Monday, September 21, 2009

Today's Jewish Fast-Day--History and a Dilemma

The Fast of Gedalia is one of the most puzzling of requirements observant Jews face. And here I sit, with three and a half more hours without food or drink to endure, trying to grapple with a related moral dilemma.

This fast day is one of six annually, and falls right after the intensity of Rosh Hashana, when we're told an evaluation of last year's deeds determines our fate for the coming year.  This decree by God is "written" but not "sealed," meaning we've got these ten days between now and Yom Kippur to sincerely repent and thus sway the way God executes His plan.

But we're not told to fast as a means of penitence, (as on Yom Kippur itself, when our growling stomachs are to raise our consciousness beyond physicality to encourage the singular focus of angels) but in mourning for a righteous man (Gedalia ben Achikam) appointed governor of the remaining few Jews in Israel after the destruction of the Temple. His leadership had inspired Jews' return from Babylonian exile to the land, and his success allowed the royally-connected Yishmayel ben Nesania to be goaded into jealousy by a neighboring king. Gedalia refused to believe Yishmayel would actually kill him, and considered warnings "lushon ha ra," or negative speech, which Jews are to disregard.

Well, his decision to think the best of Yishmayel cost his life, which caused Jews to flee Israel, fearful that Babylonian king Nebuchudnezzar would retaliate the death of his appointee.  The Talmud says this was a huge tragedy because the loss of a righteous person is equivalent to the loss of the Temple--and the actual destruction of the Temple is the source of most fast days' mourning.

Then we learn that it wasn't just that we lost a good guy--but that such a thing could happen right when we (inluding the jealous murderer Yishmayel) were supposed to be in repentance mode.  It showed how low we really could go. This was the tragedy. 

We take away that especially now, we really need to focus on repentance, and that if we really do become more dedicated, our value increases--and can even soar to where one person's death can have catastrophic impact.

So today--gorgeous, sunny, warm and beautiful in the Seattle area--we couldn't eat or drink. Lots of Jews joke that after two days of bounteous holiday meals, a fast is welcome. But as the day wears on...less so.

My fast-day moral dilemma: This morning, I spent some time with a Jewish friend who is becoming more observant. She now largely keeps kosher, and attends Jewish classes. But she nonchalantly sipped from a water bottle.

I was flummoxed.  Should I assume she had a medical reason to drink on a fast day? Or, more likely, that she just didn't know about it?  Was every sip she took another sin accruing to me for not saying anything? Or, does "derech eretz kadma l'Torah"--manners and concern for embarrassing her take precedence over letting her know that it was a fast day?

While with her--watching her occasional sip--I tossed the options around in my mind. She frequently asks me questions about observance, in her growing effort to come closer and do more. Wouldn't she want to know she shouldn't be drinking?  Or would I be simply serving my own misery-loves-company need, or even a desire to feel superior, by telling her?  On the other hand, was she needlessly sinning because I kept quiet?

I'm wondering what was the right thing. Your advice?

1 comment:

  1. If you're already advising her on observance you could've asked her if she knows it's a fast day and used it as a way to discuss its significance. She probably didn't know it was a fast day. Even if you stayed quiet that day, you can go to her now and tell her your dilemma. I think she will be touched that you put so much thought into sparing her feelings and she'll learn something about tzom Gedalia. The bottom line, observance should spark discussion and change behaviors (a lot of times the mere idea of observance is enough to do so and you don't need to observe it.) Although, I did kappores for the first time this year and there's no comparison to the experience versus the discussion.