If you have an unusually good memory, you will have the distinct impression that the title to this article seems eerily familiar, yet you also have this weird feeling that there are some words that seem to be missing. Harking back to three weeks ago, on the Friday which was Asara B’Teves, an article appeared in this space, bearing the name Asara B’Teves-Do We Get It? I apologize for the subsequent interruption; this is the second half of that article, and it is two weeks late. The lesson-laden event that occurred immediately after the first article appeared, spoken about these last two weeks, was too important and time-sensitive to push off or to ignore. Hence this belated ending. And while Asara B’Teves is long gone, the fast day receding in memory (hopefully forever), an important lesson that it teaches us remains fresh and eternal.
Recap: Chasam Sofer explains the reason we would fast even if Asara B’Teves were to fall on Shabbos, and also explains the very fasting of Asara B’Teves itself. He posits that that was the day (the day that the siege of Yerushalayim started during the first Beis Hamikdash) that the Bais Din Shel Ma’alah ruled that there would be a churban three years hence. But the possibility of teshuvah lay open — would the decree move forward or not? And when the future remains uncertain, and one fasts to ward off a negative tomorrow, one may fast on Shabbos as well, as is done on Yom Kippur. And the very fast day of Asara B’Teves is a remembrance of the intense import of this day, going way beyond the down-here-on-earth siege.
Let’s look into this a bit deeper.
A look at the daily news quickly shows that the suffering and pain of daily life seems to be a constant. Even taking into account the fact that thanks to the ever-present pervasive media we know more about goings-on than ever before, nevertheless, that in itself gives us a feeling of being besieged by never-ending troubles, distresses, and tribulations.
A truism of belief in our hashkafas hachaim is the statement of the Rambam concerning the tzibbur fasting and praying and blowing shofar when confronted with such difficulties. Rambam writes that such sufferings are a result of wrongful deeds, and thus we are to be spurred to teshuvah (an oversimplification, but that is the nub of the idea). What is interesting is the continuation of the Rambam: that if we ignore those signals, and ascribe the events to “normal” occurrences, just pieces of “news” which then causes business-as-usual, this will cause perpetuation of those misfortunes and struggles. The Rambam is saying an amazing thing: that the persistence and seemingly never-ending travails are directly due to ignoring them as a red flag. The ignoring of the misfortune as a message leads to consequences commensurate with those which occurred due to the original misdeed!
Problem is, in the real world we occupy, a world without prophecy and without overt Divine Inspiration, even once we are able to lift ourselves to the point where we can consider that someone is trying to tell us something, we have absolutely no idea what that something is, nor do we have a method of determining it. And to make matters even worse, we are subject to a plethora of suggestions and of assurances that certainly things will be better if we just (pick one of the many assertions and declarations that are made almost daily); and so we are back to where we started — bewilderment and confusion.
This is not as strange or as unfair as it seems. Ohr Hachaim states in Vayikra, Parshas Bechukosai, that at first Hashem punishes using the system of midah k’neged midah, measure for measure, where one is indeed privy to divining the particular malady which brought on the particular repercussion. When that fails, when there is no such response, the possuk describes the situation: “If you will behave with casualness towards Me, then I, too, will behave towards you with a fury of casualness…” The Ohr Hachaim interprets that to mean that Hashem will send His fury forth in a way that we indeed will not be able to figure it out. And that is part of the punishment — the inability to “get it.”
On Asara B’Teves Hashem declared destruction, but concurrently gave three years to change. That is the challenge of Asara B’Teves: what is our reaction?
We read the news today (oh, boy!). So how did YOU react? So you don’t know precisely why or what or how come… but did you talk about geopolitics, local politics, local weather conditions, economic realities, arson, an imperfect world? Or, did you daven differently? Are you now davening differently, or is your davening the same as it was four weeks ago, before fires and drought and killings? If we don’t get the unique cause, does that exempt us from the general hashkafa? Did we add to our learning schedule, do we talk less lashon hora, do we argue less, are we less prone to anger, jealousy, and judging favorably? Do we sit and bemoan all that is going on while refusing to lema’aseh change in any sort of fundamental way? One iota? Or do we assign the message to “them,” not chalilah to “us”?
Chazal say that Hashem said, “The destruction is slated, scheduled. But I am giving you three years to see how you react to the nearing tragedy.” Bnei Yisroel were warriors, gibborim, they could have prevailed. Hashem was waiting, watching, hoping, so to speak. What can we say? Are we different than a month ago?
Yosef’s brothers cried, and were astonished, shocked, and astounded when Yosef revealed himself. Yet Chazal tell us that Yosef’s declaration of “ani Yosef!’ was tochacha, rebuke and admonishment. Up till then, they had still not “gotten it.” Yes, they were sorry they had not taken pity upon Yosef, that they did not hearken or heed his pleas. But apparently they were still convinced of the basic correctness of their actions. And only when Yosef said, “I am Yosef” did they realize that they had made a mistake of monumental proportions. And that was the rebuke — that with all that had occurred and was occurring, they held on to their perspective and beliefs until confronted with the truth staring at them, in their faces. That’s sad, that’s tragic, when we don’t “get it” till late in the game.
And no one is asking us to overcome what we will call the “Ohr Hachaim Handicap.” But having said that, how are our lives different from two months ago? That is the challenge of Asara B’Teves specifically, and the ultimate test of our lives.
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