Fasting Amid Fighting for the Self and Others

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A Muslim youth prays inside the Dome of the Rock during the holy fasting month of Ramadan, in Jerusalem's Old City, July 16, 2014.Credit: AP

This week, Choose Life, a West Bank initiative of Arab and Israeli non-violent activists, including Ali Abu Awwad and Eliaz Cohen, organized a day of “fasting and making a personal accounting.” The event was publicized through social media - on Facebook and Twitter - attracting an international following of Muslims, Jews and Christians. The day fast was this past Tuesday, July 15, the 17th of Tamuz in the Hebrew calendar and the 18th day of Ramadan in the Muslim calendar, both communal fast days. This served to link Arabs and Jews spiritually; providing a basis for mutual understanding and dialogue at this very difficult time. As noted by Jessica Steinberg in the Times of Israel, the event began with the afternoon prayer service at the Gush Etzion intersection, where the three Israeli teenagers were abducted, and concluded with the break fast meal on Ali Abu Awwad’s farm nearby, including kosher food.

People of faith tend to view the world through a lens of hashgacha, Divine involvement. In other words, they perceive the events happening now as no accident, rather as being connected to the historical events in religious narratives. The themes of fasting and mourning, which are central to this time of the year for Jews and Muslims alike, can lead us to hatred and despair. Alternatively, we can use them as opportunities for communal and personal healing and growth.

For Muslims, Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. For the month, day fasting is fardh (obligatory) for adult Muslims, with certain exceptions. According to the Koran, Mohammed first received revelations during Ramadan and as such, it is the holiest month in the calendar. Fasting is to be accompanied by increased prayer, charity and personal repentance. With the Muslim calendar lunar based, Ramadan moves in relation to the solar calendar. This year, it mostly overlaps with the Three Weeks in the Hebrew calendar.

For Jews, the Three Weeks begin with the 17th of Tamuz. On that day, according to Jewish tradition, the sin of the golden calf resulted in the breaking of the first set of tablets by Moses, rupturing our intimate relationship with G-d, sealed as a marriage on Mount Sinai with the giving of the Torah. Additionally, on the 17th of Tamuz, four other historical calamities are cited as happening that day: the cessation of the daily sacrifice during the Babylonian siege on the First Temple, the burning by Apostomos of a Torah scroll, the placing on an idol in the Temple, and the breach of the Second Temple walls by the Romans.

During the three weeks, we mourn in reverse order from the customs observed after the death of a close relative. We progress from the less stringent (no haircuts or celebrations with live music) from the 17th of Tamuz to complete mourning on Tish B’Av (fasting for 25 hours, sitting on the floor or low stools, limited social interaction), when we observe, as a community the destruction of the two Temples and again, other historical disasters for the Jewish people.

The Talmud, tractate Yevamot, page 43b states in conclusion after a discussion of types of mourning,

“Rav Ashi said: Recent mourning is different from ancient mourning and communal mourning is different than personal mourning.”

There is a less stringent aspect to communal mourning over historical events in contrast to the keenly felt mourning after the death of a close relative, which affects one personally. What this Gemara teaches us is the simultaneous connection and separateness of communal and personal mourning. Who can forget the outpouring of communal and personal grief, in Modi’in and Shoafat, at the funerals of our children, Gilad Shaar, Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrah and Mohammed Abu Khdeir?

According to the Haari Hakadosh, Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, the three months in our calendar, Tamuz, Av and Elul are focused on teshuva, introspection, correction, and return, starting as a community and concluding as an individual as one prepares for Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur. The process proscribed by our tradition is prayer, acts of righteousness, and then teshuva, the same as for Muslims during Ramadan. Why should it be surprising that two of the Abrahamic faith communities share this focus?

For Israelis and Palestinians now, we are in existential crisis. We really have no idea of how events will unfold. On the national, communal level, there is a felt need for both sides of the conflict to maintain loyalty to their separate narratives, even as each believes the other is wrong. For someone in combat now, the rules of engagement demand total focus. There is little choice in how, or even whether, one can feel now. Surviving and winning are all that matter.

But for the rest of us, not at the frontlines, as individual Christians, Jews and Muslims, we have a choice in how and what we feel and what we do. Will we be satisfied with rote fasting and mourning, that which the Jewish prophets derided as unworthy and undesired by G-d? Will we be satisfied with a one-day Facebook event, which, while no doubt worthy, can be forgotten with the next social media posting? Will we let our national narratives pervade and overwhelm our personal senses of morality, as we descend into a pit of hatred?

Or may we find it in our hearts to remember and empathize with the plight of the other, understanding that by reaching out from our pain, at this time in our calendars, we have the opportunity to not only fix ourselves, but also, one relationship at a time, the world?

Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is COO of Ayeka, a teacher and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations.

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