Fast Times

Parashat Pinchas 5780

Meir Sendor

The fast of the Seventeenth of Tammuz this Thursday starts the three weeks of mourning for the destruction of the Temples and the two thousand year exile from the Land of Israel, our homeland, an exile that is not fully over and that remains precarious. Maimonides in his Laws of Fast Days explains that fasting is a rabbinic ordinance derived from the Torah mitzvah to cry out to God in times of trouble:

רמב”ם הלכות תעניות פרק א הלכה א — הלכה ד

מצות * עשה מן התורה לזעוק ולהריע בחצוצרות על כל צרה שתבא על הצבור, שנאמר +במדבר י’+ על הצר הצורר אתכם והרעותם בחצוצרות, כלומר כל דבר שייצר לכם כגון בצורת ודבר וארבה וכיוצא בהן זעקו עליהן והריעו.

ודבר זה מדרכי התשובה הוא, שבזמן שתבוא צרה ויזעקו עליה ויריעו ידעו הכל שבגלל מעשיהם הרעים הורע להן,… וזה הוא שיגרום להם להסיר הצרה מעליהם.

אבל אם לא יזעקו ולא יריעו אלא יאמרו דבר זה ממנהג העולם אירע לנו וצרה זו נקרה נקרית, הרי זו דרך אכזריות וגורמת להם להדבק במעשיהם הרעים, ותוסיף הצרה צרות אחרות…

ומדברי סופרים להתענות על כל צרה שתבוא על הצבור עד שירוחמו מן השמים, ובימי התעניות האלו זועקין בתפלות ומתחננים.


Laws of Fasting 1:1-4

It is a positive mitzvah from the Torah to cry out and sound the alarm with trumpets for any trouble that comes upon the community… on anything that afflicts them such as famine, an epidemic, locusts and the like… This is one of the paths of Tshuvah, that when trouble comes they should cry out over it and sound the alarm and all will know that because of their bad actions they are in a bad situation… and this will cause them to remove the trouble from upon them.

But if they do not cry out but say that this is just the way of the world that happened to occur to us and it’s accidental, this is a path of cruelty and causes them to stick to their bad actions and will add further afflictions…

The rabbis decreed to fast if any trouble comes upon the community until they receive mercy from Heaven, and during these fast days people cry out in prayer and beseeching.

The biblical commandment to cry out to God in a time of trouble acknowledges that everything that happens to us is directed by God, is meaningful and is responsive to our behavior. Maimonides’ point is that this awareness will prompt us to engage in critical self-examination, to fix problems in our outlook and behavior, to open our hearts and turn to God in truth.

When we studied this passage in grad school, Professor Yitzchak Twersky, zikhrono livrakhah,  who was also the Talner Rebbe, one of the world’s greatest authorities on the thought of Maimonides, puzzled over Maimonides’ use of the word “cruelty” here (in bold above). To not take a calamity seriously, regarding it as an accident or natural occurrence, might be a corollary of a nihilistic, atheistic or deistic world-view, or, if a person is not a systematic thinker, it could be ignorant or foolish. But why cruel? Cruelty is causing pain and suffering to others, intentionally or through callous indifference. We never came up with a satisfactory answer at the time. But the current pandemic has made Maimonides’ choice of the word “cruel” crystal clear.

The current fierce resurgence of the pandemic here in Israel, and its continued explosive spread in the States, is a direct result of callous indifference on many sides. Here in Israel, when the first wave of the virus seemed under control, the easing of physical distancing restrictions and hygiene rules by the government was done chaotically, in response to narrow interest groups and without careful planning and supervision. Even when the resurgence was already alarming and quick action was necessary, political leaders continued to dither and argue for their narrow interests and hold up necessary decisions, oblivious to the severe impact on the whole country. The intent was to strengthen the economy, but the result was that people became cavalier and engaged in risky behavior on a large scale, whether out of callous hedonism or callous piety or callous indifference. Some young people wanted their pubs and clubs and parties. Other groups wanted their shuls and yeshivot and traditional celebrations in their accustomed way without making adequate, careful adjustments. Children were sent back to schools that were nowhere near prepared to help youngsters maintain the necessary precautions. Each of these groups became large-scale disease vectors. There needs to be some serious soul-searching on the way some groups have patterned themselves, what the prophet Yeshayahu calls “socially-conditioned human mitzvot,” (Is. 29:13) a conformism that renders them seemingly incapable of adjusting, adapting and responding properly to this crisis. The lack of honest soul-searching that a crisis like this should prompt, “is a path of cruelty and causes them to stick to their bad actions and will add further afflictions,” says Maimonides. And it has. The cruelty is that this callous behavior is killing and sickening others, many others, as well as the perpetrators.

