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Balak 5782: Why are Fast Days Usually Slow Days?

Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9 )

by Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig

GOOD MORNING! Did you ever notice that sometimes people set out to do one thing and end up doing something that totally misses the point of what they were trying to accomplish in the first place? It reminds me of the time when I was in graduate school and I bought a used quantitative analysis textbook. The previous owner had helpfully highlighted the important parts. Unfortunately, he (or she) had highlighted EVERY SINGLE line in the first four chapters.

I am not sure what that person thought a highlighter was for, though I suspect that they highlighted the parts that they didn’t understand.

In my opinion, one of the most misunderstood rituals in Judaism is that of fasting. There are six designated fast days on the Jewish calendar: 1) the fast of Gedalia 2) the fast of Yom Kippur 3) the fast of the 10th of Tevet 4) the fast of Esther 5) the fast of the 17th of Tammuz (which we will discuss below) and 6) the fast of the 9th of Av.

Let's take Yom Kippur – the Day of Repentance – as an example. The vast majority of people are primarily concerned with how they will survive the twenty-six hours without food or water (or caffeine) instead of focusing on whether or not they will properly repent by expressing sorrow for their misdeeds and pledging to change their ways – which, of course, is the real point of Yom Kippur.

In fact, the Talmud (Ta’anit 16a) makes this very point regarding the story of Jonah visiting the wicked city of Nineveh found in the Book of Jonah (which is read on Yom Kippur afternoon). After being warned by Jonah that God was planning on destroying the city, all the inhabitants fasted, wore sackcloth, and repented wholeheartedly. The Talmud points out that the verse doesn’t say that God saw their fasting or their sackcloth; the verse says that God took into account their actions – that of repentance.

The point of fasting is to get one to detach from one’s physicality and begin to focus on the spirit. Putting oneself into some physical distress allows one to get into the proper mindset of self-reflection and repentance. In other words, the true focus of a fast day should be more about self-growth than self-deprivation. In my opinion, many people completely miss this point.

I am reminded of the following joke. John, a successful business man, was fond of showing off his wealth. As he opened the door to get out of his brand new Porsche Carrera GT, a truck sped by and completely tore off the driver’s door. Fortunately, a police officer saw the accident and immediately pulled up.

Before the officer had to speak, John started screaming about how his Porsche was now completely ruined. “My car will never be the same; no matter how hard they work to restore the damage!” After he finished his rant, the cop shook his head in disgust and disbelief.

"I can't believe how materialistic you are,” he said, “You are so focused on your possessions that you neglect the most important things in life.” “How can you say such a thing?” John asked. The cop replied, “Don’t you even realize that your left arm is missing? It got torn off when the truck hit you!!!” “Oh, my God!” John screamed, “My Rolex!!”.

This upcoming Shabbat (July 16th) corresponds to the 17th of Tammuz on the Hebrew calendar. Our sages teach us that the 17th of Tammuz is the anniversary of five terrible things that happened to the Jewish people throughout the ages. This list is found in Mishnayot Ta’anit 4:6.

  1. Moses smashed the two tablets containing the Ten Commandments when he saw the Jewish people sinning with the Golden Calf (1312 BCE).
  2. During the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem (587 BCE), the daily offering – Korban Tamid – that had been brought daily for over 400 years ceased.
  3. During the Roman siege of Jerusalem (70 CE), the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Romans who promptly looted and murdered their way through the city. This tragedy inexorably led to the destruction and burning of the Second Temple on the 9th of Av.
  4. The holy Torah scrolls were burnt by Apostomus. There is some discussion as to whether he was a Greek or Roman officer (if he was Greek this took place sometime prior to the Hasmonean period of the Second Temple, circa 167 BCE). There are also differing opinions as to which Torah scrolls were burned. According to the commentary Tiferet Yisrael, it was the Torah scroll written by Ezra the Scribe, which was used as the authoritative scroll that all others were checked against.
  5. An idol was placed in the sanctuary of the Holy Temple. Here too, there are differing opinions and this discussion is found in the Jerusalem Talmud. Some say that this was also done by Apostomus and others say this was done by the wicked Jewish King known as Menashe, son of the righteous King Hezekiah. Reigning during the period of the First Temple, Menashe made it his mission to spread idolatry throughout the land of Israel to provoke divine wrath. Unfortunately, he succeeded. As the prophet Jeremiah prophesied: “And I will make them an object of horror for all the nations of the earth, because of Menashe, the son of Hezekiah, king of Judah, and his action in Jerusalem.” (Jeremiah 15:4).

