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The Three Weeks

The Three Weeks: What Are We Trying to Achieve?

By Rabbi Naphtali Hoff

The three week period between the seventeenth of Tammuz and the ninth of Av has historically been a difficult time for the Jewish people.

Five misfortunes befell our fathers on the seventeenth of Tammuz and five on the ninth of Av.
On the seventeenth of Tammuz the tablets of law were broken (by Moshe at Mount Sinai), the daily sacrifice was discontinued (in 70 CE), a breach was made in the city (the wall around the Temple Mount was breached on that same date), Apustamus (a Greek officer during the second Temple period) burnt a Torah scroll or scrolls, and placed an idolatrous image in the Temple sanctuary.
On the ninth of Av it was decreed that our fathers should not enter the (Promised) Land (following the incident of the spies), both temples were destroyed, Beitar was captured (following the failed revolt of Bar Kochva – 132-135 CE), and the city of Jerusalem was plowed up. (Talmud, Ta’anis 26a-b)

From the Torah’s perspective, it certainly cannot be considered coincidental that all of these events specifically occurred during this particular period, and specifically on these dates. Surely, G-d did so with the intent of relaying an important message to us.

The question is what message is G-d trying to convey to us?

Basis for Destruction

In order to answer this question, let us examine the primary Talmudic source which describes the basis for the destruction of each temple.

Why was the first Sanctuary destroyed? Because of three (evil) things that prevailed there: idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed… But why was the second Sanctuary destroyed, since in that time they were occupying themselves with Torah, (observance of) mitzvos, and the practice of charity? At that time causeless hatred prevailed. That teaches you that causeless hatred is considered of equal gravity with the three sins of idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed together. (Yoma 9b)

It is interesting to note that despite their active violation of the three cardinal sins of idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed, those who lived during the first commonwealth were on a collectively higher spiritual level than their successors.

In fact it was they, not those of subsequent generations, who merited an open revelation of G-d’s presence. As the Talmud (Yoma 21b) informs us…

In five areas the First Temple differed from the Second: in the ark, the ark-cover, the Cherubim (the first three are considered as one), the fire, the divine presence, the spirit of prophecy, and the urim v’tumim (a writing of G-d’s Explicit Name which was placed into an opening in the High Priest’s breastplate).

More importantly, they were forced to endure a much shorter exile (70 years to nearly two millennia), and knew from the outset as to how long their exile would last.

The former ones whose iniquity was revealed (by not hiding their misdeeds) had their end revealed (through prophecy), the latter ones whose iniquity was not revealed have their end still unrevealed. (Yoma 9b)

The obvious question is why is that so? After all, how can the three cardinal sins for which one is required to give up his life rather than violate (see Sanhedrin 74a) be only equal to (or perhaps even less of an evil than) the transgression of causeless hatred?

Removing Oneself from the Community

I would like to suggest two possible approaches.

One approach is based on the idea that causeless hatred really is not a graver sin than the “big three”. The reason as to why it brought upon the current, seemingly endless exile was the fact that it destroyed the communal framework necessary to overcome our individual deficiencies, leaving us susceptible to the rigors of individual assessment.

The same idea can be observed regarding the two sinful generations of antiquity, the eras of Noach and Nimrod. The people of each period were punished severely for their respective misdeeds (flood and dispersion). However, when one considers the nature of each one’s primary sin, Nimrod’s generation emerges as the more decadent of the two.

While the people of Noach’s generation were wicked to each other (“And the world was filled with violence (I.e. theft)” – Genesis 6:11), those from Nimrod’s time actually rebelled against G-d Himself! (See Rashi to Genesis 11:1) Still, it was the former, rather than the latter, which was completely annihilated.

Rashi explains why this was the case.

Now which (sins) were worse, those of the generation of the flood or those of the generation of the dispersion? The former did not stretch forth their hands against Hashem, whereas the latter did stretch forth their hands against Hashem, to wage war against Him. Nevertheless, the former were drowned, while the latter did not perish from the world. (The reason for this) is because the generation of the flood was comprised of robbers and there was strife between them, and therefore they were destroyed. But these (i.e. the generation of the dispersion) behaved with love and friendship among themselves… How hateful is strife and how great is peace! (Rashi to Genesis 11:9, quoting Genesis Rabbah 38:6)

Despite the fact that they were, as a whole, less sinful than the generation of dispersion, Noach’s generation was completely destroyed. Why? Because they failed to foster the requisite degree of love, peace and harmony with each other. Conversely, the generation of the dispersion excelled in this area. As a result, they were not destroyed, despite their sinful, rebellious nature.

