An old Jewish joke states that our calendar regulates our stomachs (though certainly no dietician would ever sign off on the diet). Hannukah is succeeded a week later by the minor fast of the Tenth of Tevet; Purim is preceded by the Fast of Esther; and at least the first-borns who are male have to fast in preparation for the enormous feast that is the Passover seder.
Rosh Hashanah, a two-day celebration with as many as four big meals (six on years like this one when it immediately precedes the Sabbath), therefore needs to be followed by two fast days, the half-day Fast of Gedaliah, and then a week later, Yom Kippur.
But all joking about the need to fast aside, the Fast of Gedaliah always strikes me as being so relevant to us today. The fast commemorates the assassination of the Babylonian-appointed Jewish governor of Jerusalem in the period following the destruction of the First Temple. There apparently was great disagreement about whether or not Jews could collaborate with the conquering Babylonians, and despite the prophets’ encouragement of exactly such action, a group of zealots who opposed this collaboration murdered the governor. The Babylonians responded by instituting direct rule with an iron fist, and the remaining Jews of Judah all fled the former kingdom.
It does not take much imagination to understand how the lessons of the fast are still relevant today. The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin followed a similar pattern, in which a Jewish zealot chose violence to express his understand of what was best for the Jewish people. But even in less extreme circumstances, I question whether we have learned the 2600 and 18 year-old lesson of those incidents. We continue to live in a society in which we are quick to criticize and rebuke others, and the violence of our words continues to lead to physical violence.
It is no coincidence that this fast remembering violent action falls during the ten days of repentance. While the original assassination took place on Rosh Hashanah, and thus commemorated at the holiday’s end, it also kicks off the period of profound self-reflection and piety that opens our new year. Every day we make special requests of God to forgive our sins and grant us second chances. We speak in the first person plural so as to acknowledge that neither we are perfect nor are those around us. At the same time, though, our responsibility is not to tell others the ways in which they are wrong, but to strive to be better ourselves. Moreover, if others who have wronged us sincerely ask for forgiveness, we are required to give it to them.
The entire holiday period marks the connection of words and action. Our liturgy teaches us that repentance, prayer, and acts of justice will remove any negative decree on our lives. This trio follows a logical order: we must first recognize our misdeeds; we must use our words to ask forgiveness from our fellow humans and from God; and we must engage in actions that make the world a better place. This is the exact opposite of the story of Gedaliah (and Rabin), in which people were quick to recognize the supposed sins of another, and the talk of that other person’s sins led to violence against them.
Judaism constantly reminds us that our words may be used to create good or they may be used to lead to evil. In one of the most beautiful piyutim (liturgical poems) that I discovered this year, “I Will Arise to Sing,” we proclaim that we will write poetry and sing songs to God, in hopes that we will be written into the Book of Life. The song’s message is clear; we should use our words creatively, but we should use them not to attack others but toward praising God and making the world a better place. May we all start the new year with introspection, creativity, moderation, and the ability to forgive ourselves and others.
Arie Hasit, a student at the rabbinical seminary of Machon Schechter, serves as the spiritual leader for NOAM- the youth wing of the Masorti Movement in Israel. He lives in Jerusalem.
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