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Asarah B'Teves: The Psychology of a Siege

The fast of the tenth of Teves is probably one of the most overlooked fast days on the Jewish calendar. Nestled in the heart of winter after the fanfare of Chanukah, it the shortest fast, and it often gets far less attention than the other two fasts observed in connection with the destruction of the Temple (17 Tammuz and 9th of Av). At the same time, Asarah B’Teves is one of the only fasts that can fall out on a Friday (that’s right, you would fast until Kiddush Friday night!); clearly, the day has significance and importance. What is the lesson that can be gleaned from this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it day?

On the tenth day of Teves 425 BCE, the Babylonians laid siege to the city of Jerusalem. Of course, it was two and half a years (30 months) before Nevuchadnezzar and his army actually destroyed the Beis HaMikdash on the ninth of Av. One might ask, what is so tragic about a siege that it warrants the observance of an annual fast? Yes, eventually, the siege led to the destruction of the Temple – but by that logic, nearly every event in Jewish history within a given time period could be seen as somehow leading to the Churban, but we don’t have constant fast days!

In the 1960s and 70s, psychologist Martin Seligman conducted a series of experiments to support his research on the study of depression. Seligman administered electric shocks to dogs in different groups of pairs. One dog could press a lever that would stop the shock for both dogs, but the other dog did not have access to such a lever. To the second dog, the presence and absence of the shock appeared to be random, and these dogs learned that there was nothing they could do to stop the shocks. Later, these dogs were placed in a large box divided by a low barrier, where dogs received shocks when they stayed on one side of the box and could escape the shocks by vaulting the barrier to the other side. Those dogs who had not had access to the lever and essentially learned that the shocks were out of their control did not jump the barrier, despite the fact that they could avoid the shocks by doing so. Rather, Seligman and his colleagues observed that these dogs more often laid down and whined while receiving the electric shocks.

From these and similar experiments, Seligman developed his theory of learned helplessness, the idea that, when an organism is exposed to adversity time and time again without an apparent means of escape or ability to control the situation, one will come to believe that he is completely powerless to change the situation, and, even when faced with tools to change it, will adopt a passive, helpless stance.

Militarily, the strategy of a siege is simple: drain the resources, block passage into or out of a city, make it impossible for residents inside to survive. Psychologically, the power of a siege is that it renders the inhabitants of the city completely helpless and hopeless; it trains them to believe that there is no hope, no way out, no change in sight, and that they have no control.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, in his Likutei Sichos, as quoted by Rabbi Eliezer Zalmanov, described the siege of Jerusalem as a missed opportunity. With the path in and out of Jerusalem blocked, the Jews had no choice but to turn to each other, locked as they were together inside the walls of their beloved city. Perhaps, had they done so and reconciled their differences, diffusing the Sinas Chinam that we know ultimately destroyed the Temple, they could have prevented the destruction altogether.

What stopped them?

Learned helplessness is what happens when we look at our circumstances and think to ourselves, how can we ever change this? There is no way that I can make this stop, there is no way that I can turn this around, or undo the damage done here. Perhaps the Jews of Jerusalem looked around and became aware of their misdeeds, and then despaired of ever rectifying them.

Today, it is reasonable to feel doubtful, skeptical, even hopeless regarding the cessation of our centuries-long exile. We feel tired, we feel sad, we worry, we wonder – is this actually in our control to change, or are we simply helpless, passive participants in the annals of history?

The tenth day of Teves also marks the Yartzheit of Rebbe Nosson of Breslov, the primary disciple of Rebbe Nachman, who is credited with writing down the majority of Rebbe Nachman’s words of Torah and inspiration. Perhaps one of the most famous lines from the world of Breslov is Rebbe Nachman’s insistence, “ein shum ye’ush ba’olam klal” – there is no despair in the world. These powerful words resonate deeply on the fast of Asarah B’Teves, a day when we begin to think about the depths of our exile, and it is difficult not to spiral into the depths of despair.

It is easy to be dragged into the passivity of learned helplessness, to believe that we cannot change our reality. But we must know and believe firmly that we can. The lesson of the siege of Jerusalem is that we must not despair, looking outward on the world around us, or backward at our long, dark history. We must look inward, and we must recognize that within us, within our connection to each other, lies our hope. May we merit seeing our hopefulness, our dedication, and our love for each other bear the fruits of Mashiach, bimheira bi’yameinu!

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