One of the major themes of this week’s parashah is leadership – a new generation of leaders arises for Israel, taking over from the great brothers-and-sister team of Aharon, Miriam and Moshe. Pinchas is the new model of Kohen, not just a peace-maker, but someone who knows how to step up and take tough, decisive action when necessary. The daughters of Tzlafchad are the new model for women’s leadership, teaching Moshe and the nation to speak up, question assumptions and rigid patterns and learn to think and act creatively. Yehoshua’s job description is eloquently expressed by Moshe:

במדבר פרק כז פסוק טז יז

יפקד יקוק אלהי הרוחת לכל בשר איש על העדה: אשר יצא לפניהם ואשר יבא לפניהם ואשר יוציאם ואשר יביאם ולא תהיה עדת יקוק כצאן אשר אין להם רעה:


May HaShem, God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a person over the congregation, who will go forth before them and come in before them, bringing them out and bringing them in, that the congregation of HaShem not be like sheep that have no shepherd.

That Moshe appeals to HaShem as “God of the spirits of all flesh” is noteworthy. Rashi explains:

אלהי הרוחות – למה נאמר, אמר לפניו רבש”ע גלוי וידוע לפניך דעתו של כל אחד ואחד ואינן דומין זה לזה, מנה עליהם מנהיג שיהא סובל כל אחד ואחד לפי דעתו:


“God of the spirits” – why is that said? Moshe said before Him: Lord of the World, revealed and known before You is the mind of each and every person, and no one is like anyone else. Appoint over them a leader who will carry each and every one according to their mind.

Moshe describes a leader who cares for each and every person, a good shepherd. He calls for a leader who will lead by example, who is flexible and able to move in all necessary directions. A real leader models authentic humanity to inspire leadership in each of us.

The current pandemic is a crisis that tests us all. The fast day of the Seventeenth of Tammuz and the entire period of the Three Weeks is an appropriate time for deep reflection on this calamity and our part in it. A community fast is a cry for help from the whole community, for the whole community. We all need to take this crisis seriously, act with discipline and thoughtfulness, critique our dangerously rigid thought and behavior patterns and adjust them, think creatively and act flexibly to solve problems, realize how our choices affect everyone else, and care sincerely for the welfare of all other people, all other human beings. This crisis is meaningful, challenging humanity to our core. It should move us to call for God’s help and to open our hearts to His guidance.

תהלים פרק קמה פסוק יח

קרוב יקוק לכל קראיו לכל אשר יקראהו באמת:


HaShem is close to all who call Him, to all who call Him in truth.

In truth.

5 thoughts on “Fast Times

  1. Ronit

    Rabbi Sendor and Anne, so wonderful to read this important message so thoughtfully fitting for the context we are now living in!

    1. meir sendor

      Thanks for your comment, Ronit. We very much appreciate the principled social conscience and heartfelt sensitivity to others that you and your whole family exemplify. This is the approach we all need, together!

  2. Shoshanna Moskowitz

    Rabbi Sendor and Anne,

    “Cruelty is causing pain and suffering to others intentionally or through callous indifference” is the crux of the issue. Your thoughtful words cut through the many justifications that allow one’s behavior to endanger others, and clarify how we can do so much better for each other. Thank you so much.


    1. Rabbi Meir Sendor Post author

      Thanks for your response, Shoshanna! Yes, we can be so much more sincerely caring for each other. The righteous indignation driving so much of the anger and violence in the world today is a crude adrenaline rush that has lost touch with real empathy and human heartedness. We need voices like yours!

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