Tuesday, August 9, 2011

From Eicha to Ayeka: Why I chose not to fast this Tisha B’Av

I entered Tisha B’Av, perfectly prepared to observe my now usual custom of fasting from Sundown to Star-up. For the past decade, I have fasted on Tisha B’Av and for most of that time on the other minor fast days connected to the destruction of the Temple, and I have always had a good reason. This year, I discovered, in the middle of Tisha B’Av a good reason not to fast.

When I started fasting on Tisha B’Av I did not yet live in Israel, but I had become attached to my Jewish heritage and my fasting represented an expression of my desire to cast in my personal destiny with that of my people – to take responsibility for our collective fate – to be an active part of the nation’s life. Fasting as a Jew in Exile made perfect sense – I was literally mourning my exile – the historical circumstance that meant I as a Jew was not living in Judea.

On moving to Israel, fasting on Tisha B’Av became a little more complex, but nevertheless entirely reasonable to my own thinking. While I personally was no longer in exile (had I ever really been on a personal level?), now that I was back in the oh-so-imperfect third commonwealth of the state of Israel, I could see that there was so much still to mourn. As an Israeli, my mourning on Tisha B’Av was for our failure to learn the lessons of our exile. We may have succeeded to re-establish sovereignty in a political, physical sense, but we had not freed ourselves of the baseless hatred that led to the destruction of the second temple. We had not truly committed ourselves to building a society that could be an example to others. On becoming an Israeli, my fasting changed – I was no longer mourning for a mythical past – but rather for a very real present – I was mourning our inability to live up to our own promises to ourselves. Our inability to be our own redeemers.

So what changed this year?

As I was teaching a class that was meant to be about how we have failed to change our exilic thinking, and how exile forced us into being a more gendered hierarchical society, it hit me that mourning is a process one goes through, which is deliberately limited. You are meant to come out in a different place after it. It is meant to change you. Instituting the idea of fasting to represent our mourning for the temple (which we can then understand differently as our mourning for the incomplete job of rebuilding our society) is self-destructive, or at the least limits growth. We need to go past mourning. Only by actively stopping the slightly self-indulgent act of mourning can we stop viewing ourselves as victims of circumstance.

Here, I want to introduce another drash that I read in preparation for Shabbat Hazon this year. The term Eicha, which opens Megilat Eicha that we read on Tisha B’Av and also appears in the Haftarah for the Shabbat beforehand, and in parashat Devarim which is always read on Shabbat Hazon appears 18 times in Torah. One time, the same written word is actually read not as Eicha, but as Ayeka. The two words both seem to introduce questions, but they could not have more different meanings. Eicha, means “How?” – but when it is used, it is usually exclamatory rather than actually interrogatively understood – i.e. it’s not really a question. When we use Eicha, we are asking “How did this happen to me?” We are bemoaning our luck, our fate. We are self-empathising, or worse, asking for sympathy. When we hear Ayeka, once, in the story of Gan Eden, G-d is asking us where we are. Of course if we understand that G-d already knows where we are, we know that this question is not meant literally – where are you? But rather, where are you at? What have you become that you could sin so? Why are you trying to hide? What are you trying to hide? The Ayeka question turns the conversation from self-pity to self-analysis, from sympathy to introspection. It doesn’t belong in the process of mourning.

Tisha B’Av needs to stop being a day in which we mourn our national fate – for there is nothing to be mourned. We are a wealthy prosperous nation. We have had trouble in the past, we have got through it, we are well prepared for the future. But we haven’t learnt from our own mistakes. On this we should concentrate on Tisha B’Av: our physical exile has ended, how do we bring an end to our spiritual exile. If next year, I feel fasting will help me find an answer to that question, I will gladly go hungry.


  1. I like your idea of turning fasting into questioning. It reminds me of what Zecaharia said (Chap 7) to the Hebrews when they asked about whether they should keep fasting on Tisha Be'Av whilst the Second Temple was in the process of being built. He told them:

    "Say to all the people of the land and to the priests: When you fasted and lamented in the fifth (Tisha BeAV) and seventh (Tzom Gedalya) months all these seventy years, did you fast for my benefit? 6And when you eat and drink, who but you does the eating, and who but you does the drinking?7Look, this is the message that the Lord proclaimed through the earlier prophets, when Jerusalem and the towns about her were peopled and tranquil, when the Negeb and the Shephelah were peopled.

    And the word of the Lord to Zechariah continued: Thus said the Lord of Hosts: Execute true justice; deal loyally and compassionately with one another. 10Do not defraud the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor; and do not plot evil against one another.— 11But they refused to pay heed. They presented a balky back and turned a deaf ear. 12They hardened their hearts like adamant against heeding the instruction and admonition that the Lord of Hosts sent to them by His spirit through the earlier prophets; and a terrible wrath issued from the Lord of Hosts. 13Even as He called and they would not listen, “So,” said the Lord of Hosts, “let them call and I will not listen.” 14I dispersed them among all those nations which they had not known, and the land was left behind them desolate, without any who came and went. They caused a delightful land to be turned into a desolation."

    Your blog seems to echo the words of Zecharia in saying that if your fasting does not lead to questions about צדק חברתי it's not that worthwhile.



  2. A beautifully written and thoughtful piece. I wonder, though, how you would respond to the following:
    Mourning is not a finite process. The ritual may be, but people often slip between the multiple stages of mourning. Acceptance is the last, and supposedly permanent stage. Couldn't acceptance also manifest the thoughtfulness you are looking for, as well as maintaining the fluidity that sometimes we will slide into the other stages?
    Also, Tisha b'Av is not a day of personal mourning, but communal mourning. It may be that annually we as a community need this day to focus on our losses and focus on how to repair ourselves as a community. By asking Ayeka, it seems that you are hidden, you have personally pulled away from the community on this day, so much so that we need to ask where you are. Could you not remain a part of the community and use this time, with its communal rituals, to push us all to look at ourselves and decide how to be better?
    Keep the posts coming,

  3. Ittay - how are you doing? How r things down under? Are you still at King David? What you wrote was the bit of this blog that I left out - I just thought it had got too long - but obviously my personal questioning is completely revolving around the whole "do you fast during the third commonwealth" piece which obviously is the same question as the "did they fast during the second temple?". But I was also trying to ask something different - is mourning the process we need to be in at this moment in our history - not because of the change in historical circumstance, as such, but rather because of the change in our psychological make up. Has mourning become selfish?
    Which leads me to you Reb Kessel - I understand the differentiation between Personal and communal - and I in no way meant to suggest that Tisha B'Av is about my personal mourning. I think that maybe the different perspective of Secular Israel / Diaspora Judaism leads each of us to a different understanding of communal ritual. For secular Israel Tisha B'Av falls in Nissan /Iyar (Yom HaShoah + Yom HaZikaron)and so the questions of Tisha B'Av must be slightly different. My desire is still to have a communal ritual for Tisha B'Av, but it needs to be a different kind of fast - a fast of action.
    And nu? What is going on with you? News?