May 26, 2024
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Rabbi Mordechai Willig at the Heichal HaTorah Jewish Center of Teaneck

Teaneck–The JCoT library was packed with 80 people on January 1 eager to hear a shiur presented by Rabbi Mordechai Willig, rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University that linked the fast day of Asarah B’Tevet to New Year’s Day.

Heichal HaTorah rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Aryeh Stechler introduced Willig, who began his talk by describing how, in the week’s parsha, Ephraim and Menashe received their blessings from their grandfather, Jacob. Menashe, the firstborn, was placed at Jacob’s right, but Jacob crossed his hands, so his right hand was on Ephraim’s head. Rabbi Willig explained that Menashe was a diplomat, statesman and interpreter, while Ephraim sat and learned with his grandfather day and night. Instead of giving priority to Menashe, the firstborn, Jacob took pains to put his right hand on Ephraim.

The point, said Willig, is “politics and diplomacy changes, but Torah is constant.” The only exception is when there are rabbinic innovations to protect the Torah, for example, when rabbis make changes to support existing halacha, like when the Chofetz Chaim and other gedolim endorsed Sarah Shenirer’s Beis Yaakov movement, Willig said.

Moving to the two holidays that were observed, New Year’s Day and Asarah B’Teves, Willig said one can divide secular holidays into three groups: Christian holidays, American holidays like July 4th, and the in-betweens, like New Year’s Day and Thanksgiving. “On some level I’m okay with celebrating New Year’s. It’s okay to make New Year’s resolutions to improve in the coming year,” he said.

However, Asarah B’Teves is the opposite of the celebratory New Year’s Day. It is a fast day because it was not just the beginning of the physical siege of Jerusalem, but a spiritual siege. “We should be confident in the values that we have. We don’t have to pander to society,” he said. “All the fast days will become holidays as long as we focus on both emes/yirah (truth/fear of God/ritual), and shalom (peace/ethics). In the first Temple, the Emes/Yirah (fear of God/ritual) was lacking, and in the second Temple, (shalom/ethics) was lacking.”

Rabbi Willig concluded by citing the Chasam Sofer, who wrote that if we truly understand and act on the message of Asarah B’Teves, then by the time we reach Tisha B’av, it will be a holiday for all.

 

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