By Daniel Cohen, Programs Director
It is interesting to note that in Judaism, we celebrate as a nation our happy occasions while at the same time are steadfast in commemorating those less happy ones:
The nations of the world generally establish special days to commemorate victories and successes, while preferring to forget defeat and failures. Knesset Yisrael is different: we do not have a selective memory; our tradition imbues our consciousness not only with celebration of glory, but also with commemoration of periods of destruction.
[Tracing the Roots of Destruction, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein]
The day of Asara B’Tevet is only mentioned briefly in the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (121:3):
עשרה בטבת, סמך מלך בבל, נבוכדנצר הרשע על ירושלים והביאה במצור ובמצוק, ומזה נמשך החרבן
(On) the 10th of Tevet, Nebuchadnetzer, the King of Babylon, reached Jerusalem, and laid siege (to the) ramparts, which lead on to the destruction.
The question can be asked: why do we have this day of commemoration at all? All we are remembering is the start of the siege of Jerusalem – we commemorate the more important and devastating events in Tammuz and Av, surely they remove the need for a day merely signifying the start of the siege?
The day has also been designated as the day for saying Kaddish for those Holocaust victims whose day of death is unknown. A further question thus arises: what is the connection between the Holocaust and the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem at the time of the First Beit Hamikdash?
Rav Lichtenstein offers the view that the following is the connection between the two events commemorated on Asara B’Tevet: the root causes of the troubles. When we look at the destruction of the Temple, we can look only at the end result – of the destroyed Beit Hamikdash – but that gives us no insight as to how the whole process began.
Similarly, looking at the Holocaust, it can be easy to forget from where the tragedy stemmed, and rather just focus on what happened during the Jewish people’s most terrible episode in their history. But what caused it?
William Shirer, in his “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” tried to get to the roots of the Holocaust. There certainly were roots, but they were impossible to discern at the time of the events. Looking back now, we may point out the music of Wagner, Bismarck’s hunger for power, the philosophy of Nietzsche – but none of this would have been discernible at the time. I don’t know if we can make any claim today against someone who listened, at the time, to Wagner’s music or who was impressed by Nietzsche.
But the lesson of the Holocaust is that we now know that it is possible. Prior to the Holocaust, no constellation would have seemed to lead towards it. The roots were not discerned simply because no one had any idea that such a tree existed. But we, the generations after the Holocaust – we know that there is such a possibility, and that we must look out for the smallest sign of its buds. We need to sharpen our consciousness of the connection between siege and destruction – not necessarily out of fear of a second destruction, but rather because if that is what grows from certain buds, then how terrible are those buds themselves!
[Tracing the Roots of Detruction, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein]
This is the message, too, of Asara B’Tevet. It is one for introspection as to the reasons behind our national tragedies and to think about how we can be aware of them and act to deter such tragedies occurring again. It is worthwhile recalling what we learn in the Kitzur (121:1):
כי אין העקר בתענית, כמו שנאמר באנשי נינוה, וירא האלקים את-מעשיהם, ואמרו רבותינו זכרונם לברכה, וירא את שקם ואת תעניתם לא נאמר, אלא וירא האלקים את מעשיהם כי שבו מדרכם הרעה.
The principal thing is not the fast, as was said about the people of Ninevah (Jonah 3:10): ”And G-d saw their deeds”. Our sages, may their memory be for a blessing, said (Ta-anit 15): ” ‘and He saw their sackcloth and their fasting’ was not said, rather ‘And G-d saw their deeds’, for they had returned from their evil ways”.