Rosh Hodesh Tevet Torah Essay
The Edythe Benjamin חיה בת שלמה beloved mother of Barbara Hanus
Rosh Hodesh Tevet Torah Essay
Heading from Darkness- Returning to Light
This month begins on a high in the midst of Chanukah celebrations, yet it contains one of the darkest dates in Jewish history. The month of Tevet begins the mourning period of the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash. How could it be that a month that starts in pure joy, heralded by the Hallel of Chanukah, the retelling of the story of Hashem’s mercy and greatness in Al Hanissim and the lighting of the Chanukah candles, can lead to commemorating days so dark that thousands of years later we still feel their impact? How are we supposed to go from such joy to such sorrow?
The tenth of Tevet commemorates the day that Nevuchadnetzar Melech Bavel laid siege to Yerushalayim, during the times of the First Temple. According to our set calendar Asara b’Tevet should never fall out on Shabbat. However, the Abudraham (Rabbi David ben Yosef) holds that were that to happen Asara b’Tevet would override Shabbat! Interestingly the other three fast days we have during the year that commemorate destruction of the Temple would not.
If we compare all four fasts that relate to the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, it seems strange that of the four only Asara b’Tevet would have this status. Tishah b’Av marks the day both Batai Mikdash were destroyed; Tzom Gedalya- the day that commemorates the assassination of Gedalya ben Achikam and with his death was the end of any semblance of our political control in Land of Israel; and the 17th of Tamuz the day that the walls of Jerusalem were breached. It seems strange that Asara B’ Tevet is the only one that would override Shabbat.
The other three fasts mentioned above are all dates that mark the final end of something. When the walls of Yerushalayim fell the physical security of the people was lost, the delineation of the holy city’s boundaries was gone. Tzom Gedalya marks the end of Jewish leadership in Eretz Yisrael, for the first time since Yehoshua entered the land with Am Yisrael. And of course Tisha b’Av is the saddest and most painful of days, commemorating the destruction of not only one Beit Hamikdash but of two.
The Rambam writes that the fast of Asara b’Tevet commemorates the siege of Yerushalayim by Nebuchadnezzar, as discussed in Melachim II (1:25) and Yirmiyahu (4:52). While the beginning of the siege was undoubtedly catastrophic, at first glance it doesn’t seem to have been such a tragedy. The Avodah of the Beit HaMikdash did not stop, Korabanot were still brought, and the daily Avodah went on as it always had. Why then should this fast day alone have such stringency when the other fast days commemorate events which are seemingly so much worse?
The Gemarah (Taanit 29) relates that when discussing the date of Tisha b’Av, Rav Yochanan said that had he been present during the generation that instituted Tisha b’Av, he would have established it on the 10th of Av as opposed to the 9th because on the 10th most of the heichal was burned. The Gemara concludes that Tisha b’Av was established on the 9th of Av because that day marked the beginning of the destruction.
According to the B’nei Yissachar this is why we mark the 10th of Tevet. This day not only marks the day Yerushalayim was besieged, but it marks the beginning of the end. The 10th of Tevet commemorates the beginning of what would ultimately bring the fall of Am Yisrael and the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash. The siege would end with the penetration of the walls on the 17th of Tamuz and the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash on the 9th of Av.
In Rosh HaShanah (31a) it discusses that when Am Yisrael started to sin, the Shechinah began to depart, little by little, slowly leaving her resting place from above the Aron HaKodesh. First hovering above her usual seat, then as the people continued to sin slowly moving from place to place within the Kodesh Kedoshim. Eventually the Shechinah left the Beit HaMikdash, moving into the city of Yerushalayim, waiting for the people to do better, to be better so she could return to her regular seat.
However as the stubborn nation refused to listen to the calls of the prophets and their behaviour only worsened, the Shechinah moved further away. From Jerusalem, she went to the mountains, and then to the desert. From the desert, she left, leaving behind a void that would be filled with death, destruction and thousands of years of mourning. Rabbi Yochanan says that the Shechinah waited for six months in the dessert, hoping that maybe, just maybe the people would do teshuvah.
The name Yerushalayim is derived from the two words “Yirah” and “Shalem”, complete fear (Tosefet in תענית טז). Deviation from Avodat HaShem starts small, it’s a missed opportunity; the decision to give up one thing but keep up with everything else and then that one thing becomes two and this small deviation from what we should be doing snowballs. Whatever it is, no matter how small, it marks the beginning of our separation from complete devotion and how we should live. Once we start putting up barricades around our devotion, the siege has started. It is our personal responsibility to end it, to break through the walls around our hearts and come fully back to Hashem.
The Rambam ( הלכות תעניות א:ב) writes that the purpose of a fast day is to encourage repentance. This is what we should be focused on during the month of Tevet. As Asara b’Tevet approaches we can use the time for reflection and teshuvah, to start undoing the mistakes of the past; in the month that commemorates the besieging of Yerushalayim, we can start dismantling the walls we have erected around our hearts.
In Kol Dodi Dofek, the Rav uses the tragic analogy brought in Shir HaShirim of a lover knocking on the door of his beloved. She calls out that she is tired and he should return another time yet he doesn’t… and realising this she goes in search of him. We are living in a time when the knocking on the door is so loud, we need to answer it. We need to show Hashem that we are ready, to show we are able to reverse the actions of long ago and return to Him.
We live in an unparalleled time in Jewish history. There are more Jewish schools, shuls, batei midrash and places of learning than ever before in our history. The sound of Torah is alive in the streets of Yerushalayim.
We see how important the beginning of something is. If Asara b’Tevet were to fall out on Shabbat it would override Shabbat. If the beginning of destruction is so powerful how much more so must the beginning of Geulah be? If Asara b’Tevet holds so much power because of the cycle of destruction it initiates imagine how much power the decision to begin teshuvah must generate!
It was small steps of decline that led to eventual destruction. Tevet begins during the chag of Chanukah where we mark every night with the gradual increase of light, one candle joining another and slowly we build up to a complete chanukiah. If we take this time to slowly work on ourselves, and bring the glow of the Chanukah candles into the darkest parts of this month, we will begin to see the promise of redemption fulfilled. In Sefer Zechariya (8:19) the prophet tells us that the fasts that commemorate destruction will in the future be days of rejoicing.
After Tevet comes Shevat, bringing with it Tu B’shvat-the promise of new trees, of new beginnings, of a new cycle. The promise of Geulah.
B’ezrat Hashem this month that begins with the warm glow of Chanukah will end with the glow of the rebuilt Beit HaMikdash!