You might have seen some of the online back and forth: to fast or not to fast, that is the question. Why fast, they those who’d rather not. After all, we have our land and Jerusalem is our capital. Fasting might be like an unappreciative slap in the face of all the good we have. Fast, advocates those who do; it’s our tradition. And besides, the Temple has not been built yet, so no reason to be that joyful.
I love it when I discover that this is actually a very old conversation. The Book of Zachariah 7:3 we find the question, as the people want to know: ‘Should I weep in the fifth month (Av), separating myself, as I have done these so many years?’
To get some background, Zachariah lived during the time of Darius the Great, who some say might have been the son of Achashverosh and Queen Esther, and under whose reign, Jews were to return to their Land and begin rebuilding the Temple. Zechariah prophecies date to 520-518 BCEand center on the rebuilding of the Temple, which was now encouraged by the leaders of the empire in hopes that it would strengthen the authorities in local contexts. This policy was good politics on the part of the Persians, and the Jews viewed it as a blessing from God.
Clearly, questions now emerge about observances as things have changed, and same as today, the prophet is being asked about the fast for that old, first Temple, which many of those living in that present, didn’t experience and felt remote from. The difficulty with ‘out of the blue’ fast and mourning was always there, which is one of the reasons why the rabbis instituted a “backwards process” into mourning (in contradiction with personal mourning, where one goes from extreme sadness slowly back out to the world, the “three weeks” create a system to go “in”, ending with the worst day).
The answer the prophet delivers is fascinating. G-d says something like, ‘wait a minute, are you fasting for me??’
Fasting is not something we do in order to make G-d better. We’re supposed to fast in order to make the world better – in order to feel others pain, remember that there is suffering, brokenness, disconnectedness. We’re supposed to fast in order to step aside to think about what we can do to fox the disconnectedness around us; to be motivated to do better.
Ah, you might say, how can my fasting possibly help with anything??
And the answer – in question, of course – would be: ‘ok, fine; fasting might not help. But, if our fasting doesn’t help, does our eating, or doing anything else, help’??
In other words, let us be careful with the ‘nothing I do matters’. We should not let ourselves get off easy and think that our actions don’t manner’. Tish’a Be’Av is an opportunity to do some soul searching reexamine what it is that we can do that does make a positive difference. The sages emphasize “ahavat chinam”, love unconditionally, which is a grand goal, but even just small acts of kindness can make a big difference. Then, says the prophet, all these fasts will eventually become days of joys, gladness and cheerful seasons (there 8:16-19).
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I have always liked the image of Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy, giving his last loving words of wisdom, some rebuke, some warnings, lots of advice, family memories, poetry and blessings, like a parent talking to his child as the latter takes off to a new adventure. I have identified with it in the past here, as my kids went off to summer camp, college and Israel. I almost got used to that role, except today, on the eve of my last Shabbat in Oakland, (at least for a while ), I am noticing that it flipped: I am the one with the journey ahead and my family and friends are the ones with the advise and the good byes (and the warnings, and the advice and the poems and the blessings…).
I have lived in California so long now – longer than anywhere else, including Israel – that at a recent conversation, someone told me I am “such a California girl”. I came for a short visit more than 30 years ago, and that turned into a long love affair. The views f the Golden State became my home. The beaches, mountains, country roads, oaks and redwoods, flowers and animals, from the mother and babies skunk who lived under our house to the deer at the window and on. I now can fluently babble about which highway to take where, and talk about other “stuff” that Californians think everybody in world cares about like avocados and wine, different kinds of yoga, skiing in a t-shirt at 68F, “the surf”, slack-lining, volcanoes, rain, water, drought and so much more. Most of all, I have been blessed by the people I met here. I think of so many dear friends I made, not excluding my kids who were all born here. On this last Shabbat, I’m in my friends’ kitchen, cutting onions with goggles (great invention!) but my eyes are teary anyway. I already miss you.
Shabbat Shalom and tbc…