(Kings II Chapter 25) “It happened in the ninth year of Zedekiah’s reign, in the tenth month, on the tenth of the month, that Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylonia, he and his entire army, came to wage war against Jerusalem and encamped near it, and built a siege tower around it.”
Jeremiah had been prophesying the arrival of a storm from Babylon for years. No one listened. “It could never happen to Jerusalem!” No one wanted to listen, so they threw the prophet into a pit and jail. Babylon’s armies had already visited Jerusalem. Zedekiah was king only because his brother Jehoiachin, was taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar. Zedekiah was not his real name. The 21 year old Mattaniah was renamed by the Babylonians ; they controlled everything, not only who was king, but even his name! And Jeremiah continued to warn the people how vulnerable they were, and how insecure their situation. But the people did not hear the prophet. They did not want to listen. “It could never happen to Jerusalem.” “It will never happen to me.”
The Babylonians were at the walls of the city and Jeremiah cried out to the people to listen to God’s message. Perhaps now they would listen to the man who spoke in God’s name. But the people did not pay attention to the prophet’s voice. They did not want to hear. They could have prevented the destruction of Jerusalem. They had ample opportunity to surrender to the Babylonians. But, they could not hear God’s voice in Jeremiah’s cries. They did not want to hear God’s message in their new circumstances, even as siege walls were being constructed around Jerusalem. They could hear the hammers banging away at the walls that would spell their doom, but they did not listen. They were not deaf. They chose not to hear.
They may have chosen to shut out God’s voice, Jeremiah’s cries, the sound of Nebuchadnezzar’s soldiers marching, the noise of the construction and the loud and clear pronouncements of their political and military realities, but we can hear the sound of desperation and frustration in Jeremiah’s words.
We, the people of the Shema, “Hear O’ Israel”, so often choose not to hear. We shut out the warnings of Jeremiah. We ignored the warning signs of Hitler’s rise to power. We shut out the very clear message in Iran when Islamic radicals toppled the Shah. We, who repeatedly remind ourselves to hear and pay attention, simply slide into selective hearing. How can we hear the words of Shema as we should if we can so easily choose what not to hear? Either we hear the voices of God, the prophets and history, or we do not.
We remember the deafness of our ancestors in besieged Jerusalem and we “fast”! Would it not make more sense to dedicate the Tenth of Tevet to learning how to listen? Why do we fast?
(Zohar, Volume 2, 20b) Rabbi Eliezer would pray the following words when he would fast: “It is revealed and known before You, God, my Lord, Lord of my ancestors, that I offer all that my body is burning of itself as an offering to You. May it be Your desire that the smell that rises from my mouth as I fast be considered equal to the fragrance of the Burnt Offering as it burns on Your altar.”
Rabbi Eliezer’s prayer teaches us that we want God to pay attention to our fasting, just as He would pay attention to a sacrifice burning on His altar. We ask the Master of the Universe to pay attention, to hear us, to listen. We cannot accomplish anything with our fast if God does not take note of our feeble effort at fixing our mistakes. We cannot ask God to listen if we continue to shut our ears to Him. A fast is a prayer. A prayer must be heard. A prayer should begin a conversation. A conversation cannot develop if either party does not hear the other. Jeremiah expresses this idea in a powerful verse (14:12): “If they fast, I will not listen to their call.”
The fast of the Tenth of Tevet is a prayer; a prayer that can only be effective if we remember to listen for God’s voice.
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