Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Tenth of Tevet: On Determination and Resolve

Today is the 10th of Tevet, the Hebrew month which according to the ancient, Biblical way of counting, is the tenth month of the year. As in
And it came to pass in the ninth year of his reign, in the tenth month, in the tenth day of the month, that Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon came, he and all his army, against Jerusalem, and pitched against it, and built forts against it round about. (Jeremiah 52 verse 4)
If you prefer to use the Gregorian calender, that would have been January, 588 years before the counting began. After six months of siege Jerusalem fell and the temple was destroyed. Later it was rebuilt, and served as the center of the Jewish world for another 600-some years. I don't know when the tradition marking the Tenth of Tevet as a day of fasting and mourning began, but the Talmud gives Rabbi Akiva's opinion on it, and he was in the first generation after the destruction of the Second Temple, say, about the year 100 (though no-one was counting that way yet).

One way or the other, this Tenth day of Tevet has been a day of fasting and communal mourning for more than 1,900 years, commemorating an event that happened 2,597 years ago, about a mile from where I sit right now.

I'm not going theological on you, don't worry. There are religious blogs out there of all sorts and types, some of them make for interesting reading, but this isn't one of them. This is a political blog written by a lapsed historian. As a historian, it's interesting to note living traditions with pedigree of millenia. Especially when they have such burning urgency to them.

For 1,700 years most Jews fasted on the tenth of Tevet. Occasionally they'd add a layer of meaning to the day. One was as the annual day of commemoration for anyone whose date of death was unknown. In the late 1940s hundreds of thousands of Jews needed it, and the Tenth of Tevet became an early version of Holocaust Commemoration day. Yet it was preferred mostly by orthodox Jews, who needed a day on which to say Kaddish. Secular Jews who didn't feel that need, didn't relate to the date, and after a number of years of fascinating political haggling the Knesset enacted Yom Hashoah, the official Holocaust Commemoration Day. The Haredi still prefer the Tenth of Tevet.

The story of the Tenth of Tevet demonstrates one of the supreme ironies of Jewish history: that for almost 2,000 years it was religious belief that preserved the dream of returning to the ancestral homeland, using many traditions including fast days for mourning long-long-gone events; no sooner had majority of Jews modified or abandoned their religious tradition it was secular Jews who invented Zionism and determined to come back (though of course there had been some Jews here all along).

A blog post is the wrong place to describe how all that happened, but it actually can be summed up very pithily. The Jews are the longest-living cultural group in the world except perhaps the Chinese; unlike the Chinese they spent long periods spread as a minority in many lands, often (though not always) under severe persecution. The reason they survived was because they were determined.

Here's how it works on this Tenth Day of Tevet, 2009.


Last night we went to hear a lecture by a retired medical professor with whom I'm friendly, in spite of his being 30 years my senior. His theme was the contribution of German academia to the crimes of Nazism. As the public came in we chatted, and I asked if I'd see his son, Efraim, a 40-year-old budding history professor whom I taught when he was in high-school. No, he told me, his voice quivering, Efraim (a father of four) has been called up with his reserve paratroop unit, and they're preparing to join the younger men in Gaza.

When he got up he started by dedicating his lecture to the memory of his father, Efraim, who had been murdered in Budapest on the tenth of Tevet, 1945.

About 11:30 this morning, as I was leaving a meeting, my wife called: Nitai Stern was killed in Gaza last night. 12 or 13 years ago Achikam and Nitai had been best friends, who often spent the nights at each others house, talking for hours after bedtime. They went to different high schols, and eventually we moved to a different part of town and they drifted apart, but Achikam still often goes back to the old neighborhood and Nitai was still part of his old group. Achikam can't go to the funeral, so we went in his stead.

Near the end of the ceremony Reuven, Nitai's father, got up to speak. What does a father say on the grave of his son? What can he possibly say?

He read Psalms. The ones about warriors, and the ones about mourning. His voice was strong despairing and clear. Then he said "I'm going to sing now, and you can sing with me"
תהה השעה הזאת
שעת רחמים
ועת רצון

The final prayer of the Yom Kippur service:
May this hour
Be an hour of mercy
And a moment of goodwill
From You

To the Palestinians: we'd love to live in peace alongside you, but if not, you'll never ever beat us.
To the antisemites of the world: our distant descendants will still be here, tut-tutting over your malice, centuries after your own descendants won't even remember who you were.

That's how we've done it so far, and that's how we'll do it still.


Anonymous said...

Unutterably sad words about Nitai Stern z'l, but the post is wonderful; I lost my grandparents in Auschwitz, and my father was a survivor: he has now a total of 7 grandchildren and 7 great-grandchildren, all who continue on with their Judaism and love of Israel. We're fasting today, but you gave me, certainly, even more meaning to the fast than ever, thank you.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful post.

I'm a Christian/Catholic, and very worried about the Jews in Israel and Europe.

Wanted only to express support from another angle.

Elisson said...

A beautiful post, for which thank you.

We still fast on Aseret b'Tevet, on Tzom Gedaliah, and on Tisha b'Av to commemorate attacks on our people by civilizations that no longer exist in recognizable form. But we're still here, b'li ayin hara.

In 1000 years, when today's Hamasnik Palestinians are forgotten amidst the dust of history, we'll still be here. And maybe, if the Muslim world can experience the same kind of transformative evolution that the Christians have over the last 600 years, maybe they'll still be around too.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read your entire post yet but with respect to the Newsflash at the end, I just want to say "From your mouth, to G-d's ear."