On the Fast of Tevet
Repentance and other hard to understand words
I’m fasting today but I don’t know why.
The calendar said to fast on Tuesday. To remember the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 425BC. Back then this day was the beginning of the end of two houses of worship. For people whose culture, and God, I still try and relate to. I don’t know why I do that either.
But why fast? Why remember the beginning of the end of an ancient way of life with fasting? Why grieve hungry? Because, we are told, we must ask for forgiveness. We must repent. In modern times we would decry the suggestion as victim-blaming.
Still in an otherwise ordinary day, there is something about the invitation to make a solemn sacrifice. Something appealing about a shot at reverence, and repentance.
On Tuesday there were Christmas parties to attend, so in our house we decided to fast on Thursday.
Now it’s Thursday, and it’s hard to know where to turn for guidance in the ways of the tradition. How to fast? Judaism feels like a fragile antique. As if looking inside would only destroy the beauty of the object, which is best left on the shelf, and referred to only when the conversation turns to cultures of origin. Yes, I am Jewish. See? There on the shelf.
Nevertheless, a friend once told me that Rabbi Heschel once wrote, all men need a song, and ever since I am inclined to consult Rabbi Heschel on matters relating to the ancestral faith.
In his essay on the meaning of repentance, Heschel writes that repentance is a miracle, because it causes time to be created backwards, and recreates the past with forgiveness in the present. I think that is a beautiful idea.
But I don’t quite know how to repent that way. To recreate the past with forgiveness. Probably I would need to understand what is meant by God, and what it means to believe in Him. But I don’t. I can’t even read the words without tasting some bitterness.
Heschel also writes that repentance is an “absolute spiritual decision made in truthfulness. Its motivations are remorse for the past and responsibility for the future.”
I feel capable of remorse. But the mere thought of making an absolute spiritual decision in truthfulness only shrinks me. Is that the point? To be shrunk by the thought of asking for forgiveness?
Heschel’s book of essays is called Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity.
There is a joke in that. And maybe the joke is to think it might actually be possible to really know what to do with feeling remorse. That assuming to know is tantamount to an error worthy of more repentance. The guilt is heavy.
Truthfully I have no idea. Why am I fasting? Because I want to be closer to something I don’t understand, because I want to have more faith. I don’t want to believe in God, but I want to be able to pray. Because, like everyone, I feel the need for a song. A miracle. A little more love and peace in the world.