The siege of Jerusalem on the tenth of Teves teaches there can be no rapprochement between Jerusalem and Babylon; the distinction between the sacred and the profane must never be blurred. When a Jew’s fear of G‑d — the “Jerusalem” of the soul, is besieged, it is a warning that he must revitalize his commitment to Torah and mitzvos.

The tenth day of the month of Teves is a public fast in remembrance of the day “the wicked Nevuchadnetzar, king of Babylon, surrounded Jerusalem and laid siege to it.”1

“Day Desirable to G‑d

A fast is a “day desirable to G‑d.”2 The prophet Yeshayahu, in denouncing the way Jews observe their fasts, asks: “Is such the fast that I have chosen? A day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Do you call this a fast and a day desirable to G‑d?”3

The prophet does not denounce the idea of a fast per se; when observed properly, it is a “day desirable to G‑d.” And he continues to speak of the proper way to observe a fast: “Is this not rather the fast that I have chosen?... Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the poor that are cast out to your house? That when you see the naked you cover him?”

It is not enough to spread sackcloth and ashes — the idea of prayer — but one must also, and more importantly, share one’s bread with the hungry, bring the poor to one’s house, and clothe the naked – i.e., the idea of tzedakah, good deeds. And to know how to pray and perform good deeds properly one must learn the Torah. Three things, therefore, are emphasized on a fast day: Torah study, prayer, and good deeds — the three things “on which the world stands.”4

The object of a fast, then, is not merely to afflict the soul, but rather it is a means to an end: improvement in a Jew’s service to G‑d, repentance. In the words of Rambam:5 “It is of the ways of repentance. In a time of trouble...all should know that evil has befallen them because of their wicked deeds.” And when Jews will repent, “this will cause the trouble to be lifted from them.” More specifically, concerning the public fasts that all Jews observe, including the tenth of Teves, Rambam writes that their purpose is “to inspire the heart to open to the ways of repentance. It will serve as a reminder of our own evil deeds and those of our ancestors...which caused them and us these troubles. By remembering these events we will improve our ways...”6

Trouble befalls the Jewish people because of their evil ways; in general, when there are deficiencies in the three areas of Torah, prayer and good deeds. By repenting, increasing our efforts in these areas, we remove the cause of the trouble; and when the cause is eliminated, automatically the effect is eliminated.

Teshuvah, repentance, has the unique property of not only causing past transgressions to be forgiven, but of transforming them into merits.7 This parallels G‑d’s promise: that “the fast of the fourth...and the fast of the tenth shall become times of gladness, joy, and festivals for the house of Yehudah.”8 In the future, in the Messianic age, the fasts not only will be abolished, they will be transformed into festivals. Jews, through their service of repentance, help eliminate the cause of those fasts and make them days of joy and gladness.

This is the theme common to all fast days. There are, in addition, special lessons and directives to be learned from the particular nature of each fast.

Siege was root of subsequent calamities

On the tenth of Teves Nevuchadnetzar besieged Jerusalem. A siege is not as tragic an event as that for which any of the other public fast days were instituted. During the siege the city itself remained intact; the Beis HaMikdosh continued to function; and even the sacrifices continued as usual. In contrast, on the seventeenth of Tammuz the daily sacrificial service was interrupted and the city’s walls were actually breached;9 and on the ninth of Av, the Beis HaMikdosh was destroyed. The beginning of the siege on the tenth of Teves surely cannot compare in tragedy to these events. Yet, according to one opinion, the fast of the tenth of Teves, unlike other fasts, is not postponed to another day when the tenth is Shabbos.10

The extra stringency is because the siege of Jerusalem was not just an independent event but the root of all subsequent calamities. It led to the catastrophe that the “wall was breached” on the seventeenth of Tammuz, and eventually to that the “House of the L‑rd was burned” on the ninth of Av. Although the Babylonian king had not yet breached the walls, the very fact that he surrounded Jerusalem and as a result laid siege to it, is itself a disaster — and must be fought. If no fight is made, worse things will eventuate.

