Reflecting on Our Past for the Sake of Our Future

Rabbi's Message - December 14, 2021

Rabbi Tina Sobo

There’s a Talmudic tradition that, “Bad things come to pass on an unlucky day.” (Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 29a).  This statement is brought in the Talmud as proof that the Second Temple was destroyed on the same calendar date (the 9th of Av) as the First Temple.  Today is not Tisha B’Av (the 9th of Av), but a different fast day: Asara b’Tevet, the 10th of Tevet.  While major tragedies in Jewish history are ascribed to Tisha B’Av, today is a minor fast, traditionally marking the siege of Jerusalem in 588 BCE.  This siege eventually led to the destruction of the First Temple two years later.  This day marks the beginning of the chain of events that lead to an unfathomable catastrophe for Jews at the time – the loss of Temple, sacrificial service, and religion as they knew it.  As historians, we might see the almost two-year period from the siege to the destruction as a series of political and military acts.  In Jewish tradition, we are told that prophets foreshadowed the imminent destruction of the Temple if the Jews did not change their behavior.  Unfortunately, they didn't listen.

What I find significant about this fast is that it makes us look further back in the chain of events.  We are not supposed to eat, but it is more than that.  Think about Yom Kippur – we set aside the attention we would give to our physical needs to focus on our spiritual needs.  We repent and promise to change ourselves and our behavior.  The point of today's fast is not primarily to evoke grief and mourning, but to recall our own deeds.  We are encouraged to be mindful of our actions and the chain of events that could occur because of these decisions.  We also reflect on those behaviors of our ancestors as a guide to change our ways before it is too late.  It is as much about remembering our past as it is about changing our future.

In the last week, the devastating images and news of the tornadoes from Arkansas through Kentucky have been a reminder.  I cannot help but wonder how climate change and our societal carbon footprint are enabling some of the more recent super-storms.  Those images make me think back to the tornadoes that devastated our own community right here in Dayton.   There was one story that stood out among the others – the individuals who were working at the candle factory in Dayton, who asked to leave, to find a safer spot, when the tornado warnings went off and were allegedly threated with being fired if they left.  It is hard to imagine feeling so trapped, so stuck, so vulnerable, that one would have to choose to risk their own life to keep their livelihood.  For me, that is a bigger call to action to protect not just our earth, but also all people who dwell upon it.  The Biblical rationale for us protecting the most vulnerable in our community (the widows, orphans, poor, resident aliens, etc.) is that we were once slaves in Egypt and know what it was like.  We have a higher capacity for empathy and sympathy based on our own experience.  There are so many who are vulnerable in our days due to inequity based on intrinsic parts of identity (race, sexuality, gender, and more).  The tornadoes are devastating in and of themselves, and they highlight even more devastating parts of our society.  The siege on Jerusalem was devastating, and in hindsight, it was indicative of more to come.  If we can listen to the warnings, we can change.

So whether you are fasting or not during the daylight hours today, may it be a day of reflection, a day to consider your own behavior, and a day to use our past to change the future.  In addition to prayer and fasting, we can also acknowledge the tragedies of our days, the things that we are doing now that could be part of the beginning of larger chain of disaster.  We can begin to heal ourselves and our world.   If you’d like to contribute to the tornado victims, you might join the Jewish Federation of Louisville’s efforts in partnership with the American Red Cross.

I pray for strength, healing and comfort for all the victims of the tornadoes and their families, for our earth, for all its inhabitants.  I pray that we hear the call of this day, and every day.  Borrowing from the words of Cantor Leon Sher in his famous song Heal Us Now, “We pray for healing of the body.  We pray for healing of the soul.  For strength of flesh and mind and spirit.  We pray to once again be whole… We pray for healing of our people.  We pray for healing of the land.  And peace for every race and nation; every child, every woman, every man.

When Fasting is Actually a Sin

When Fasting is Actually a Sin

Rabbi’s Message – September 22, 2020

Rabbi Tina Sobo

To fast or not to fast?  

Perhaps the most well-known Yom Kippur custom is that of fasting.  The tradition is based on the command in Leviticus 16:29 to afflict our souls, and in the Mishnah Yoma 8:1: “On Yom HaKippurim it is forbidden to eat, to drink, to wash, to anoint oneself, to put on sandals (leather), or to have intercourse…”  

While fasting is an “iconic” Yom Kippur practice, not eating or drinking is one of several actions we refrain from on this Holy Day. For me as a rabbi, the essence of these “afflictions” is that we are rising above our most basic urges that lead to physical pleasure, in order to focus on the spiritual dimension of our being.

For some, that grumbling stomach is part of the Yom Kippur experience.  For others, it isn’t.  You’ve heard us saying throughout the pandemic that Judaism holds life, and the preservation and protection of life, as one of our highest values.  Fortunately, in the Mishnah, there are explicit exceptions to fasting for those who are ill or recently married, among others.

If, in any way, refraining from food and drink is not healthy for you, Judaism REQUIRES you to eat and/or drink on this day.  If a medical expert has given someone advice to eat, and they go against that advice, then that person is considered to have sinned, not to be pious.  Whether one is pregnant, seriously ill, has a chronic condition like diabetes or an eating disorder, has medication that needs to be taken with food/water, or something else – fasting is not an option, and you aren’t getting any brownie points with God for attempting to do so.

So, for those, like myself, who are forbidden by Jewish law to fast, this year (or any year), what can we do?  Remember, the essence of this practice is to focus on the spiritual.  There may well be other things on the list above that one can refrain from.  We can still attend services and focus on our spiritual selves, even while having a snack or meal in between (or during, if needed).  We can still practice serious self-reflection.  We can still find words of prayer in our own hearts.  We can still… do almost everything else related to Yom Kippur.

But we eat.  And here’s my advice.  Take some time this week to think about what it is that your body requires.  Call your doctor if you need to.  The year I had Gestational Diabetes, pre-made all my meals and snacks and I set a reminder on my phone to eat them and test my sugar levels, so that I didn’t have to put mental energy into counting carbs or remembering when it was time to test.  For children, maybe skip a snack and dessert (with permission from your grown-ups).  For anyone, perhaps you skip your favorite foods that day.  But the bottom line is this: Eat what you are supposed to eat; do not eat what you are not supposed to eat, and may our eating be a prayer in and of itself, as a service to God while we protect our bodies and health.

ReformJudaism.org offers this prayer and mediation for this who cannot fast.