Some Thoughts About Fast Days


It is now around two months since my oldest brother Joel passed away. I am writing this sicha for his merit and memory.
May it be a merit for Yerachmiel Yaccov Yosef ben Moshe Dovid,z.l.

We all know that there are certain days on that Jewish calendar that are designated for fasting to commemorate various tragedies that occurred on these days. However, many of us do not realize the significance and reason why we fast.

I still remember one particular fast day, it was the third of Tishrei (the day after Rosh Hashana) commonly known as" Tzom Gedalia-the Fast of Gedalia." As is explained in "Menucha V'Simcha., by Rabbi Mordechai Katz, one of the enlightening books of the Jewish Education Program, that this was to commemorate the assassination of the Jewish governor, who was a Tzadik, Gedalia ben Achikum. He was appointed by Nevuchadnetzar, the King of Babylon, after the destruction of the first Bais Hamikdash, to govern the remaining Jews in Israel. Most of them had been exiled to Babylon. Under Gedalia's leadership, the community was given new strength and there were thoughts of maybe rebuilding the Bais Hamikdash. Gedalia's murder by an assassin who was sent by an Ammonite king, for certain military reasons, meant disaster for the remaining Jews. Many were killed, and the rest were exiled to Egypt.

One of the guys asked me what will it help if we fast. "Are you going to bring him back to life?"

That's when I took out the "Kitzur Shulchan Aruch," a synopsis of the "Code of Jewish Law," by Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried.

In Chapter 121:1 he says,

"It is a mitzvah from the Prophets to fast on those days that troubles befell our Fathers( The only fast day that is written in the Torah is Yom Kippur). And the purpose of the fast is in order to arouse our hearts to search the ways of repentance, and let this be a reminder to our evil deeds and our Fathers' that were like our present [evil] deeds until it caused them and us those troubles [that we are fasting for]. By remembering these things we will repent….Therefore it is incumbent upon each person on those days to search his ways and to return from them. Because the main thing is not the fasting, as it says by the people of Ninveh [who repented tremendously after the prophet Jonah warned them of their impending doom], (Jonah 3:10) "And Hashem saw their deeds…" and our Rabbis comment (Tannis 16a) that it doesn't say that Hashem saw their sackcloth and their fasting, rather "And Hashem saw their deeds that they repented from their evil ways…." The fast is only a preparation to repentance."
This can be compared, lehavdil, to a football team who got trounced badly on their last game and the coach is making the team watch the video of that game. One of the players complains and asks, "How is this going to help, are we going to win the game that we already lost? Everybody understands that the main purpose is to learn from the mistakes that were made, so you won't lose in the future.

In fact, if we repent enough, we would merit Moshiach and Techiyas Hameisim- Resurrection of the Dead, and we would bring Gedalia back to life!

At this point one may ask, "How is fasting a preparation for teshuvah, it weakens my body and, if anything, it's a preparation to sleep it off?"

The answer to this lies in a very important foundation of how Hashem created the human being.

I have heard from my Rebbeim, and I have said in "A Letter to an Alumnus II," question 3), that Hashem created the ultimate paradox. On one hand we have a body who has only animalistic desires. On the other hand we have the soul that has only spiritual desires. The human being is a combination of both and the body and soul are expected to coexist. This is like putting Al Capone and the Chofetz Chaim together. My Rebbeim compared it to a rider on the horse. As long as the rider leads the horse it will go on the right path. But when the rider falls asleep, then the horse will lead the rider even into the mud. Our job is that the soul will lead the body. However sometimes the soul sleeps and the body leads us into the dirtiest places.

The "Ohr Yahel" by Rabbi Yehudah Leib Chasman, z.t.l. in Vol. III in Parshas Ki Sisa (133-135), and in Parshas Tazria (164-165) explains with this point two puzzling episodes in the Prophets.

In Melachim I Chapter 18, we find that there were many people who worshipped the idol "Baal", and Eliyahu the Prophet wanted to show them that Hashem was the true G-D. After three years of severe famine, Eliyahu proposed a test. He and the false prophets got an animal to sacrifice without making fire. The one who would be answered from above with a fire coming down would be proven as the true G-D.
Naturally, when the fire only came down for Eliyahu, everyone fell on their face and said, "Hashem hu HaElokim-G-D is the L-rd."

The question is, why did Eliyahu need to preface this miracle with 3 years of famine? Why didn't he just do his miracle before the famine and gotten the same result, doing without such terrible suffering?

Rabbi Chasman explains, based on what we said before, since the body has animalistic desires, you can show an animal all the miracles in the world and use all the intellectual and logical arguments against it, you will not be able to move it. However when the animal gets hit and suffering it weakens and, in the case of the human being, the body is weakened ,humbled and is ready to yield to its master the soul and intellect and be swayed by its arguments.

Eliyahu knew that the Jews were so steeped and chained by their animalistic desires, that miracles would be meaningless to them. That is why he had to weaken the animal in them to get it to yield and be influenced by the soul's arguments.

We also find a similar question by the episode of the gentile General , Naaman who had leprosy. In Melachim II Chapters 4-5, We find this general who went to the prophet Elisha to cure him.
(I have disscussed this episode and some of its lessons, in "Of Aufruffs and Sheva Berachos.")

When Elisha gave him a simple remedy of immersing in the Jordan River, he was angry and didn't want to do it. His servants, who apparently had more trust in Elisha than Naaman did, persuaded him to at least try it.

When he was cured, he was so overwhelmed by this miracle that he became a convert. The question is why the servants, who also saw this miracle and believed in Elisha more than Naaman, why didn't they also convert?

Again, Rabbi Chasman explains that their body had not suffered and their animalistic desires were not weakened so the miracle had no effect. However, Naaman who suffered so much through his leprosy, his body and animalistic desires were able to be humbled and yield to this great spark of truth that he had witnessed.

