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11 Tammuz 5764 - June 30, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Opinion & Comment
The Lion's Jaws

by Rabbi Yitzchok Baruch Fishel

The mishnah in the fourth chapter of Ta'anis tells us that five things happened on the 17th of Tammuz: 1] The first set of Tablets of the Covenant which Moshe received at Sinai were broken; 2] The regular, daily sacrifices ceased to be brought; 3] The walls of Jerusalem were breached; 4] Epistomos burned the Torah; and 5] An idol was erected in the Temple.

It is interesting to note that each of these events occurred in a different epoch. Also, the mishnah does not list them in historical order. Moreover, even before telling us what occurred, the author of the mishnah advises us of an additional five on Tisha B'Av. Thus there were a total of ten horrendous events that happened on these two calendar dates. Five and five are of course ten, but what significance does that have?

The Chidushei Geonim suggests that the repeating five implies some meaning relevant to the five Chumshei Torah, while the number ten is that of the Commandments inscribed on the broken tablets.

Clearly there is more here than meets the eye. Could it be that Klal Yisroel twice trespassed on everything they had agreed to keep? If so, one might also look for a tangible difference between the first five commandments and the last five.

The gemora Yoma (9b) discusses the difference between the destruction of First and Second Temples. "Rebbi Yochanan said, `The fingernails of earlier generations were worth more than the stomachs of the later ones.' Reish Lokish responded saying, `On the contrary, the latter generations were better; even though they suffered the tyranny of foreign rule, they learned Torah assiduously.' To which Rebbi Yochanan replied, `The Temple itself is proof. It came back in previous generations but not to ours.' "

Loshon Sagi Nohor

There is something being hidden here in the mishnah. Just when were the Tablets of the Covenant broken? The midrash offers a calculation showing that Moshe came down the mountain with them and broke them on the 17th of Tammuz. Then he went up again to pray for Klal Yisroel, and again to get the second set of Tablets of the Law, each time staying another forty days. So it was Yom Kippur when Moshe Rabbenu returned with the new Luchos and a general pardon for Klal Yisroel.

The amount of mercy that Hashem has on hand for His children on that most holy day of the year is impossible to fathom, but clearly something is being left out of the mishnah. The day Moshe Rabbenu shattered the first tablets written with Etzbah Elokim was the same day that the Jewish people made the Golden Calf, and declared that a capering, bedeviled idol had delivered them out of the bondage of Egypt. Klal Yisroel had violated the first commandment.

The Yerushalmi here on the mishnah tells us that Rebbi Yishmoel taught, "HaKodosh Boruch Hu told Moshe to break them. The posuk says, `I'll gladly write on these tablets what I wrote on the earlier ones you broke.' Meaning that Hashem told Moshe, `You were right to break them.'" The Yerushalmi previously quoted Rav Yudan in the name of Rav Yissa as saying, "There is no generation that doesn't suffer from a dram of the sin of the Golden Calf. As the posuk says, `Coming into the camp, He sees the Golden Calf.'"

The Korbon Ho'Eidoh comments, "Every calamity that befalls them is part of the final reckoning for the Golden Calf or, differently stated, every generation pays a bit of the debt that was incurred by that terrible sin." The Korbon Ho'Eidoh goes on to say, "It seems Rav Yissa learned from the juxtaposition of two pesukim: The first one says, `They will inherit forever . . . ' followed by, `Hashem relents of the sorrows of his people.' As such, Klal Yisroel will carry the burden of sin for the Golden Calf forever, and Hashem will have to relent of punishing them again and again."

The Beginning of the End

The Ha'amek Dovor on parshas Beshalach offers a twofold interpretation of the significance of the daily sacrifices. Briefly stated, the korbon tomid served a different function in the Temple than it did in the Mishkan. While Klal Yisroel was still in its days of wandering in the desert, the daily sacrifices served to ensure the special kind of Providential supervision required until all preparations had been completed for entering the Promised Land. This, not unlike the Exodus from Egypt, was a time when even small children were aware that they were living on miracles. Even the fact that they had bread and water was visibly a matter of Hashgochoh protis.

But upon entering Eretz Yisroel things changed. Part of the difficulty involved in the new reality of having a homeland was that it was not readily apparent to what degree Hashem was active in their daily lives. There was now room for error. Thus the purpose of the daily sacrifices also changed.

Once the Temple was built and Klal Yisroel was on secure footing, and in a time of peace, the korbon tomid served to ensure their parnossoh.

By creating a situation in which we could no longer perceive Hashem as the immediate source of our livelihood, it should have become clear to what extent Klal Yisroel had been looked after until they reached that juncture. However, this was not the case. The urge to turn to the deities worshiped by the previous inhabitants became increasingly stronger.

