Thursday, January 5, 2012

Asara b'Teves - Mourning the Loss of the Temple

Asara b'Teves (the 10th of Teves) is one of a series of four fast days through the Jewish year that commemorate the destruction of the Holy Temple. The other three fast days in this series are Shiva Asar B'Tamuz, Tisha B'Av, and Tzom Gedalia.

Asara b'Teves is the anniversary of the day Nebuchadnezzar began the siege on Jerusalem which ultimately led to the destruction of the first Temple. Asara B'Teves also commemorates two other unfortunate events that occurred around the same time of year. On the 8th of Teves, the Torah was translated into Greek by the decree of Ptolemy, king of Egypt. And on the 9th, Ezra and Nechemia died.

Like most fast days (except Yom Kippur and Tisha B'Av), the fast begins at the break of dawn and ends at nightfall. During this time we neither eat nor drink any food whatsoever, not even water.

It is important to recognize that the primary idea behind a fast is to meditate on the fact that these sufferings came upon us because of the sins of our ancestors, sins which we continue to commit, and that we must repent. Someone who fasts but spends the day in frivolous activity has completely missed the point.

No matter how religious we are, all of us occasionally struggle with doubts about Hashem and His control over the world. We've never witnessed an outright miracle, where the laws of nature were clearly set aside before the Will of the Creator. So, even though we believe in Hashem, our belief often lacks confidence. We have to constantly work on ourselves to believe.

A Jew living in the days of the Holy Temple didn't have this problem. In the Temple there were regular open miracles, some happened every day! For example, the pillar of smoke rose from the main altar, which could be seen from miles away, always rose straight up to the sky - like a literal pillar - no matter how windy the day was. This means that any Jew, living anywhere within eye-shot of the Temple Mount, could turn at any time and see an open, supernatural miracle.

Tragically, like Adam and Even in the Garden of Eden, our sins caused us to lose that close relationship with God. While this was certainly a punishment, it was also, perhaps more importantly, for our benefit. One who sins in the immediate presence of God, as it was when the Temple stood, is far more guilty than one who sins in a world, like ours today, where God is hidden from our perception. God took the Temple from us, not only to punish us, and not only because we failed to appreciate it and utilize it properly, but also to reduce our guilt.

When we pray, as we do several times a day, for the rebuilding of the Temple, what we are really asking for is a return to that close relationship with God. As such, we have to recognize that, for our own good, we cannot return to that relationship unless we abandon our sinful behavior. This is why the focus on these days of mourning is on teshuva - repenting for our sins. Our teshuva should particularly focus on those sins that, we are taught, were the root causes of the destruction. These include:
  • Unjustified hatred of our fellow Jews (sinas chinam). We should all work to feel love towards our fellow Jews, and also for all human beings.
  • Murder. We should work on ourselves to respect our fellow man and see in him the image of God that exists in every person. Even publicly shaming another person is likened to murder.
  • Idolatry. We should recognize that only God is the cause of good and bad. No person or thing can hurt you or help you unless it is HaShem’s wish. Nothing else has any real power in the world. We should also focus on developing our relationship with HaShem and to realize that He cares about each and every one of us and hears our prayers.
  • Immorality. Not only must we avoid outright acts of immorality, but we must train ourselves to avoid circumstances and situations that can lead us in that direction.
  • Torah study. We must recognize that the Torah is HaShem’s direct revelation to us. As such, it is fundamentally different from all other forms of knowledge. All the other sciences are the product of human knowledge and thought and can only express partial truth. New knowledge is constantly being found, and old knowledge is proven incorrect. However, the Torah is from HaShem. HaShem is perfect and knows all. Therefore the Torah is also perfect. From the Torah we learn what our purpose is in this world and how to achieve that purpose. Our attitude towards the Torah must express this recognition. We must not treat the Torah like just any other form of study.
Ultimately, the time will come when  God decides that we are ready to renew our relationship with on an even closer basis than ever before and He will send us moshiach to rebuild the Temple. At that time, the prophet tells us that these fast days will be transformed into joyous festivals.

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