Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Five Tragedies, One Lesson

The Rambam, following the Talmud, describes five tragedies that occurred on the Seventeenth of Tammuz:

"Five events occurred on the Seventeenth of Tammuz: The tablets containing the "Ten Commandments" were shattered; the daily sacrifice in the First Temple was discontinued, the wall of Jerusalem was breached prior to the destruction of the Second Temple,the Wicked Apostemos burned a Torah Scroll, and an idol was placed in the היכל, the Sanctuary of the Holy Temple."

Interestingly, five tragedies also occurred on Tisha B'av, the fast we will be observing exactly three weeks from today:

"It was decreed upon the generation that left Egypt that they would not be permitted to enter the Land of Israel, the First Temple was destroyed, the Second Temple was destroyed, a great city named Beitar was captured - it contained tens of thousands of Jews, and they had a great King whom all of Israel and its greatest Sages believed was the Mashiach, and it fell into the hands of the nations, and they were all killed - it was a tragedy as severe as the destruction of the Temple, and on that very day destined for suffering, Turnus Rufus, the wicked Edomite king, plowed the area of the היכל and its environs, in fulfillment of the verse, "Zion will be plowed like a field."

If you examine the basis of each fast carefully, you may note a remarkable parallel between them.

Broken Tablets/Sin of Golden Calf                                               Wandering in Wilderness/Sin of Spies

Interruption of Service First Temple                                            Destruction of First Temple

Breaching of Wall Second Temple                                                Destruction of Second Temple

Burning of Torah Scroll                             
Dream of Religious/Political Renaissance Crushed

Idol Placed in Sanctuary                                                              Sanctuary Totally Plowed

The first tragedy associated with the 17th of Tammuz is the shattering of the tablets, which was the aftermath of the sin of the Golden Calf. The first tragedy associated with the 9th of Av is the decree banning the first generation of Jews from entering the land of Israel, which was the consequence of the sin of the spies. Although, at first blush, these may seem unrelated, the Rabbis tell us that the sin of the Golden Calf established the groundwork for the sin of the Spies, it was the combination of the two that caused the Jews to be forced to wander in the desert for forty years.

Similarly, we observe that a precursor of each tragedy on Tisha B'av manifested itself on the 17th of Tammuz. The discontinuation of the Daily Offering in the First Temple foreshadowed its destruction. The breaching of the wall around Jerusalem was the beginning of the destruction of the Second Temple. The burning of the Torah scroll represented the beginning of the process of "stamping out" the independence of Jewish thought, observance and community - the massacre at Beitar, whose citizens embodied the renewed possibility of a Jewish government founded upon Torah and Mitzvot, was the horrific culmination of that effort.

The question is, then, why isn't Tisha B'av enough? Why must we observe the 17th of Tammuz, if all it commemorates is a pale shadow of the horrific tragedies we will mourn three weeks from now?

I believe the lesson here is a simple but extremely important one - recognize the signs of impending disaster and respond to them before it is too late! Had the Jewish people fully appreciate the implications of the events of the 17th of Tammuz, had they utilized them as a springboard for the self-reflection and repentance they were intended to inspire, then the harrowing tragedies of the 9th of Av would never have come to pass.

Sadly, in our individual as well as our communal lives, we rarely perceive the warning signs that are presented to us. We continue forging ahead along the same path until disaster strikes. I could quote several verses from Proverbs (Mishlei) to illustrate this, or a multitude of passages from Sefer Yirmiyahu that address this, but it would unnecessarily lengthen this post. Suffice it to say that this is a key theme of both books.

Hashem has provided us with a wondrously educational environment in which every action elicits a reaction, every choice has a consequence. Even more beautifully, the severest consequences, generally speaking, do not manifest themselves immediately - there are indications of trouble, subtle at first and then increasingly dire and worrisome, before the waves of crisis inundate us.

One of the defining characteristics of the Jewish people as they are portrayed in the Book of Yirmiyahu -and of the fool as he is portrayed in the Book of Proverbs - is the lack of foresight they exhibit in their way of life. Even as their circumstances grow more and more intolerable, they remain stubbornly attached to the habits, beliefs and attitudes that led them into trouble to begin with.

Today, people with failing businesses or failing relationships are convinced that doing more or less of the same kinds of things will save them from trouble. People who are in a spiritual rut are confident that more or less of the same behavior will lead them back in the direction of success. The truth is, however, that stumbling and struggling are signs that something is WRONG, the stumbling and struggling will intensify if the status quo is maintained, and it is unlikely that the downward spiral will reverse itself unless the person involved decides to consciously change his/her course in a fundamental, not just a quantitative, way.

A terrific case in point is Border's - they are finally liquidating all of their stores, and it did not come as a surprise to anyone. When things took a serious downturn for them, they closed many of their locations and awaited a bailout from heaven...What they failed to do, however, was recognize the errors that were responsible for the initial "warning signs" of trouble and make the fundamental shifts in vision and strategy that would have been necessary to regain a footing in the market. They could conceive of doing more or less of what they were accustomed to doing, but what they really needed was to acknowledge the realities of the current world and pursue a totally new and more adaptive approach.

My children truly hate smoke detectors. They are scared out of their wits when something burns in the kitchen and the alarm goes off. Many times they have requested that we remove or dismantle the smoke detectors once and for all. What they don't realize is that the smoke detectors serve an important purpose - they draw our attention to the presence of smoke, and where there is smoke, there very well might be fire! Getting rid of the smoke alarm might temporarily relieve us of the pain of hearing its shrill sound, but this would leave us ignorant of potentially serious problems and vulnerable to far worse calamities.

The events of the 17th of Tammuz were the smoke alarm of the Jewish people. They signaled the beginnings of the withdrawal of God's providence from the nation and should have moved them to acknowledge their waywardness and repent immediately. This would have allowed them to avert disaster. Unfortunately, they opted to disable the smoke alarm rather than investigate the emergent crisis to which it was pointing.

Let us learn the lesson of the 17th of Tammuz and respond wisely to the cries of the smoke alarms in our lives.

Have a meaningful fast.