The tenth of Teves, then, carried the potential for all the following evil. The siege was a warning to the Jewish people that if they would not repent worse would follow. Their failure to correct their ways caused the subsequent calamities. Since the object of a fast is to inspire teshuvah, and the failure to repent on the tenth of Teves caused all the following tragedies, this day must evoke a deeper sense of teshuvah than other fasts. That is why it possesses an unusual degree of stringency.

Jerusalem v. Babylon

There are valuable lessons in this for our service to G‑d. Jerusalem, Yerushalayim in Hebrew, is derived from the words Yirah and Shalom.11 Yirah means fear (of heaven), and Shalom means complete or perfect. Yerushalayim thus represents perfect or complete fear of heaven. Within every Jew is a Yerushalayim, a level of the soul where naught but fear of G‑d presides, where there are no doubts, no hesitancies, in committing oneself to G‑dliness. The difference between good and evil is clear-cut.12

Babylon, Bavel in Hebrew, is related to the word bilbul, which means mixed together, confusion. Bavel corresponds to the world and its nations, where the sacred, the mundane, and the forbidden are all mixed together and it is difficult to differentiate between them. The “king of Babylon” is the yetzer hora, the evil inclination.

“The king of Babylon surrounded Jerusalem” is the yetzer hora’s attempt to achieve a rapprochement between the sacred and the profane. It is not a direct enticement to evil; it is merely an attempt to establish proximity.

But therein lies the greatest danger. The very proximity of Babylon to Jerusalem is a siege of Jerusalem. It will not cause the service of the Beis HaMikdosh to cease — as yet. But if the siege is not fought at the very onset, it can cause even greater trouble. When the Jerusalem of the soul is besieged, when the absolute fear of heaven which allows for no doubts becomes weakened, worse tragedies can eventuate. The wall may be breached and the House of G‑d set in flames.

It cannot be allowed to happen; the siege must be lifted immediately. A Jew must know that Jerusalem and Babylon can never mix. They are different worlds with no relationship between them. Jerusalem is total G‑dliness; Babylon is the confusion that leads to evil. A clear separation must always be kept, as said, “He makes a distinction between sacred and profane, between light and darkness and between Israel and the other nations.”13

An example: A G‑d-fearing Jew keeps mitzvos. But a common fault is to overlook the “minor” Rabbinical enactments, or to look lightly upon laws which to him do not appear important. A trivial transgression, perhaps. But perfect fear of heaven has been weakened and Jerusalem has been besieged. And the most trivial of sieges can have the most tragic results. The yetzer hora does not start out to convince a person to commit an outright wrong, for a Jew’s defenses, his inner fortress Jerusalem, is too strong. The yetzer hora instead lays siege to it, chipping away at his defenses. As the Talmud notes: “One day the yetzer hora says to man ‘do this;’ the next day ‘do that;’ until it ultimately convinces him to go out and practice idolatry.”14

A Jew can be convinced to transgress even a minor law, although he knows all of Torah is G‑d-given, when the distinction between good and bad is blurred. Proper differentiation is only possible through the “Torah of light,” which illuminates a Jew’s way. When that is removed, or worse yet perverted, a transgression even may appear as a good deed. A Jew may think that by overlooking a minor mitzvah he will gain in the observance of a major one. He will note that Torah itself sometimes permits neglect of one commandment in favor of another, as in the principle that “a positive precept takes precedence over a prohibitory precept.”

Such logic, of course, is false. The above principle was established by Torah. It is completely different when man decides what is more important. Such thinking is a perversion of Torah which can only pave the way for far more serious transgressions. Once the siege has begun, once “perfect fear of heaven” has been weakened, the way is ready for an all-out assault on the walls.

Siege intended for good

But to keep one’s inner Jerusalem inviolate is a difficult task. We live in a time of exile, when spiritual darkness lies heavily on the earth. Confusion is everywhere, especially now, in the times immediately preceding Moshiach’s arrival, when the ominous signs for this era predicted by the Talmud15 are plainly evident. How is a Jew to protect himself from being besieged, and even more difficult, to keep from despair?

The answer comes from the siege of the tenth of Teves itself. The prophet Yechezkel, describing this calamity, says: “The king of Babylon besieged Jerusalem.”16 In Hebrew, the word for besieged used by Yechezkel is somach, which usually has the positive meaning of support. Yet the prophet chooses to describe the siege with this term.