As mentioned above, ordinarily the 17th of Tammuz is a fast day. This year, however, it falls out on a Shabbat. The only fast day that supersedes the obligation to feast and rejoice on Shabbat is the Torah mandated Yom Kippur. All other fast days are pushed to the following day. Therefore, this year the fast of the 17th of Tammuz is observed on Sunday, July 17th. The fast begins at daybreak and ends about 30 minutes after sunset.

The period beginning with the fast of the 17th day of Tammuz and culminating with the 9th of Av is known as the “three weeks.” These weeks represent a growing sense of sadness that slowly intensifies until we reach the saddest day on the Jewish calendar: Tisha B’Av – the anniversary of the destruction of both Temples and many other disastrous events over the last three millennia.

These three weeks begin a period of mourning with certain restrictions that progressively intensify. Beginning on the 17th day of Tammuz, the custom is to refrain from listening to music, getting haircuts, or shaving – all of which are also observed during a traditional period of mourning after the death of a relative.

When the month of Av arrives, the Ashkenazic custom is to slowly add more intense restrictions (the Sefardic custom is to begin these restrictions the week in which the 9th of Av falls out). These customs include not bathing for pleasure, putting on freshly laundered clothing, consumption of meat or wine, etc.

Lastly, on the day of Tisha B’Av, we add even more intense acts of mourning like sitting on the floor, forbidding the study of Torah, etc.

This process of slowly increasing the intensity of mourning is in direct contradistinction to the mourning process when someone suffers a death of a first degree relation.

When one suffers a loss, the mourning period actually begins with the shiva, in which the most intense acts of mourning are experienced (sitting on the floor, no bathing, forbidden from learning Torah, etc.) and as time goes on, the mourning progressively lessens. That is to say that after shiva the restrictions become less intense; a mourner cannot shave or get a haircut until after thirty days, and then it continues to decrease for the remaining year.

Why is the period of mourning for the loss of a loved one a process of mourning that we progressively lessen yet during the mourning period of the “three weeks” we slowly increase the intensity of the mourning?

The answer is that when a person suffers a loss the goal is to experience the loss in the most intense way and slowly begin to recover from the experience by progressively lessening the actual mourning rituals. In this way, a person can begin to move past the experience while honoring the effect the loss had on him.

By the destruction of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple, the goal is exactly the opposite. These losses needed to remain imbedded in the national psyche. We therefore need to slowly build up to the experience because we want the intensity of the loss to remain with us forevermore. We aren’t interested in slowly moving away from the experience and resolving the loss. Rather, we want to slowly immerse ourselves in the mourning process so we can truly begin to connect with what we had and how sad we are that it is gone.

May we merit to see Jerusalem and the Holy Temple speedily rebuilt in our days. Amen.

Torah Portion of the Week

Balak, Numbers 22:2 - 25:9

This week's portion is one of the most fascinating psychologically-revealing portions in the whole Torah! Bilaam, a non-Jewish prophet, was granted a level of prophecy close to Moses’ level of prophecy. The Almighty gave Bilaam these powers so that the nations of the world could not say at some point in the future, “If we had a prophet like Moses, we too would have accepted the Torah and would have lived according to it.” Bilaam is an intriguing character — honor-driven, arrogant and self-serving. Unfortunately, not too unique amongst mankind.

Balak, the king of Moav, wanted to hire Bilaam to curse the Jewish people for a fortune of money. It is interesting that Balak believed in God and the power of invoking a curse from God, yet thought that God would change His mind about His Chosen People (God is not one to change His mind). Bilaam was very desirous of the assignment to curse the Jews — more for the profit motive than the prophet motive.

The Almighty allowed Bilaam to go to Balak (cautioning him to only say what God told him). The Almighty gives every person free-will and allows us to go in the direction that we choose. Three times Bilaam tried to curse us and three times the Almighty placed blessings in his mouth. Balak was furious! So, Bilaam gave him the following advice with hopes of collecting his fee; “If you want to destroy the Jewish people, entice the men with Moabite women and tell the women not to submit until the men bow down to an idol.” Balak followed the advice and consequently the Almighty brought a plague against the Jewish people because the men fell for Bilaam’s plot. We see from this that the Almighty hates licentiousness and idol worship.

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