BESIEGED!

“It was during the ninth year of his [King Tzidkiyahu] reign, during the tenth month [Tevet], on the tenth of the month that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, he and his entire army, came against Jerusalem and encamped against it. And they built a rampart against it, around it. The city remained under siege until the eleventh year of King Tzidkiyahu.” (II Kings 25:1-2)

This was not the first time that Babylon had besieged Jerusalem. Nebuchadnezzar had surrounded the city during the reign of Tzidkiyahu’s predecessor, Yehoyakhin. Then, however, the king came out and submitted to Babylon’s rule. Nebuchadnezzar exiled the king and his family, and thousands of citizens of Jerusalem to Babylon. He also ransacked the Temple and the king’s palace and sent all the loot to Babylon. He installed the exiled king’s uncle, Matanya, as the new monarch and changed his name to Tzidkiyahu. The new king remained loyal to Babylon for most of his reign until he made a strategic error – he relied on the support of Egypt who were fighting the Babylonians in Israel at the time. The prophet, Jeremiah, warned him that the only way to save Jerusalem was to surrender to Nebuchadnezzar but the king listened to his advisors instead and continued the rebellion. This overconfidence cost him dearly. After a year and a half of crippling siege, the Babylonians breached the walls of the city. They pursued the king and his warriors who had fled via a secret tunnel in the royal garden, and overtook them in the plains of Jericho. Tzidkiyahu and his sons were captured and brought before Nebuchadnezzar in Rivla. The Babylonian emperor slew Tzidkiyahu’s sons in front of him, gouged out his eyes and exiled him to Babylon in chains. He then set fire to the Temple and destroyed the city. The siege had come to a tragic end (see Jeremiah chapters 37-40 for the full story).

Yechezkiel, the prophet, had been exiled to Babylon during the reign of the previous king, Yehoyakhin. As the Babylonians were beginning their siege, Hashem appeared to Yechezkiel (24:1-2): “The word of the Lord was with me in the ninth year [of Tzidkiyahu’s reign] in the tenth month on the tenth day of the month, saying: Son of man, write for yourself the name of this day, of this very day – [record that] the king of Babylon has approached Jerusalem on this very day.” Yechezkiel was told to record the date on which the siege began because that day would become a day of mourning and fasting, as stated by the prophet Zechariah (8:19).

It is rather curious that God uses the phrase “this very day”, b’etzem hayom ha’zeh, twice in reference to the tenth of Tevet. What is the significance of this phrase? The 14th century commentator on Jewish prayer, Rabbi David Abudarham (in the section on the four fast days), writes something quite amazing: “There is a difference between them [the four fasts and the fast of Esther], in that the four fasts are postponed when they fall on Shabbat [whereas the fast of Esther is brought forward] except the tenth of Tevet which can never fall on Shabbat [in accordance to the rules of the calendar]. But it does sometimes fall on Erev Shabbat and we fast then and even if it were possible to fall on Shabbat, we could not push it off to another day because about this fast the verse (Yechezkiel 24:2) states, “on this very day”, as it does in reference to Yom Kippur [see Vayikrah 23:28-30], and the other fasts do not fall on a Friday.” Abudarham seems to be saying that were it possible for the tenth of Tevet to fall on Shabbat, we would fast just as we do when Yom Kippur coincides with Shabbat! In a way, we do fast on Shabbat when the tenth of Tevet falls on Friday, as it does this year. This is because we usher in Shabbat eighteen minutes before sunset but we only break the fast when it is dusk. Thus, we fast for a short while during the holy day.

Although Abudarham is addressing a theoretical scenario, his comments beg the question – why is this fast day different to all the others? What makes it so important that it would override the mitzvah of enjoying Shabbat just as is the case with Yom Kippur? Different theories have been put forward over the years. I would like to suggest the following. The tenth of Tevet symbolises the concept of being besieged. In some ways this is worse than full-on, hand-to-hand combat because it creates intense feelings of doubt, anxiety, apprehension and uncertainty. The people in the besieged city are full of panic: will the enemy breach the walls or will the defences stand? Do we have enough resources to survive the siege? What will happen if they break through? Will they kill us or capture us or enslave us? Moreover, those who are besieged begin to act in strange ways. As food becomes scarce, people will hide their meagre rations even from close family members. They will begin to lose their humanity and do things they never imagined possible. The Torah foresaw this in its chilling description of the siege of Jerusalem in the days of the Second Temple (Devarim 28:52-55), “It [the foreign nation] will besiege you at all your gates, until the downfall of your high and fortified walls upon which you rely throughout your land. And it will besiege you at all your gates throughout your land that the Lord your God gave you. You shall eat the fruit of your womb, the flesh of your sons and your daughters that the Lord your God gave you, in siege and in the distress that your enemy will distress you. The man among you who is tender and very delicate will be selfish toward his brother and toward the wife of his bosom, and toward the remaining children that he will leave; rather than give to one of them from the flesh of his children that he will eat, not leaving anything for him in the siege and in the distress that your enemy will distress you within all your gates.” The Torah continues that women will do the same: even the most delicate and pampered lady will refuse to share the flesh of her dead children with her living children.

One does not have to be physically surrounded by an enemy to feel besieged. Since the seventh of October, Jews around the world have felt that they are hemmed in on all sides. Firstly, there was the horrific terror attack and the seizure of over two hundred hostages. Secondly, there is the ongoing war in Gaza during which dozens of IDF soldiers have lost their lives or suffered grievous injuries. Thirdly, there is the lack of condemnation of Hamas’s brutality in so many quarters including the UN and, at home, the Government of South Africa. In some instances, Hamas’s actions have been praised, and in others, denied as Israeli fabrications. Fourthly, there are the massive rallies in support of the Palestinians at which there are cries of “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” This is nothing less than a call for the eradication of the State of Israel. Then there is the enormous rise of anti-Semitism on social-media and on university campuses, including Ivy League schools in America. A Jew at the beginning of 5784 is under siege. Our fasting this year is not just for an ancient tragedy but also for a modern reality. It is so overwhelming, so all-consuming that it occupies our thoughts even on Shabbat, a day that is meant to be dedicated to holy pursuits and upon which we are meant to turn our thoughts away from the troubles of the week. Yet, we still have the choice not to act like besieged people. We must not lose our humanity. We must not stoop to the levels of our enemies. We must put up a good fight and we must remain moral and dignified. And, above all, we must place our hope and trust in Hashem. If we so merit, He will break the “siege” as He did for King Chizkiyahu when the Assyrians surrounded Jerusalem (II Kings 20:35). May it be speedily in our days!

Lee, Chani Merryl and Naomi join me in wishing you Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Liebenberg

Link to Rabbi’s YouTube message for the parsha: https://youtu.be/UH8IbLD0ckA?si=1GSZziqHzfCag6VM

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