The Three Weeks

Discipline

August 23, 2012

“For the sin we committed before You by eating and drinking.”

In the “Al Het” sin list we read multiple times over Yom Kippur, the appearance of a confession about eating and drinking seems odd; it feels prosaic and trivial next to unwarranted hatred or speaking ill of others. It takes physical strength to fast; it takes mental determination to quell physical desire. To have that determination, you need to know what you’re fasting for and why.

Tzom Gedalia, the fast of Gedalia, always follows Rosh HaShana. Most people are relieved for the break from food but do not necessarily understand why we observe this fast or what its significance is. In the annual words of my grandmother: “Who’s Gedalia, anyway?” So who is Gedalia, anyway, and why is this day significant?

Gedalia was a procurator of Judah, assigned by King Nebuchadnezzar to govern the remaining Jews in Israel after the exile. Nebuchadnezzar decimated our nation and then banished the remaining residents from their land after destroying the Temple; those few who stayed became a straggling remnant of a lost nation. This is recounted in the book of ii Kings: “Thus, Judah was exiled from its land. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon put Gedalia, son of Aĥikam son of Shaphan, in charge of the people whom he left in the land of Judah” (25:21–22). There was a great deal of anxiety about the treatment of this remnant, but Gedalia reassured a group of questioning officers that if the residents stayed in the land and followed the Babylonian authorities, “It will go well with you” (25:24). Seven months later, a day which some believe was actually Rosh HaShana, Ishmael ben Nethania – one of the officers who had initially approached Gedalia and who was himself of royal descent – came with ten men and murdered Gedalia and those with him. The rest of the people left Judah for Egypt, fearing the worst.

The story is recounted in greater detail in Jeremiah 41. The day after Gedalia was killed, when no one yet knew, a group of eighty men from the area came to see him, their garments torn and their bodies gashed. They were vulnerable and beaten, but they still came bearing offerings for the Temple, gifts that would never be given. The murderer Ishmael invited them into the town to see Gedalia and then slaughtered them and threw their bodies into a cistern. Ishmael then carried any remaining stragglers off in the direction of Ammon. A warrior, Johanan ben Karea, who set out to kill Ishmael, intervened and took the rest of the people to Egypt for protection. Ishmael got away. The rabbis declared a fast day to mourn not only the death of Gedalia but the death, in many ways, of the few remaining Jews in the land of Israel, killed essentially by their own, the worst possible way to end the enduring presence of the Jews in their homeland. The destruction of even one righteous person, they believed, was the equivalent of the destruction of the House of God.1 We fast for one – the destruction of the Temple; we must fast for the other – the destruction of a human life that represented the end of Jewish life in the land of Israel at the time. The fast is mentioned in the book of Zechariah with the climax at the end of the verse: “You must love honesty and integrity.”(8:19)

We mourn a righteous leader by fasting, but the fast is also intended to mourn the absence of Jews in the land of Israel long ago. Even when the Temple was destroyed, there was still a population of Jews inhabiting the land. After the exile, that population dwindled. But no Jews remained in their land after the murder of Gedalia. The fast offers us the opportunity, at a time of personal reflection, to think about collective losses of identity and how often we hurt ourselves more than outsiders ever could. Ishmael’s weakness made us all ultimately vulnerable.

We know the saying well. Ethics of the Fathers asks, “Who is strong?” and replies, “One who conquers his desires” (4:1). When we discipline ourselves to achieve our deepest goals, we have mastery over desire instead of its having mastery over us. Acting on impulse and the momentary need for gratification can unravel our best long-term personal objectives into a moral mess that is hard to clean up. It is not easy to face the consequences of our actions, particularly our transgressions. It takes emotional strength and resilience to face the worst of ourselves and improve our attitude and behavior without being overwhelmed by sadness or paralyzed by depression: “I just can’t do it.” And when we articulate those words, we really believe them. We have convinced ourselves that we have no willpower. We are weak, not strong. Personal weaknesses so often appear on a plate. Some commentaries on the Al Het list point to specific religious breaches connected to food. We eat without saying the appropriate blessings before and afterwards. We eat food that we shouldn’t, sneaking a taste of something prohibited for a kosher-only crowd. “I’m a bad Jew,” we might hear from someone who keeps kosher at home but loves a BLT on the road.

We can even get more talmudic and turn to a passage that suggests we are judged by the company we keep. A scholar, the Talmud recommends, should eat only with the wise, lest meals devolve into ribaldry and inappropriate trivialities, and lest others witness the scholar potentially compromising himself. On a similar note, Ethics of the Fathers advises that every meal involving three people be accompanied by a teaching moment to sanctify the food, a dvar Torah. We may confess on Yom Kippur for failing to make an ordinary meal into a time of shared study; we rushed a Shabbat meal to get a nap and did not sanctify that meal by sharing Torah. For that we confess.

And yet, despite all of the potential spiritual infractions possibly hinted at in this confession, there is another larger and looming question: am I eating and drinking the way that I should, the way that optimizes my health and minimizes any addictions or bad habits born of years of socialized behavior? We adopt food-related behaviors very early and may spend a lifetime fighting them or resigning ourselves to them but never quite relinquishing the residual emotional impact that this tension presents. Food is rarely an emotionally neutral subject, and when we speak about it in a prayer for self-improvement we understand that it is part of a larger conversation about self-discipline and achieving objectives incrementally, objectives that must be secured and maintained day after day after day.

From Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe