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Parashat VaYigash- The Most Important Fast Day of the Year

The Abudarham (Rav David Abudarham, Seville, Spain, d. 1300) makes an astounding comment about the fast of Asara Be’Tebet. He writes that this fast is so significant that were it possible for this date – the 10th of Tebet – to fall on Shabbat, we would observe the fast that day. As it happens, our calendar system does not allow the 10th of Tebet to occur on Shabbat, but theoretically, were such a thing to have been possible, the fast would override the obligation to feast on Shabbat.

This is truly astonishing. The only fast we ever observe on Shabbat is Yom Kippur – which is the only fast mandated by the Torah. All the other fasts, which were instituted later, by the Sages, do not override Shabbat. Even when Tisha B’Ab, the saddest day of the year, when we mourn the destruction of both Bateh Mikdash and several other catastrophes that befell the Jewish People, falls on Shabbat, we delay the fast and the mourning observances to Sunday. Why would Asara Be’Tebet be any different? Why is it so significant that it overrides Shabbat?

The Hatam Sofer (Rav Moshe Sofer, Austria-Hungary, 1762-1839) offers an answer which sheds an entirely new light on the occasion of Asara Be’Tebet. This day, as we know, commemorates the onset of the siege set by the Babylonians on Jerusalem, which ultimately resulted in the destruction of the city and the Bet Ha’mikdash. On that day, when the Babylonian army surrounded the city, a "trial" took place in the heavens. On one side, angels advocated on behalf of Am Yisrael, arguing that Jerusalem should be spared, but on the other, the prosecuting angels argued in favor of the destruction. Of course, this second group prevailed, and this siege resulted in the tragic destruction of Jerusalem. The Hatam Sofer posits that each year, on Asara Be’Tebet, this "trial" is held anew. G-d presides over the case, as it were, to determine whether or not our nation is again worthy of our final redemption and the rebuilding of the Bet Ha’mikdash.

This, the Hatam Sofer explains, is the difference between Asara Be’Tebet and the other fast days. The other fasts, including Tisha B’Ab, are commemorative. They are aimed at reminding us of past tragedies so we are moved to repent and improve ourselves. Asara B’Tebet, however, relates to a judgment taking place in the present. The Hatam Sofer compares Asara Be’’Tebet to the only other exception (besides Yom Kippur) when fasting is allowed on Shabbat – a Ta’anit Halom, a fast observed after a frightening dream. If one beholds a frightening dream on Friday night, and is very disturbed by its possible implications, he may fast on Shabbat in an effort to revoke the evil decree which he fears has been issued against him. This is allowed, the Hatam Sofer explains, because the fast in this case addresses a present crisis, not a past event. By the same token, the fast of Asara Be’Tebet would override Shabbat, because this fast is observed in the hope of earning a favorable decree as G-d sits in judgment that day.

It is no coincidence that Asara Be’Tebet is always observed around the time when we read the culmination of the dramatic story of Yosef and his brothers. They key to ending our long, painful exile is rectifying the sin of strife and internecine fighting among Jews, and this story is all about the rupture in Yaakob’s family and its restoration through Yosef’s kindness and forgiveness. Instead of seeking to avenge his brothers’ wrongs against him, Yosef put them in a position to make a Tikkun (rectification) of their sin by threatening to keep Binyamin in Egypt, prompting Yehuda to selflessly intervene, offering to remain in Binyamin’s stead – thereby reversing the sin of selling Yosef. Yosef then lovingly embraced his brothers, assured them he would care for them, and reunited the family.

Each night before we go to sleep, we are to recite a proclamation that we forgive everyone who may have wronged us during the day. Yosef shows us that one of the critical elements of brotherly love is forgiveness, to refrain from bearing grudges, to love our fellow Jews despite the mistakes they make and despite their faults. This is precisely the lesson we need to learn as we prepare for the critically important day of Asara Be’Tebet.

We cannot change the world; we can only change ourselves. Let us all make an effort to be more forgiving to our fellowman, so we once and for all achieve the final Tikkun of the sin of Sin’at Hinam (baseless hatred) and be worthy of our final redemption, speedily and in our times, Amen.

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