By Rabbi Josh Weinberg December 25 2020
וַיְהִי֩ בַשָּׁנָ֨ה הַתְּשִׁעִ֜ית לְמָלְכ֗וֹ בַּחֹ֣דֶשׁ הָעֲשִׂירִי֮ בֶּעָשׂ֣וֹר לַחֹדֶשׁ֒ בָּ֠א נְבוּכַדְרֶאצַּ֨ר מֶֽלֶךְ־בָּבֶ֜ל ה֤וּא וְכָל־חֵילוֹ֙ עַל־יְר֣וּשָׁלִַ֔ם וַֽיַּחֲנ֖וּ עָלֶ֑יהָ וַיִּבְנ֥וּ עָלֶ֛יהָ דָּיֵ֖ק סָבִֽיב׃
“And in the ninth year of his reign, on the tenth day of the tenth month, King Nebuchadrezzar moved against Jerusalem with his whole army. They besieged it and built towers against it all around.” (Jeremiah 52:4)
The 10th day of the Hebrew month Tevet is the day on which we mark the beginning of the downfall of the First Temple in Jerusalem (587-6 BCE). This ominous date is one of four fast days on our calendar that marks different historical events connected to the destruction of the First Temple.
The Aruch HaShulchan (a commentary on the 16th century code of Jewish law the Shulchan Aruch) relates that this date marked what should have been the beginning of the end of Jewish history. With the incarceration of the prophet Jeremiah and the siege of Jerusalem, the state of national exile took hold with full force.
While considered a minor fast day, this day took on additional meaning in the modern State of Israel. In 1948, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel declared Asara b’Tevet as Yom ha-Kaddish ha-Klali, a national day of reciting Kaddish. It came to be the Memorial Day for Jews who perished in the Holocaust whose date of death (Yahrzeit) is unknown and for Holocaust victims who had no living survivors to recite Kaddish for them. Professor Dalia Marx explains in her book “BaZman” that this Memorial Day enabled family members to perform mourning rituals for their loved ones who otherwise would not be able to observe a yahrzeit.
However, this expanded designation of the 10th of Tevet didn’t catch on widely in Israel. Most Israelis commemorate the Holocaust on the official Memorial Day, on the 28th of Nissan near the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
In a paper entitled “Newer Emphases in Jewish History” published in 1963, Salo Baron, the pre-eminent twentieth century Jewish historian, wrote: “All my life I have been struggling against the hitherto dominant ‘lachrymose conception of Jewish history’ … because I have felt that an overemphasis on Jewish sufferings distorted the total picture of the Jewish historic evolution….”
If one were to choose a single idea that encapsulated Professor Baron’s legacy, it would be this:
“Jewish history should not be seen simply as a series of persecutions, which determined its nature and set its course, rather as a process of ongoing engagement between the Jews and their surroundings.”
In other words, we have no lack of tragic episodes in our history upon which we can focus our attention. We cannot exist, however, solely as a response to them.
Even as we observe this fast day on which we mourn our ancient and modern destructions, let us take succor in all that we Jews have created worldwide and in relationship with the State of Israel.
It is easy to view modern Israeli history primarily as a string of wars, with one picking up where the previous one ended, and a timeline leading us from terror attack to military operation. But doing so shifts our attention away from the essence and miracle of the modern State of Israel.
Today Israelis are reimagining what it means to be Jewish in the Jewish State where they can control their own fate and destiny in the context of national sovereignty. This new situation has given birth to a revolution in Jewish life in which the Jewish people, encompassing the ingathering of a wide diversity of Jewish and non-Jewish ethnicities, holds political power with all the challenges that entails.
The creation of a national day of mourning was a stroke of genius because it helped our people shoulder the burden of mourning while solidifying our people’s collective mentality, where we put the national aspirations at the center of our own ambition. At the same time, we need to fashion a sense of what nationhood means for our people’s future. Despite our not being citizens of the State of Israel, Diaspora Jews have a stake in the creation of our ethno-national identity and ought to share, from afar, in common ownership of the greatest project our people has undertaken in all Jewish history.
Our Reform Movement is working to serve thousands of Israeli Jews who recognize that having a Jewish State doesn’t necessarily provide a meaningful non-orthodox Jewish community or identity.
On this 10th of Tevet as we bow our heads and mourn those who have no one to mourn for them, we also raise our heads in pride over all that we’ve created as a people. We can use Asara B’Tevet as an opportunity to celebrate our accomplishments as a Jewish collective having risen from the ashes of destruction.
We can look to our own Reform Movement in Israel to bring Israeli society new paradigms for a vibrant Jewish religious and cultural life. With that, we can offer our own Jewish communal experiences in Diaspora communities that grew up in a privatized economy with no state-funding of religious institutions to support them.
We can rise up from mourning our people’s losses even stronger and ensure that ours is not only a future of tears but one full of promise and hope. As this deeply challenging year of 2020 comes to a close, we invite you to claim a stake in that future – the future of our Reform Movement in the Jewish State, the future of promise and hope. We thank you for your generous support as we go from destruction to a new era as a free people in our Land.