For that matter, I didn't even take on the practice of fasting for Tisha b'Av until a few years ago. (See This year's wrestle with Tisha b'Av, 2011.) I didn't grow up observing the minor fasts, and I've never taken them on as a practice.
Instead I've tended toward finding other ways of understanding 17th Tammuz. Instead of focusing on the breach of Jerusalem's walls 2,600 years ago, I ponder breaches in the emotional walls which keep us safe, or the internal and interpersonal walls which need to come down in order for genuine connections to form.
But this year there is so much trauma and tragedy in Israel and Palestine, so much grief and destruction and fear happening right now, that I am fasting today and I am dedicating my fast to peace, compassion and kindness in that beloved corner of our world where so many people are suffering.
This was not my idea. Across Israel and Palestine, groups of Jews and Muslims are consciously choosing to fast on this day in solidarity with one another as what was initially called a Hunger Strike Against Violence, and has become part of an initiative called בוחרים בחיים / اختيار الحياة / Choose Life. The idea came from Eliaz Cohen, an Israeli Jew who lives in Gush Etzion, and Ali Abu Awwad, a Palestinian Muslim who lives in Beit Ummar, north of Khalil (Hebron). Cohen is a poet and a self-identified second-generation "settler kid" who supports the idea of one homeland for two peoples. Abu Awwad is founder of Al Tariq (The Way), which teaches Palestinians principles of nonviolent resistance.
(For more, see the front-page story in yesterday's Times of Israel, Aided by calendar, Jews and Arabs Unite in Joint Fast: West Bank activists organize Choose Life, a shared initiative to combat political violence and promote coexistence.)
Though the fast originated in the Middle East, it has spread around the globe. Joint Jewish-Muslim fasts (and dual-faith study sessions and communal joint iftar / break-the-fast meals) are taking place not only in Israel and Palestine but also around the United States, in various locations around Europe, even in Kuwait. (For more information, you can check out the Choose Life FB page; for English speakers, I recommend the parallel site Fast for Peace, which arose independently but is very much the same.)
What does abstaining from food and drink for a day actually accomplish? I know that it won't change the external realities on the ground. But communal fasting is a very old Jewish way of connecting with others in grief and in hope. I hope that the fast will make an impact on we who are participating in it, and will inspire us to take action to bring peace and healing. And perhaps the fast will bring some hope to those who hear or read about it, and will inspire them to take action, too. Here's something written by Rabbi Jill Jacobs at T'ruah:
As Jews, we know that fasting is one of our tradition's main expressions of a public crisis. While most of us don't believe that God will literally heed our fast and come to intervene, we nevertheless yearn for a way to express our sorrow and to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters. Publicly embracing an interfaith spiritual action is a small step, but it is better than privately wringing our hands and beating our breasts.
I know from my other experiences of religious fasting (on Yom Kippur, which I've done almost every year since I became bat mitzvah, and on Tisha b'Av in more recent years) that a religious fast entails a kind of spiritual journey. I was in one spiritual / emotional place when the fast began this morning; I expect that I will be in a different place by the time it is over. I won't know where the journey is going to take me until I get there.
The original call to fast for peace arises out of the violence, fear, and heartbreak happening in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza right now. There's a natural commonality in the fact that both Jewish and the Muslim communities will be fasting today from sunup to sundown. I am glad to join Jews and Muslims around the world in dedicating our fast to praying for an end to the violence in the Middle East.
I also find myself returning to prayers for kindness and compassion, both in those wartorn places and in the rest of this world. The violence isn't happening on the ground where I live, but the hatred and mistrust which have ousted kindness and compassion from the hearts of those who commit that violence -- that hatred and mistrust are everywhere.
My online friend Lee Weissman, who blogs and tweets under the moniker Jihadi Jew, recently posted that he can no longer engage in conversations about Israel and Palestine via social media because the vitriol is so great that he has given up that public discourse. I understand the impulse. The rhetoric I've been seeing (from all "sides") has been bringing me to the brink of panic attacks because I am so emotionally invested that my heart feels bruised by every instance of violence, every angry comment, every insistence that "they" deserve whatever they get. If we can't collectively transcend that kind of thinking, I don't see how the situation will ever improve.
17 Tamuz is the day when the Jewish community remembers the breach of Jerusalem's city walls by the Babylonian army in 586 BCE. That breach was the first damage to the city's integrity. Three weeks later, the Babylonian army destroyed the Temple and exiled the Jews. This year what is broken on 17 Tamuz is my heart. I've always been a "sensitive soul," moved by strong emotion (both my own feelings, and those expressed by those around me). And I was in Israel and the West Bank only a few months ago, which rekindled my feeling of connection with that land and with its peoples. Maybe these are the reasons why this year the renewed violence and bloodshed there are so emotionally and spiritually devastating to me.
In the traditional Jewish understanding, a public communal fast can be a tool of teshuvah / turning-toward-God, an expression of grief and mourning, and/or an opportunity for supplication and pleading with God. My fast against violence today aims to be all three of these. I seek to make teshuvah for the ways I've been complicit in allowing violence to continue. I grieve every single death in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, most especially those of children. And I ask God with all my heart, all my soul, and all my might to help us build a different world, a world of connection and compassion and peace. Please, God, please, God, please.
I'll close this post with a prayer written by Sheikh Ibtisam Mahamid and Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, distributed by the Choose Life folks along with prayers and scriptural quotations for study in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. They write:
God of Life
Who heals the broken hearted and binds up their wounds
May it be your will to hear the prayer of mothers
For you did not create us to kill each other
Nor to live in fear, anger or hatred in your world
But rather you have created us so we can grant permission to one another to sanctify
Your name of Life, your name of Peace in this world.
For these things I weep, my eye, my eye runs down with water
For our children crying at nights,
For parents holding their children with despair and darkness in their hearts
For a gate that is closing and who will open it while day has not yet dawned.
And with my tears and prayers which I pray
And with the tears of all women who deeply feel the pain of these difficult days
I raise my hands to you please God have mercy on us
Hear our voice that we shall not despair
That we shall see life in each other,
That we shall have mercy for each other,
That we shall have pity on each other,
That we shall hope for each other
And we shall write our lives in the book of Life
For your sake God of Life
Let us choose Life.
For you are Peace, your world is Peace and all that is yours is Peace,
And so shall be your will and let us say Amen.