Everything in this world, even evil, has its source in holiness. The siege of Jerusalem, too, undeniably an undesirable event, was, at its source, a positive thing.17 Had the Jewish people responded properly it would have remained positive. When the Jews did not do so, it became a negative, evil event. This is the reason for the use of the world somach. In its source, the siege was intended for good, and it could have been a support for the Jews; but it could also turn into bad. The Jewish nation unfortunately did not respond appropriately and it became totally bad.

The siege was intended originally for the benefit of the Jews. They had sinned and were deserving of punishment. Yet G‑d in His infinite mercy did not immediately punish them. He instead sent Nevuchadnetzar to lay siege to Jerusalem as a warning to the Jews to repent. The siege was intended to rouse the Jews to realization of their misdeeds, correct their ways, and thereby escape the impending punishment. Had they repented, the siege would have been eliminated.

Nevuchadnetzar was not the first to besiege Jerusalem. Sancheriv, king of Assyria, had done so before him and the threat then was much greater than in Nevuchadnetzar’s siege.18 Despite Sancheriv’s overwhelming strength, G‑d performed a miracle and in one night totally routed the Assyrian army. This was the result of one man’s prayers, Chizkiyahu, king of Yehudah at the time. It was a tremendous victory for the Jewish nation.

A similar chain of events could have occurred in the time of Nevuchadnetzar — had the Jews seized the opportunity. Proper repentance, spurred by the siege, would have transformed a potential tragedy into victory.19

A further example: Before G‑d brought the flood onto the earth, He had given humanity warning for 120 years.20 When they did not repent in this time, G‑d gave them another chance at the last moment: Even as the rains began, they would have been transformed into “rains of blessing” had the people repented.21

This is why the siege against Jerusalem is called somach — support. Had it been utilized properly, it would have been of positive benefit.

So too in a Jew’s inner Jerusalem. Sometimes a Jew’s fear of G‑d remains dormant, not used to its full potential. When it is besieged, a Jew is aroused to action. He calls upon powers that have long lain slumbering and revitalizes his performance of Torah and mitzvos. His fear of G‑d is now alive and functioning perfectly, and he is a better Jew than before. The siege has done its task, the result is positive. Despair has been banished, for a Jew realizes that the siege is really for good purposes — to support the walls of Jerusalem.

Elevation of Babylon

We can go yet further. Not only is a Jew not adversely affected by the siege, but he carries the battle to the enemy: he conquers Babylon.

Babylon, we have said, symbolizes the world. Jerusalem symbolizes fear of heaven. A Jew starts his service to G‑d every day by saying Modeh Ani, in which he expresses his fear of, and self-nullification before G‑d. He then prays, where the recital of Shema represents the acceptance of the yoke of heaven and the yoke of mitzvos. Torah study then follows, the preparation to which is “my soul is as dust to all.” A person’s service at the beginning of the day — Modeh Ani, prayer, Torah study — is thus associated with fear of heaven, “Jerusalem.”

Afterwards, one goes to work, where he is involved in worldly matters — Babylon. The tenth of Teves teaches that even then a Jew must know that in essence he has no connection with it, for there is absolutely no meeting point between Jerusalem and Babylon.

This means that a Jew not only realizes that success in his worldly matters is due only to G‑d’s blessings, but that his dealings with Babylon are mere external actions, while his true being — his heart and mind — are in Jerusalem, in Torah and mitzvos. Indeed, the ultimate goal is to use worldly matters for holy purposes, to sanctify and elevate the mundane.

When he does so, he not only is protected from being besieged but he has carried the war to the enemy. Through his service he elevates Babylon, the world, to the level of Jerusalem, sanctity. He has made the world a fit dwelling place for G‑d. The distinction between Jerusalem and Babylon has then been breached, but in the proper way. The Jew has elevated Babylon to the level of Jerusalem, not allowed Babylon to destroy Jerusalem. In the words of our Sages: “In the future, Jerusalem will encompass all of Eretz Yisroel, and Eretz Yisroel will encompass all the lands”22 — “all the lands,” including Babylon, will be on the level of Jerusalem.

Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XX, pp. 352-359, 518-522