Asara b’Teves, Us and Them

Fast days such as Asara b’Teves are opportunities to remember the past so that we will not be condemned to repeat it, moving us to recognize that our current challenges come from being stuck in past failures. As Rambam wrote (Hilchos Taanis 5:1): 

“There are days when the entire Jewish people fast because of the calamities that occurred to them then, to awaken hearts and initiate the paths of repentance. This will serve as a reminder of our own bad behaviors and of the behavior of our ancestors which resembles our present behavior, bringing calamity upon them and upon us. By reminding ourselves of these matters, we will repent and improve.”

This year’s commemoration of this tragic anniversary comes during our own profoundly difficult period of darkness, moving us to consider how our own bad behavior resembles that of our ancestors and how we can fix it through a serious teshuva that will spare us from perpetuating our current state of churban.

Elementary, my dear Watson. There is no mystery here.

We are still in mourning over the Bais Hamikdash that was destroyed due to sinas chinam, the spiteful hatred and internal discord that we continue to stubbornly embrace, “the behavior of our ancestors that resembles our present behavior.”

The months preceding the attack of Simchas Torah were marked by fracture and division within the Jewish people. The battle over judicial reform in Israel quickly morphed into an existential struggle over the character of the state, pitting Jew against Jew with a startling level of rancor and bitterness. It was winner-take-all, with precious little in the way of apparent consideration of the needs and sensitivities of the other side. Sinas chinam was so alive and so well that we would have been far less surprised had it been civil war that broke out in Israel on October 7th.

As believing Jews, we respond to tragedy spiritually, trying to hear and to respond to God’s voice in current events. Those spiritual responses can assume many forms, all of which are of immeasurable value. There is only benefit to the Jewish people when we turn to God in prayer, say more tehillim, intensify our efforts at Torah study, and engage in charity and good deeds. But this is generic teshuva and it does not address the issue at hand. As the Talmud (Yoma 9b) describes, sinas chinam destroyed the second Bais Hamikdash despite the Jewish people’s significant engagement in Torah, mitzvos and gemillus chasadim. If those good deeds were unable to prevent the calamity, they will not fix it either. They are valuable, they must be done, but they alone are not what God is waiting for. And given the shambles we were in before October 7th, it is hard to imagine that all God seeks is for us to recite Psalms 79 and 121.

On October 7th, God grabbed us by the lapels and shook some sense into us, helping us realize who our real enemies are and how much all Jews need each other. Today, two and a half months later, on Asara b’Teves, we must painfully recall that the explosive fracture that destroyed the Bais Hamikdash was well on its way to destroying the State of Israel internally on October 6th, “the behavior of our ancestors which resembles our present behavior, bringing calamity upon them and upon us.” The repentance and improvement that this moment demands of us requires us not just to pray more, learn more, and give more, but to address this issue head on, committing to substantive attitudinal and behavioral change that will withstand the curse of sinas chinam and never again separate Klal Yisrael into “us and them.”