Why do we fast? The general understanding is that it should be a spur for teshuva, repentance. This is certainly what Rambam writes in the beginning of his laws of fast days, where he sees the Torah’s commandment to sound trumpets at a time of communal distress as the basis for the rabbinic fast days:
This practice is one of the paths of repentance, for when a difficulty arises, and the people cry out [to God] and sound the trumpets, everyone will realize that [the difficulty] occurred because of their evil conduct… Conversely, should the people fail to cry out and sound the trumpets, and instead say, “What has happened to us is merely a natural phenomenon and this difficulty is merely a chance occurrence,” this is a callous approach, which causes them to remain attached to their wicked deeds… (Laws of Fast Days, 1:2–3)
This explanation works for the fast days that are the focus of the Talmudic tractate of Taanit – fasting during times of drought, locust, or the like. But what about the fast days that commemorate tragic historical events? On first blush these would not seem to be about repentance, yet Rambam again makes the connection:
There are days when the entire Jewish people fast because of the calamities that occurred to them then, to stir the hearts and to open the pathways of repentance. This will serve as a reminder of our wicked conduct and that of our ancestors, which is similar to our present conduct and therefore brought these calamities upon them and upon us. By reminding ourselves of these matters, we will repent and improve [our conduct], as Scripture (Lev 26:40) states: “And they will confess their sin and the sin of their ancestors.”
According to Rambam, then, we carry the burden of our ancestors’ sins by virtue of our continuing in their sinful ways. Fast days such as Tisha B’Av are meant to remind us that we too have sinned, and – perhaps more pointedly – that the current broken state of affairs continues as a result of our continuing in their sinful ways.
This is quite a heavy burden to bear, and if truth be told, it is often hard for me to connect my own sins and my own need to repent to these tragic, historical events. In fact, in all of tractate Taanit, almost no mention is made of the issue of repentance, and even the issue of sin plays a much smaller role than we may imagine.
If not repentance, what then is the purpose of fasting? The simple answer may be that it is a way of giving concrete, external expression to our state of misery or, alternatively, of fostering such an inner state if it is lacking. If we feel the tragic losses of the past, we will want to find ways to give expression to that. And if we don’t feel those losses, then we need to work harder to try to feel them. Fasting, like many mitzvot, both reflects and helps create our religious reality.
Seen from this perspective, it is perhaps easier to relate to the fasting of Tisha B’Av, for we can all understand the importance of feeling the tragedy of the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people. And yet, given our current reality – a powerful State of Israel, a Jerusalem that is larger and more prosperous than it ever was in past history – it is often hard to feel, even with the fasting, this sense of tragedy and loss. It is probably for this reason that we often focus on the Holocaust in our afternoon programming on this day. Certainly, we do not have a Temple, but for many people the idea of a Temple is too abstract, and for some even conflictual, to truly feel a loss at its absence.
This year, however, I have no problem connecting to Tisha B’Av. As our brothers and sisters face daily rocket attacks, and as world opinion, especially in Europe, aligns against Israel, it is easy to feel the sense of brokenness, to share in the suffering, and to look toward a time of peace and of wholeness.
But there is more to fasting than this. A close reading of the mishnayot in Taanit shows that the more intense fasting done in times of drought is not due to the lack of rain per se. We are initially told that the people enact a series of fast days when the first rainy period has passed and rain has not fallen. If after these fasts, the mishna tells us, the people have not been answered, they enact another, more intense series of fasts. And if they have not been answered after that, yet another, even more intense series of fasts is enacted. The wording is carefully chosen: The second and third fasts are not because “rain has not fallen,” they are because the people “have not been answered.”
There is, in fact, a play on words here. The ta’anit is in response to the fact that lo na’anu, they have been answered. It is the same root ayin, nun, heh. They fast so they will be answered. And, indeed, the liturgy for these fasts, which is perhaps some of our very earliest liturgy, is all about a cry to be answered: Answer us God of Abraham, Answer us. Answer us God of Isaac, answer us. Aneinu, aneinu.
We fast because God seems not to be listening. If a child calls from college to ask her parents to send money, and she calls again and again and receives no response, pretty soon it’s no longer about the money. It’s about why her parents are ignoring her. Why are they not responding? Do they not love her anymore? What has happened to the relationship?
In this week’s parasha, Va’Etchanan, the Torah speaks of how our sins will eventually drive us from the land. This is actually the passage that is read on Tisha B’Av, ki tolid banim. But there is more here than just the loss of land and of nationhood. It is all that it symbolizes. To be exiled from God’s land is to be existentially distanced from God. What is the response on our part that will bring us back? Not repentance per se, but our seeking out God, our desire to draw close once again:
But if from there you shall seek the Lord thy God, you shall find Him, if you seek Him with all your heart and with all your soul. When you are in tribulation, and all these things are come upon you, even in the latter days, if you turn, vi’shavta, to the Lord your God, and shall be obedient unto His voice (Devarim 4:29-30).
Repentance certainly is necessary; we must be obedient to God’s voice, for how else can we expect to merit the relationship? However, it does not start with repentance but with seeking, with seeking and with returning, v’shavta, the original meaning of the word teshuva.
And so it is with fasting. The people who are suffering drought do not need to find ways to feel the tragedy of the ruined crops. What they need to do is realize for themselves that God is not answering them. And they have to give expression to this and call out to God. They have to say, “God, look how miserable we are. We feel your distance. Please draw close. Please answer us.”
Tisha B’Av is a time when we give expression to, and work to realize, our sense of misery over God’s distance. We remember a time when God’s presence was felt on a national level and on a daily basis. We remember that, certainly in times of hardship but also in times of prosperity, God can be and needs to be more of a felt presence in our lives.
Ultimately, Tisha B’Av gives way to the 15th of Av, coming early next week. We are told in the last mishna in Taanit that there never were more joyous days in Israel than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippurim. The Talmud gives various explanations to why the 15th of Av was so joyous, but as some scholars have noted, its significance seems to be a counterbalance to the 9th of Av. As we are told earlier in the tractate, the 15th of Av was the date when many families who returned to Israel for the rebuilding of the Temple donated wood for the altar and distinguished themselves in their dedication and self-sacrifice for the Temple. Let us also not forget that Yom Kippur is the day when the High Priest enters into the innermost chamber of the Temple and a day when the Temple is cleansed so that God may continue to dwell among the people.
These two days represent the opposite of the aforementioned fast days. They celebrate God’s closeness to the people. They celebrate how, through actions both
practical and ritual, we have sought out God and how this has brought God into our lives, on a national as well as personal level.
As we transition from Tisha B’Av to the 15th of Av, let us all work, each in his or her own way, to do all that we can to help bring God into our lives and to help realize God’s presence in the land and State of Israel.