This post may be triggering for survivors of rape and sexual abuse. If that is you, please guard your boundaries carefully, and feel free to skip this one if you need to.
For many liberal Jews, fasting means the experience of forgoing food and drink on Yom Kippur. Others also observe the custom of fasting on Tisha b'Av, the day which commemorates the fall of both Temples in Jerusalem. These two days are Judaism's major fasts. But there are also five minor fast days on the Jewish calendar. Minor fasts last from dawn until nightfall, and (in the traditional understanding) one is permitted to eat breakfast if one arises before dawn for the purpose of doing so, though one must finish eating before first light.
Of the five minor fasts, one is the "fast of the first-born," observed by first-born males on the day preceding Pesach, in commemoration of the story of the tenth plague and how the Hebrew boys were spared. The other four minor fasts relate to historical happenings, tragedies which still resonate in Jewish memory. One of these falls this week: 10 Tevet (on the Gregorian calendar, this year that's Thursday, January 5), which commemorates the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar, a siege which culminated in the fall of the first temple in 587 BCE.
What does it mean to fast in memory of the beginning of a siege 2,601 years ago which led to the fall of a temple some thirty months later -- especially when for many of us, the sacrifices which went on in that temple feel so foreign we can't begin to relate to what they meant? And what might Asara b'Tevet mean to someone who eschews the fast itself, or someone who is perhaps only now learning that this minor fast day exists?
We remember the siege of Jerusalem because it was the beginning of the process which led to our exile from that city and from the place where we knew how to connect with God. And though it can be argued that the exile ultimately led to the flowerings of rabbinic Judaism, of a Judaism which is rooted in the portable connections with God which we create and sustain through study and prayer everywhere we go, the exile was still a trauma. I think there's value in recognizing that.
The essay Walls and Gates (on Chabad.com) reminds us that "[a] broken wall means vulnerability, exposure, loss of identity." 10 Tevet is a day for recognizing, and mourning, siege which leads to brokenness and damage. For some, that means remembering the siege of Jerusalem long ago and mourning the shattering of that city's integrity. (For others, it might mean mourning the shattering of integrity indicated by Haredi violence in the Jerusalem suburb of Bet Shemesh in recent days.)
For still others, the commemoration of siege which led to brokenness may suggest another, more intensely personal, form of shattering. If your bodily integrity has been compromised, through rape or other sexual abuse, the 10th of Tevet may offer an opportunity for recognizing and mourning the breach in your safety and your wholeness. This profound trauma exists in every community. For me, there is something powerful about also understanding 10 Tevet as a day of remembering, and mourning, this breach of trust and of wholeness which so many suffer -- not instead of the traditional interpretation, but in addition to it.
Fast days are traditionally considered to be days of teshuvah (repentance/return), turning ourselves so that we are oriented toward holiness and toward God. Whether or not your practice includes fasting on the 10th of Tevet, I invite you to spend this Thursday engaged in teshuvah. And I invite you to spend this Thursday -- the 10th day of the lunar month of Tevet -- in mindfulness. Sit with what hurts: whether that's the memory of the siege of Jerusalem 2600 years ago, or the memory of your own experience of being besieged and broken-into, or the uncomfortable awareness that we allow the suffering of rape victims in our communities to remain invisible. Make a conscious effort to open your heart to this suffering.
May our observance of 10 Tevet, whatever form it may take, align us more wholly with compassion and kindness, and may those who have been besieged find safety and healing, speedily and soon.