Tuesday, January 6, 2009

[not so minor] Fast Days -- Reflections on Asarah B'Tevet 5769

I am always been taken aback when the four sunrise-to-sunset fast days in the Jewish calendar are referred to as minor. While they may pale in comparison to Yom Kippur and Tisha B'av, each lasting twenty-five hours and more intensively focusing solely on repentance and mourning, respectively. But the four other fasts, including yesterday's, present unique opportunities for us, on both individual and communal levels, to reflect on our history, and use it as a springboard to improve our present and future. Thus, as opposed to the confusing term of 'Minor Fast Day,' I prefer the traditional title of תענית ציבור, translated as Public Fast Day, which better reflects the purpose of these four days, spread almost evenly through the year. As described beautifully be Rabbi Wayne Allen in a column in last week's Canadian Jewish News, these days serve as checkpoints for us on our journey towards tikkun olam and tikkun hamidot, repairing the world and improving our personal actions. As we are not required or even necessarily encouraged to abstain from work on these days, they serve as a conduit to bringing this process of self reflection and examination directly into our daily routines of work, school and interpersonal relationships
The Tenth of Tevet, which was established in commemoration of Nebuchadnezzar's siege of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, came at a sadly appropriate time this year. As the western Negev lives daily under the threat of rocket attacks, and Israeli soldiers, many of them my age risk their lives to curb the terrorist infrastructure in Gaza. A day of fasting and reflection, in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Israel made this day all the more meaningful.
As I often enjoy doing, I would like to briefly examine the deep and powerful meaning behind a few elements of the fast day liturgy. Besides for the well know and poignant pleas of the אבינו מלכנו prayer, in which the requests for God to have mercy on our families and children and to act for the sake of those killed sanctifying His name were especially appropriate, I am also drawn to the words of the Anenu, a paragraph inserted in the Amidah on fast days.
In it, we ask God to answer us, כי בצרה גדולה אנחנו, for we are in great distress. While I am not always personally in distress when saying this prayer (though my stomach may be), I recall that there are always those among us, in our concentric circles of those we care about, who are in need of prayer: a friend or relative in need of healing or going through a tough time, our brethren in Israel, or those being persecuted in Darfur, among others. In Shacharit, this supplication is only recited by the reader, in order that a community member will not recite and be unable to complete the fast. But by Minha, when it is recited both privately and publicly, the words really come alive: 'Do not hide your face from us, do not ignore our supplication; Be close to hear our plea, may Your kindness be there to comfort us.' Even if we are in personal distress, the language and recitation makes it clear that the individual is never alone, as we ask God to answer us.

In my mind, the climax of the fast day and its liturgy is found in the words of Isaiah 55 and 56, recited as the haftarah at mincha. This continues the theme of bringing the sacred into our daily lives, as other than these four days and Tisha B'av, haftarot are only read on Shabbat and holidays on which work is forbidden. The opening words of the portion serve as a wake-up call from the bustle and hubbub of our daily lives:
דִּרְשׁוּ ה', בְּהִמָּצְאוֹ; קְרָאֻהוּ, בִּהְיוֹתוֹ קָרוֹב.
Seek the Lord, where He may be found; call unto Him when He is near. (Is 55:6)

Although we may just have run to gather for tefillot from the office or classroom, and not in our Shabbat finest, we are nevertheless told that God is near and waiting for us to engage with God, Torah and our community - unlike what some may think, we do not need to leave the world to find the divine, but its potential is there within us.
and further on, we read:
. כֹּה אָמַר ה', שִׁמְרוּ מִשְׁפָּט וַעֲשׂוּ צְדָקָה: כִּי-קְרוֹבָה יְשׁוּעָתִי לָבוֹא, וְצִדְקָתִי לְהִגָּלוֹת
אַשְׁרֵי אֱנוֹשׁ יַעֲשֶׂה-זֹּאת, וּבֶן-אָדָם יַחֲזִיק בָּהּ--שֹׁמֵר שַׁבָּת מֵחַלְּלוֹ, וְשֹׁמֵר יָדוֹ מֵעֲשׂוֹת כָּל-רָע
Thus says God, keep the laws and do justice, for my deliverance is near to come, and my righteousness will be revealed. Happy is one who does this, and the human being who holds fast to it, keeping the Shabbat from profanation, AND keeping their hand from all evil.(56:1-2)

After the command to seek God, we are given the recipe to achieve the desired affect. For deliverance is close and imminent, following the mitzvot and acting in a just manner. But the cure to a potential misunderstanding is presented immediately in the next verse, before it could be exploited, as it too often still is. We are clearly told: keeping the mitzvot includes embracing shabbat, but also keeping from all forms of evil, ranging from laziness to gossip, deceit and dishonesty in dealing with others. The unfortunate case of Bernard Madoff immediately comes to mind - one who on the surface seemed to be an upstanding member of the Jewish community sitting on the board of Yeshiva University and supporting other charitable endeavors, but in reality had been carrying out a destructive scheme which enriched himself while hurting numerous individuals and organizations. The prophecy of Second Isaiah reminds us that this is not the behavior that God desires, and keeping ritual obligations alone is not what is asked of us. But even those of us who don't have the distinction of Bernard Madoff can always do more to improve our behavior and bring a greater sense of justice to the world. Then, we can look and hope to the prophet's ultimate promise:
וַהֲבִיאוֹתִים אֶל-הַר קָדְשִׁי, וְשִׂמַּחְתִּים בְּבֵית תְּפִלָּתִי--עוֹלֹתֵיהֶם וְזִבְחֵיהֶם לְרָצוֹן, עַל-מִזְבְּחִי: כִּי בֵיתִי, בֵּית-תְּפִלָּה יִקָּרֵא לְכָל-הָעַמִּים.
Then, I will bring them to my holy mountain, and make them joyous in my house of prayer; their sacrifices and offerings will be accepted upon my altar, for my house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples.

I hope that we will all be able to gain a greater appreciation for our Public Fast days, and emerge with a greater commitment to walking in God's paths by engaging in social justice.

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