULD be built!

Secondly, we must not forget that these fasts are mentioned in the Bible itself so they date back to the time of the prophets. Indeed, God promised the prophet Zechariah that He will change those days of fasting, mourning the loss of the Temple, into days of joy and celebration. What will it mean if we don’t observe these fasts? What would G-d then make into days of joy and celebration for us?

As the prophet Isaiah said, “Rejoice over Jerusalem…all those who mourn for her,” which led our Rabbis to state: “Those who mourn for Jerusalem will be privileged to see it rebuilt. ”

The truth is, these thousands of years of fasting and crying helped the Jew fulfill the psalmists charge: “If I forget you Jerusalem let my right hand forget its skill.” And implanted into the heart of every Jew the thirst for Zion, the love for our homeland and the yearning to return. It is what made it possible, even for the secular Jew, to reject Herzl’s offer of Uganda and to demand only Zion. We should not turn our backs on millennia-old practices without trying to find meaning in them for us today.

Lastly, as I contemplate my experiences as a Rabbi and teacher in the United States, I believe that there is another pressing reason to mourn and fast. The simple fact is:

Too many of us no longer perceive “Golus”, the exile, as a divine punishment and fail to realize the tragedy that it was, and is.

Today, it seems, Diaspora is OK! Exile is good! Golus can be fun!

There can be valid reasons for some people to remain in the Exile and not move to Israel. But far too many reject Aliya outright, never even contemplating it as a realistic possibility. Life is far too good and comfortable where we are.

In 1923, a few years after the Balfour Declaration had been issued (11/2/17), after the Ottoman Empire had been removed from the land and the British had opened the doors for Jewish immigration (years before they issued the notorious White paper), Chaim Weizmann was shocked at the lack of Aliya from the suffering Eastern European communities. Jewish settlement in Palestine, as envisioned by Herzl, was primarily meant for the Jewish communities suffering under the oppressive rule of Eastern European powers. Herzl himself never saw Palestine as HIS future home because he lived under the “enlightened” cultures of the west, Austria, Germany and France (whose Dreyfus trial and accompanying anti-Semitic demonstrations ironically led Herzl to write “Der Judenstaat” and found the Zionist movement). But the poor Jews of Eastern Europe, of Russia, Poland and the Ukraine, suffered terribly.

Even as late as the 20th century, after Herzl’s demise, pogroms were unleashed against the Jews in Kishinev, in Kiev, in Berdichev, in Proskurov. During the Ukrainian civil war alone, 1,326 pogroms were unleashed against the Jews in which 70,000(!) Jews were killed. A fact of which very few are aware, probably because the number pales when compared to 6,000,000.

The tragedy of Golus!

Understandably, therefore, Weizmann, in 1923, was disappointed with the lack of aliya from these suffering communities and he exclaimed: “JEWS, WHERE ARE YOU??”

Yet, I can understand the reluctance of the Jews then who faced serious questions. What, after all, was there in Palestine for them, especially when the doors were open for them to immigrate anywhere? And, indeed, millions emigrated to the United States. But Palestine?How could they protect themselves from the Arab pogroms that had just started?How would they support their families?And what type of religious life was there for them?

They had serious, and understandable, hesitations that made many choose to remain in the Diaspora, difficult as life was there.

But today, at a time when the dream of 2,000 years has been realized with the establishment of a Jewish government in the Jewish homeland, when economic opportunities abound, and when religious life flourishes, Weizmann’s question is still being asked as we wonder about the reluctance of so many to even consider moving to the Jewish State.

Some years ago, in the middle of the Second Intifada, a group of dedicated Zionists traveled to Israel, at a time when tourism was suffering terribly, in order to offer words of encouragement to their brethren. They spent Shabbat in a community made up mostly of Anglos-many of them recent immigrants.

During the Shabbat afternoon session, the local residents shared their love of the town and of their life in Israel and encouraged their guests to join them in Israel. In response, one of the American visitors declared:

“To be honest, I don’t know why I should consider Aliya. I have a wonderful life where I live. We have kosher restaurants, kosher caterers, kosher supermarkets, wonderful shiurim, outstanding rabbis and great schools. What do you have here that I don’t have back home?”

Everything is just fine here!

Diaspora is good!

Golus is fun!

Too many Jews just don’t realize the tragedy of the exile or the sanctity of our land.

“What do you have in Israel that I don’t have back home?”

“And the Jew will forget his roots and consider himself a secure citizen (in the Diaspora), believing that Berlin is Jerusalem……There then will come a tempest, a storm, when Jews will be uprooted from their homes and they will realize that they are indeed strangers in these lands. ”

These prophetic and chilling words were written by Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk in his landmark work, Meshech Chochmah, just some years before his death in 1926, only a few years before the Holocaust. They are words that haunt me to this day as they should haunt you as well.

The Three Weeks marks the tragic events that led up to the destruction of both Temples. But it is not about the past alone. Certainly, we mourn what happened, but we also mourn for what is still happening, and what could have been.

Golus is a punishment our ancestors prayed would end. The lack of a massive response to the establishment of the State must lead us to ask why.

And, perhaps, to reconsider.

And, yes, to fast.

About the Author
Rabbi Neil Winkler, founding rabbi of the Young Israel of Fort Lee, is a musmach of R.I.E.T.S. and a graduate of Yeshiva College and Bernard Revel Graduate School. He served the Fort Lee, N.J. community for 36 years and taught Jewish Studies in the Moriah School of Englewood as Coordinator of Tanach studies. Rabbi Winkler is the author of “Bringing the Prophets to Life,” an overview of the Early Prophets.
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