You are supposed to be reading these words at the time when either today, or tomorrow, (or yesterday? I guess one is certainly allowed to read a column of Torah on Shabbos; make sure you ask a sheilah about the rest of the newspaper) is Asara B’Teves. Asara B’Teves is, of course, one of the four special fast days surrounding the events of the churban of the Beis Hamikdash. On the tenth of Teves during the first Beis Hamikdash, Nevuchadnetzar, the King of Bavel, laid siege to Yerushalayim, a siege which culminated with the breaching of the walls of the Holy City (17th of Tamuz), the destruction of the Temple (9th of Av), and the (temporary) cessation of Jewish life in Eretz Yisroel (Tzom Gedalya).
We are supposed to relate to a fast day with hisorerus, inspiration. The main purpose of a fast day is not the action (or inaction) of not-eating, but rather the contemplation as to what led to the events of the day and its results, and thus for us to be determined to better our ways, and not to continue or repeat past behavior.
This is rather difficult for any fast day (honestly, when is the last time you fulfilled the real purpose of a fast day?), but I think it especially difficult for the tenth of Teves. After all, what happened? It is hard to get really worked up over a siege. It is hard enough to summon up some depth of feeling on Tisha B’av, for goodness’ sakes — Asara B’Teves? And as it turns out, since Asara B’Teves falls out just around the winter solstice, even the physical affliction isn’t that big of a deal. I daresay many of us go a few hours every day before eating some decent food; so a couple of hours more, and you have… Asara B’Teves? That’s it?! That’s supposed to inspire me, arouse me, galvanize me? And this year, it’s on a Friday, the only fast day that can fall on a Friday. In Shulchan Aruch it is written (O.C. 249:4) that there are special people who undertake to fast every single Erev Shabbos! (And I am quite sure that there is many a housewife who, busy with her Shabbos preparations, realizes afterwards that she “forgot” to eat anything!) So it’s an Erev Shabbos in Teves, and I’m fasting, and I am supposed to feel something that gives impetus to hirhurei teshuvah? And if I happen to realize that today is the day that the siege of Yerushalayim started — that’s supposed to get me worked up? I have trouble on Tisha B’Av, during Kinos!
And weirder still: the Beis Yosef cites that because of the phrasing of the posuk regarding Asara B’Teves, “B’etzem hayom hazeh,” which means on this very day, were the Tenth of Teves to coincide with Shabbos, then, like Yom Kippur, and unlike Tisha B’Av or 17th of Tamuz or Tzom Gedalya, we would be compelled to fast, and Shabbos would be, so to speak, set aside. (According to our set calendar, that cannot happen.) Now wait a second, wonders the Chasam Sofer, if Tisha B’Av itself, the day of the destruction, gets set aside because of Shabbos (when it falls on Shabbos we fast Sunday), what in the world would the possible logic and rationale be for fasting on Shabbos when it is Asara B’Teves!?
Chasam Sofer writes an amazing chiddush. Because of the above questions (and others), he posits that the Heavenly “decision” to allow the churban, that there would be a churban if things would not change, occurred on that fateful first Asara B’Teves. The Heavenly Court sat in judgment, the prosecuting angels and the defending angels were heard out, and the verdict was handed down: churban! Not now, not immediately, but we are on that road, the siege is, so to speak, starting, and there are three years left; things can change, the decree can be overturned given the right circumstances, i.e, teshuvah — certainly a mass teshuvah process can. But as things stand now, destruction and exile have been decided, sans teshuvah and a return to Hashem, adjudicated and determined on Asara B’Teves. Certainly a reason to fast — and yes, even were it to fall on Shabbos. As the Chassam Sofer goes on to explain, we do not fast on Shabbos when we are primarily focused on the past. But when we are predominantly fixated on the future, trying to avoid the worst (Yom Kippur; a ta’anis chalom, a private fast one fasts over certain specific types of horrifying, evil-tidings nightmares), then we fast even on Shabbos (as is the case with the two fast days we just mentioned). And the Chasam Sofer is saying, Asara B’Teves now joins that “club,” where because of the “real” events of the day, yes, it makes perfect sense that we have to fast were it to fall out on Shabbos. And yes, we have what to focus on and to concentrate on, even on a short day, even on a Friday, Erev Shabbos.
The Medrash tells us that when Yosef Hatzadik said to his brothers, “I am Yosef,” a panic overtook them. And the Medrash comments, “Woe is unto us when that day of reckoning, and when that day of rebuke comes” (meaning the Great Day of Judgment on the Yom Hadin Hagadol, during the days of Moshiach and preceding Olam Habah). “For if the brothers felt that way when Yosef, after all mere flesh-and-blood, spoke to them, how much more so will we feel that way when Hashem similarly addresses us.” The mefarshim are troubled by the use of the phrase “day of rebuke.” Where is there a hint of rebuke in Yosef’s words to his brothers? He seems, on the contrary, to be eager to comfort them, to calm them, to make them realize that this whole episode occurred through direct Divine intervention. The mefarshim weigh in with different explanations — we shall see a novel one next week, im yirtzeh Hashem, as well as an even deeper understanding of the Asara B’Teves idea, and how it is extremely relevant to the misfortunes and near-tragedies, and tragedies, the afflictions, and yes, the calamities, that seem to be besetting us, both on a national and personal levels.