Arrogance: A Barrier Against Godliness

There’s another aspect of causeless hatred that causes it to supersede the other problems. In his work Michtav M’Eliyahu, Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler notes the underlying differences in the personal motive behind each form of sinful behavior.

He suggests that violation of the three cardinal sins is based on one’s drive to satisfy his personal desires. Even the drive to worship idols was really inspired by a craving for adultery.

The Israelites knew that the idols were nonentities, but they engaged in idolatry only that they might openly satisfy their incestuous lusts. (Sanhedrin 63b)

Eventually, however, a person reaches his saturation point and the sinful pursuit diminishes.

Causeless hatred, on the other hand, is motivated by personal arrogance. Nothing inherent in the person brought about the hatred; it’s “causeless”. Rather, the very presence of the individual causes the resentment, as someone who can potentially alter my balance of power (real or imagined) in some way.

This idea ties in well with another stated reason for our exile.  What is meant by, “Who is the wise man, that he may understand this (. . . for what is the land destroyed etc.”)? (Jeremiah 9:11) Now, this question was put to the Sages, Prophets, and Ministering Angels, but they could not answer it, until the Almighty Himself did so. As it is written, “And the Lord said, ‘Because they have forsaken my law which I set before them, and have not obeyed my voice, neither have they walked in them.’” (Ibid, 10) … (It means) that they did not first recite a blessing over the Torah. (Nedarim 81a)

Ran explains that surely they learned Torah regularly, otherwise why was the source of their punishment so difficult to discern? Rather, the issue was more subtle. Not making the blessing before the study of Torah means that their attitude to learning was not on the spiritual level where it was supposed to be.

These people were not motivated to learn for the appropriate reasons. They studied for personal, self serving objectives: practical knowledge, intellectual stimulation, increased honor, etc., all of which betray a certain degree of arrogance. Their focus was not on G-d (as indicated in the idea of blessing Him for giving us the opportunity to study His Torah), but rather on themselves.

Their Guilt is Ours As Well

Of course, we must realize that as we commemorate the tragic events of this period, we are not simply recalling someone else’s misdeeds and their disastrous consequences. As our sages make clear, the root of the problem is as much a function of our times as it is theirs.

Any generation in which the Temple is not rebuilt is considered as if it was destroyed in its days. (Jerusalem Talmud, Yoma 5:1)

Our mission must be to attempt to counteract the pride within us by submitting our own will to that of G-d. We must understand that when our sages refer to something as “causeless”, they are not indicating that these behaviors were completely arbitrary. Rather, they are describing a trait or behavior in which the perpetrators allowed their own agenda to take precedence over G-d’s will.

We can now begin to understand yet another related but seemingly perplexing statement of our sages.

“And the entire congregation lifted up their voice, and cried; and the people wept that night.” (Numbers 14:1) Rabbah said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan, “That night was the night of the ninth of Av. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to them, ‘You wept for no justifiable reason, therefore I will set (this day) aside for weeping throughout the generations to come.’” (Ta’anis 29a)

A very basic question arises from this passage. How could their crying be considered as lacking a “justifiable reason” when they had just received a very negative report from the spies?

But the men who went up with him said, “We are unable to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we.” They spread an (evil) report about the land which they had scouted, telling the children of Israel, “The land we passed through to explore is a land that consumes its inhabitants, and all the people we saw in it are men of stature. There we saw the giants…In our eyes, we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes.” (Numbers 13:31-33)

The answer again is that the people of that generation allowed themselves to place their own agenda of fear and uncertainty before G-d’s objective of bringing them to their homeland. In so doing, they helped to foster similar responses in the future, which consequently led to many more opportunities for “weeping throughout the generations”.

It is for this reason that we engage in active mourning during this period: fasting, mourning, lamentations, etc. On the 9th of Av we also turn our attention away from personal honor (by sitting on floor, removing our shoes and adornments), and eschew all forms of personal desire (by abstaining from eating, drinking, marital relations, etc). Instead, we try to reconnect with G-d and the true objectives of our existence.

Let us hope that this year we can replace the “unjustified” weeping of our troubled past with a sincere weeping reflective of a true desire to fulfill G-d’s will and thereby deserve the great opportunity to witness the complete restoration of G-d’s active and open presence in this world.

Everyone who mourns for Jerusalem merits to share in her joy, and any one who does not mourn for her will not share in her joy. (Ta’anis 30a)


Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Naphtali Hoff and Torah.org.

Rabbi Naphtali Hoff, M.Ed., is an instructor of Jewish History at the Hebrew Theological College (Skokie, Illinois) and serves as associate principal at Yeshiva Shearis Yisroel in Chicago. More information about Rabbi Hoff can be found on his website, www.rabbihoff.com.


 
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