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A People Under Seige (A thought for the Fast of Asarah b’Tevet)

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Asarah b’Tevet, which we are observing today, is the first of three fasts in the Jewish calendar that chart the traumatic event of the destruction of the First Temple. Asarah b’Tevet, (10th Tevet), marks the beginning of the Babylonian siege under Nebuchadnezzar, Shivah Asar b’Tammuz, (17th Tammuz), the first breach in the city walls, and Tisha b’Av, (9th Av) the destruction of the Temple. There’s a prolonged period lasting two or three years and obviously, it’s a very sad day that was marked even in biblical times as a fast day.

It’s also associated with two other historical events. One tragic, and one perhaps just natural, which happened on the 8th and 9th of Tevet. The 8th of Tevet is the anniversary of the first translation of Tanach, of the Hebrew Bible, into another language, into Greek under Ptolemy II in Alexandria in the third century BCE. The Rabbis, rather than viewing this as a major achievement, saw it as a terrible tragedy. It was an occurrence as devastating, they said, as the day the Israelites made the Golden Calf. And the 9th of Tevet is known, at least to some in our tradition, as the anniversary of the death, the yahrzeit, of Ezra, who renewed the Torah in the life of the people when he and Nehemiah returned from Babylon.

Is there a connection between these three events? I think there is. Asarah b’Tevet represents the Jewish people under siege, and there were always two ways of thinking about how to respond to being under siege. Do you attempt to acclimatise and acculturate yourself to the world around you, the world that seems threatening? That’s the translation enterprise. Or do you strengthen yourself internally by strengthening Torah and spirituality in the life of the people? That was the response of Ezra and those like him.

From the perspective of history, we can see that one response is really tragic. Some felt the need to recast Judaism into Greek categories, and the truth is that it led, in quite a profound sense, to the birth of antisemitism. It became known in Alexandria that Jews were telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt, which upset the Egyptians immensely and led to an Egyptian Priest called Manetho writing a terrible revisionist account of the Exodus in which he argued that the Jews were lepers, that Pharaoh wanted to get rid of the Jews, and that Moses, the leader of the Jews, instead of saying, “Let my people go,” said, “Let my people stay.” Manetho is probably historically one of the most important characters in the genesis and the history of antisemitism. Trying to be like other people really doesn’t work.

Whereas the Ezra achievement of strengthening the inner resources of the people had consequences, positive ones, that last to this day. He really laid the foundations for Judaism as a living civilisation that would survive defeat, exile, and every other external threat. Ezra’s actions have allowed us to continue to survive, and thrive, through everything.

I think that is really the lesson of Asarah b’Tevet. Antisemitism has clearly returned to the Jewish world, particularly to Europe and to America, and Jews feel it deeply. Asarah b’Tevet represents this feeling of being under siege. But the way to react is not to, as it were, submit to the cultural imperatives of the larger society and simply try to disappear. This doesn’t work. The truer response is the Ezra response, to strengthen ourselves spiritually. Because as Zechariah said, in the Haftarah of Chanukah, Lo b’chayil v’lo bakoach, ki im b’ruchi. ‘The Jewish people survives not by strength or by power’ – though those are certainly necessary – ‘but by My Spirit says the Lord.’ (Zechariach 4:6)

Let us take Asarah b’Tevet as a moment for strengthening our own spirit eternally. And the end result will be that we will outlive the siege and play our part in the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Jewish people.

To all those fasting today, I wish you a Tzom kal, an easy Fast.