We Jews love to celebrate and commemorate on any and all occasions.
We are always ready to make a “L’haim!” – the middle (Hebrew) letters of which actually spell out God’s name, indicating that the toast is no less than a religious requirement! We celebrate personal events – birthdays, anniversaries and all life cycle happenings – as well as national events, be they spiritual hagim or civic holidays.
Modern Israel has even created several new and important opportunities for commemoration, adding Yom Hazikaron (Remembrance Day), Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day) and Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day) to our calendar.
We have also given new and increased life to other days that lost much of their “oomph” in the Diaspora. One such example is Lag Ba’omer, which pretty much went unnoticed abroad, except for the weddings traditionally held that day, and the occasional marshmallow roast. Israel has turned Lag Ba’omer – through organized hikes around the country, bonfires on virtually every empty lot and masses of visitors to Mount Meron – into a bona fide holiday.
The same can be said for Tu Bishvat, the 15th day of Shvat, or “Jewish Arbor Day.” Back in the old country, in parochial day school, we would chew on bokser, a piece of carob that doubled as shoe leather, and maybe have some fruit and nuts at lunchtime. That was it. But here in Israel, Tu Bishvat is not only about planting, but celebrates the amazing resurgence and renewal of the land, and the bounty of wonderful produce that we too often take for granted. Israeli agriculture, among the most advanced in the world, can grow anything, anywhere, any time.
(I recall taking a group of brand-new Russian immigrants to the open-air Carmel Market, soon after their arrival in Israel. They were convinced that I had made special arrangements with the vendors there. Coming from a country where supermarket shelves are largely bare, they simply could not fathom that this display of fruits and vegetables could be available on a daily basis!) But I want to focus on another special day, one that still has yet to gain much prominence: the fast of 10 Tevet, which occurs this Tuesday.
There are six fast days in the Hebrew calendar: Yom Kippur, the Fast of Gedaliah, the Fast of Esther, 10 Tevet, 17 Tamuz and Tisha Be’av (the ninth of Av). The last three relate to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem: On the 10th of Tevet, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylonia, laid siege to Jerusalem for three years; on the 17th of Tamuz, the city’s walls were breached; and on Tisha Be’av, the Temple was destroyed and the population either murdered, enslaved or exiled.
The 10th of Tevet, arguably, is the least observed of these six days. It does not have the biblical status of Yom Kippur; it lacks the impact of 17 Tamuz and Tisha Be’av, which begin and end the annual “Three Weeks” of semi-mourning practices; and it is not associated with a name, like Gedaliah and Esther. As such, few people outside the religious circle can identify with it, or even know why it’s singled out.
Perhaps that is the reason the Israeli Chief Rabbinate designated this particular fast day as a “general day of kaddish,” a day to recall and pray for those who perished during the Shoah whose exact day of death is unknown. A memorial candle is lit in our homes, and kaddish, as well as the somber Yizkor prayer, is recited in their memory. A date that is all too often forgotten in our calendar seems most appropriate to recall those martyrs who themselves are in danger of being forgotten.
I consider this an amazing phenomenon, for remembrance is closely linked to redemption. If you remember something or someone, it or he/she still has life; they still count for something. But when they are completely gone from our memory, they are lost forever.
But this act of consciously bringing someone to memory should not be limited to victims of the Holocaust. It should be applied to all our loved ones, on a regular basis. When is the last time we thought about – really concentrated on – those who helped shape our lives and are no more? And what about the relatives we never knew at all? Shouldn’t we try to find out something about them; what they experienced, what they accomplished, how they lived? What were their hopes, their dreams? What inspired them, what were their triumphs and tragedies? And where do we fit into the equation? Would they be proud of who we are, and what we are doing with our own lives? They must have dreamt of their future descendants and wondered what they – we – would be like. Are we meeting their expectations, or are we somehow falling short of their ideals? In making the momentous decision to move to Israel, I thought long and hard about my grandparents and their parents, whom I never met, all of whom prayed fervently every day, for “the Return to Zion.” They realistically did not have much of a chance to bring that prayer to fruition; I did.
And so, how could I make a mockery of their prayers, how could I disappoint their aspirations, when the opportunity to enter God’s land was set right in front of me? Indeed, I am convinced that it is in their merit and that of all our holy ancestors that I succeeded in coming here at all.
On this fast of 10 Tevet, perhaps during the time I would be eating if I weren’t fasting, I will think about the kedoshim of the Shoah, and try to imagine what they must have gone through.
I will be inspired by a story I found, some years ago, while researching the lives of survivors who somehow eluded the Germans’ relentless campaign to kill us all.
There was a young man who had studied music at the Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest. Now, he was trapped in a slave labor camp in Poland. One day, while taken out to work with some of his fellow inmates, the Nazi guards decided to have some sport with their captives.
They announced that when they blew a whistle, everyone must start digging a pit, and they must work exactly 18½ minutes – no more, no less.
Anyone who stopped before that time, as well as anyone who went longer, would be shot. The Jews were horrified as one of the guards took out a stopwatch, and told them to wait for his signal.
Suddenly, this young man quietly signaled to those around him, “Watch me and do exactly as I do!” And with that, they were told, “Jews, begin working!” As they dug, the workers looked constantly at the young man. He had quickly thought of a concert piece that he had memorized, that he knew was exactly 18½ minutes, and he began to play it in his head, note by note.
When he reached the end of the piece, he abruptly stopped, as did all those around him. The Nazis were stunned; somehow, the Jews had managed to stop exactly on time. “That is how I survived,” recalled the young man, who later became a symphony conductor.
“My only weapon was my memory, and it saved my life.”
King Solomon bitterly laments in his masterful work, Ecclesiastes: “Just as there is no recollection of those who came before us, so there will be no recollection (of us), by those who come later.” (1:11). But perhaps, if we make the effort to remember, the music of our lives will play on, long after we are gone. The writer directs the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana and will be the Scholar- in-Residence at the Ramot Resort this Passover; email@example.com