October 17, 2021 |

The Beginning of the End

Chicken Little was a false prophet of doom. Well, maybe he didn't say it in the name of God and, probably, he was very sincere in his concern. But he DID whip the entire animal kingdom into a mass hysteria that sky was falling on account of one acorn landing on his head. With a little more sober thought, he might have discovered gravity. On the other extreme is the Boy Who Cried Wolf, who also whipped everyone into hysteria over the alleged wolf that was going to eat him. But, whereas Chicken Little only declared that Iraq had WMD's once, the Boy did it so often that noone could even be bothered to get a little hysterical when dramatic action was required. And hence was eaten. Whether they inspire us to needless frenzy or instill in us cynical apathy, false prophets sow delusion and doubt in God, the world around us and ourselves. No wonder the Torah decrees that they put to death. Of course, there is also that bit about falsifying the word of God.

We have had all sorts of false prophets in Jewish history. We have had false prophets of doom, false prophets of idolatry and paganism and even false prophets of hope. In fact, it may be the false prophets of hope that are the worst. When Chananya ben Azur stood up and told the Jewish king Tzidkiyahu that God had told him that He would "shatter the yoke of the Babylonian king" (Jeremiah 28:4), Chananya filled the entire nation with hope that the Babylonian threat would pass. Much like the Iranian threat of today, noone was sure exactly how much trouble the Jews were in. Some wanted to believe the best and some the worst. Chananya gave everyone false hope, because in reality the First Temple was soon to be destroyed. Moreover, he empowered the Jews to continue sinning and defying God; what motivation for religious, political or spiritual change could there be when they had heard God say that everything was just fine? Jeremiah (Yirmiya) - a true prophet of doom - stood up to defy and contradict this false hope. But noone could hear his inconvenient truths and they threw him ignominiously into a pit in the ground.

This is the background to the fast day of the Tenth of Tevet - Asara b'Tevet - which falls out this Friday. Asara b'Tevet recalls the day on which the Babylonian king Nevuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem, trapping her like a bird in a cage. As it says in Kings (II Melakhim 25:1): "And it came to pass in the ninth year of his reign, in the tenth month, in the tenth day of the month, Nevuchadnezzar king of Babylon came, he and all his army, against Jerusalem, and encamped against it; and they built forts against it round about."

The prophet Ezekiel (Yechezkel), who was already in Babylonia at this time, received the shocking vision of the beginning of Jerusalem's end from afar. In his vision, as a symbol of the siege of Jerusalem, he sees the cook command the pot be put onto the fire and water for boiling added. The cook is the king, the pot is Jerusalem and the Jews are the meat, slowly being boiled in the heating water. Asarah b'Tevet is the beginning of the end for Jerusalem and the First Temple and this is the reason why we commemorate this day with fasting and mourning. It is counter-intuitive to fast at the beginning of the end. Mourning is done when the patient is dead, noit ill. That is the time for treatment and action, not chest-beating and wailing. The Tenth of Tevet happens BEFORE the destruction.

Perhaps this is the very reason to mourn. We have to mourn the failure of the Jewish people to act at that time. In retrospect, what could they or what should they have done to prevent the destruction? Was it too late already at the besiegement or was there still hope somewhere to avert the evil decree? Alternatively, maybe it was indeed too late and we mourn that very fact. How could we not have acted to change God's mind before the vise of destiny inexorably began to crush us? How could Jewish history - even world history - have been changed if we had seen the warning signs earlier? THIS is what is so awful about false prophets of hope, that lull us to sleep when it is really the 11th hour.

Of the Temple fasts, Asara b'Tevet is the only one that can fall out on a Friday, as it does this year. There are two summer fasts -- the 17th of Tammuz, which commemorates the breaching of the wall of Jerusalem and the 9th of Av (Tisha b'Av), which laments the Temple's destruction - and the Fast of Gedalya[1], which is always the day after Rosh Hashana. Whereas those fasts are all grouped together in the summer and early fall, the 10th of Tevet stands alone in the dark days of winter. While those three fasts commemorate the successive stages of destruction of Jewish life in the First Temple, the Tenth of Tevet marks a far earlier stage of destruction, long before the tragic conclusion itself.

Rabbi Ya'akov Medan remarks that each of the other three fast days was meant to be a festival. The 17th of Tammuz was the day that Moshe came down with the first set of tablets. It should have been a happy day of the receiving of the Torah, but it became distorted by the tragedy of the Golden Calf. The 9th of Av was the day the spies came back from reconnoitering the land of Canaan. It should have been a happy day of anticipation for entering the land of Israel, but became distorted by the spies' sin and the specter of 40 years of wandering in the desert. The Fast of Gedalaya really should have been on Rosh Hashana, a festival day in which we celebrate the optimism of a new year.

Only the 10th of Tevet has no other happy potential occasion related to it. The only potential joy of the 10th of Tevet is that it might never have happened, if the people had listened to Yirmiyahu and done teshuva (repentance). In fact fast days are not meant to be self-flagellating memorials, but reminders that we need to learn from the mistakes of our past, to return to Hashem both personally and as a people. When Hashem commands Yechezkel to commemorate the 10th of Tevet, He says "Human, write the name of the day, the very essence of the day - the king of Babylon leaned on Jerusalem on the essence of this very day." (Ezekiel 24:2) There is only one other day that is referred to as "the essence of the day": Yom Kippur. (see Vayikra 23:28-29) The Tenth day of the seventh month (Yom Kippur) has a counterpart in the tenth day of the tenth month. It calls us to teshuva.

Finally, the number 10 is associated in kabbala (Jewish mystical tradition) with the final sefira, the last emanation of God's will. That sefira is known as malchut, or God's Kingship, and it refers to the relationship between God and human beings, at the point of connection between Heaven and earth. The tenth day of the tenth month is found at a low point in our calendar, a dark, cold and holiday-free zone. But it allows for the possibility of reaching out and finding a connection with Hashem, even through tragedy and darkness. Shabbat shalom!

[1] This fast commemorates the assassination of Gedalya, who led the Jews after the Temple's destruction. After his death, the rest of the population was killed or exiled.


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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