Based on this, my Rebbi explained that on the Fast day, when our goal is to do Teshuvah, it is very beneficial if we weaken our body and animalistic desires so that our soul and intellect can be successful in helping us to do Teshuvah.

So when a person complains that he feels weak when he fasts and maybe he shouldn't fast, he should realize that that is precisely the way he should feel. This is very beneficial for him and, unless he's sick and can't fast, he should.

I would like to say over a few points about fast days that I saw in a beautiful sicha from Rabbi Yehuda Zev Segal, ztl, the Manchester Rosh Hayeshivah, in his book, "Inspirations and Insights" Vol. II, p.74-79, translated and arranged by Rabbi Shimon Finkelman.

He brings the Rambam in Hilchos Ta'anios 5:1-4, who writes basically like the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch , and they both list the tragic events that took place on those respective fast days.

3 Tishrei-Fast of Gedalia, which I explained above.

10 Teves- when the wicked King Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Yerushalayim, bringing it to dire straits and distress.

17 Tammuz- 5tragic events occurred:

a)The Tablets were broken.
b)In the days of the first Temple, the Tamid offering was discontinued.
c)In the days of the second Temple the walls of Yerushalayim were breached.
d-e)The wicked Apostumos burned the Torah, and placed an idolatrous image in the Temple.
9 Av-5 tragic events occurred:
a)It was decreed upon Israel in the Wilderness that that generation would not enter Israel.
b-c)Both Temples were destroyed.
d)The city of Beitar was captured and tens of thousands of Jews were killed.
e)The wicked Turnus Rufus plowed the sight of the Beis Hamikdosh and its surroundings.
In the beginning of Hilchos Ta'anios, the Rambam writes,
"It is a positive Scriptual commandment to cry out and to sound trumpets (see Bamidbar 10:9) for any misfortune that comes upon the community…This is the way of Teshuva-repentance, that when a misfortune comes and the people cry out over it and sound the trumpets, they come to the realization that it is because of their wicked deeds that this has happened to them…."
Rabbi Segal explains that when one is confronted with adversity, it is natural to seek to remove its cause. When the Jewish people find themselves in dire straits, they dare not attribute their troubles to ordinary cause and effect. Everything that happens to us is through Hashgachas Hashem-Divine Providence; a specific chain of cause and effect is merely one of the countless methods at Heaven's disposal for bringing about a desired result. The true cause of communal troubles is sin and the remedy is teshuvah.

It would seem that a person who attributes misfortunes to natural causes, rather than Divine Providence, is lacking belief in a most fundamental principle of Judaism.

As the Ramban (Nachmanidies) writes (Shmos 12:16), "…And from the great and well-known miracles, one comes to recognize the hidden miracles, which are the foundation of the entire Torah. For a man has no share in the Torah of Moshe Rabbeinu until he believes that all our happenings and occurrences are miraculous- there is nothing natural in them at all."

And yet we find that the Rambam (Maimonidies) takes a different view of a person who attributes events and occurrences to natural factors.

In the beginning of Hilchos Ta'anios he writes,

"But if they do not cry out and do not sound the shofar, but say, 'This happened to us because of natural causes, and this distress occurred coincidentally,' this is the way of cruelty and causes them to adhere to their evil deeds, and this will cause the accumulation of further distress…"
The Ramabam should have described such an attitude as heretical or foolish. Why does he call it cruel?

Surely, the Rambam agrees to the Ramban, that we mentioned before, that believing in Divine Providence is a fundamental principle of Judaism.

The Rambam, however, is teaching us that the primary sin of one who denies this principle is one of bein odom l'chaveiro-between man and his fellow. For such an attitude can only lead to further retribution, as the Rambam goes on to demonstrate from a passage in the Torah:

"Yet you still behave casually with Me! Then I will behave toward you with a fury of casualness" (Vayikra 26:23-24). This means: When I bring upon you distress in order to induce you to repent, if you say that it is casual [i.e., coincidental], I will multiply upon you a fury because of that casualness of yours (Hilchos Ta'anios 1:3).
Rabbi Segal observes that a Jew must realize that his attitude towards life does not only affect himself; the actions and attitudes of every Jew have a great bearing on the fortunes and future of the entire Jewish people.

This is why the Rambam defines a complacent attitude toward distress and misfortune as cruel [because he doesn't reflect on how his attitude will adversely affect others].

There is a beautiful parable in Midrash Rabbah Vayikra (Parsha 4:6) related to this point.

Rabbi Shimeon bar Yochai tells about a certain fellow who was on a ship with other people. This fellow took a drill and went down to his room and started to drill a hole in the floor. When the other people protested, he told them, "What do you care? I'm making the hole in my room, not yours." They replied, "Don't you realize that when the water comes through the hole in your room it will sink the whole ship."
Let us not be cruel and remember that all our troubles are through Divine Providence, not just natural occurrences. Hashem is trying to get our attention.

I saw a Torah letter called Halacha U'Mussar by Rav Asher Balanson on Parshas Balak, where he was discussing the fast of 17 Tammuz. He stresses that: "We must find time at least on the fast day itself, and preferably on each day of the three weeks (till 9 Av) thinking about our spiritual situation.

Where are we?

What have we accomplished with our lives and what do we want to accomplish?

How much time a day do we spend thinking about serving Hashem?

How much effort to we put into our davening?

At least during this period of time we must pay special attention to those blessings in Shmoneh Esreh that talk about the rebuilding of Yerushalayim and the coming of the Mashiach.

We should do this all the time, but at least during this period we should give these matters a closer look."

The quicker we learn these lessons and do Teshuvah the quicker we will merit real peace with the coming of the Moshiach speedily in our days. Amen.

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