Breaking Through

On the 17th of Tammuz the outer wall of Jerusalem fell to the enemy, and the Temple mount began to serve as a fortress. Obviously normal life in the city had long ago ceased due to the long siege and the ensuing lack of food, fuel and water. Only now the omnipresent enemy must have destroyed all sense of personal property and even minimal personal security. The only thing left in the hands of the Jews was what belonged both to everyone and to no one -- the Beis Hamikdosh.

Similarly, the next incident of desolation enumerated by the mishnah is the burning of the Torah, Heaven help us. But clearly, Epistomos did not burn the entire Torah, nor are we told that he destroyed every available Torah scroll. According to the Tiferes Yisroel it was a single sefer Torah written by Ezra and kept in the Azoroh of the Temple. It may have been the scroll used for the Hakheil ceremony held every seven years on the first day of chol hamoed, immediately following Shevi'is, when the king himself read publicly in front of Klal Yisroel from a scroll that had been handed to him by the Cohen Hagodol, who received it from Sgan haCohanim.

That Epistomos perpetrated such a violent act of destruction intentionally, and probably with as much spectacle as he could manage, was enough to spiritually harm everyone present or anyone who would ever hear of it.

Beginning from the End

According to the approach of the Chidushei Geonim, the proper way to understand the mishnah is to identify each of these events as correlated against one of the books of the Chumash as well as one of the first five of the Ten Commandments. Breaking the Tablets of the Law, which has now been identified as the sin of the Golden Calf, thus stands parallel to Bereishis and to, "I am the L-rd thy G-d who took you out of Egypt."

Cognition of Hashem as the Creator of the universe implies belief in Him. Once one accepts the premise that the world did not, Heaven forbid, "create itself," then he has already come to the conclusion that he is a creature. Avrohom Ovinu is the paradigm.

Thus, idol worship in the form of the Golden Calf, which in turn was a direct cause of breaking the Tablets of the Law, was a denial of Torah as well as a refusal to accept the authority of the master of Bereishis.

What remains is to see how the rest of the mishnah fits in with the assumption of the Chiddushei Geonim. What does the cessation of the regular, daily sacrifices have to do with sefer Shemos and with, "Thou shall not have any other gods before Me"? How does breaching the city's outer walls relate to Vayikra and to the prohibition of taking Hashem's Name in vain? How does the burning of the Torah parallel sefer Bamidbar or Shabbos? And finally how can setting up a graven image be correlated to sefer Devorim and to honoring one's father and mother?

Beginning from the end is easiest, in this case. The Gemora in the first chapter of maseches Kiddushin tells us that there are three partners in the making of every member of the human race: the mother, the father and HaKodosh Boruch Hu. Quite beside the fact that life can only come about when peace prevails in the human element, one can readily see from here that the Gemora is implying that respect for one's father and mother is tantamount to a proper relationship with Hashem as well.

Each of us has to understand that he did not appear in the world out of nowhere. This implies not only a sense of gratitude, but also an awareness that one is not entirely independent. An infant is clearly the most defenseless being under the sun. Were it not for the fact that a small child is fed, clothed and bathed by its parents, it would have little chance of survival even if it didn't fall into the hands of predators. The persistent revelation that this is in fact the human condition from birth until the very last breath of life is in itself a source of faith. One cannot make it through life on his own.

Further, the gemora in Sanhedrin states that the sole purpose of Israel's worshiping idols was to permit promiscuity. Similarly the Rambam's approach in Hilchos Avodoh Zora is that worshiping deities actually begins with an enlarged consciousness of the greatness of Hashem, but is fed by a kind of despair that one's needs can only be communicated through an intermediary.

Ultimately, this leads to worshiping oneself. Setting up a graven image to Beauty means that its worshiper considers himself beautiful; serving an idol devoted to prowess in war stems from the fact those bowing down to it ascribe it to be manly.

Thus when the mishnah in Ta'anis tells us that Epistomos or someone else brought in a statue which may or may not have been pesel Michah, it means that the intentional abstract emptiness of the Temple was being replaced with the persona of some natural force.

Actually this is not unlike the prohibition of shechitoh bachutz described in the last chapter of maseches Zevochim; in order to trespass on this issur one must get hold of an animal that has actually been designated and sanctified for Temple use, and slaughter it somewhere beyond the precincts of the Mikdosh. In short, it has to be holy before you can profane it.

Erecting a statue in the place that HaKodosh Boruch Hu has chosen to be as a dwelling is much the same. Whoever did that, and whatever state of affairs made such an action even vaguely feasible, intended to chase Hashem out of the Temple. But even so it was an inverse admission of the Presence of an Ultimate Power other than man's on earth.

The Road to Repentance

The road to repentance is much the same as the garden path of sin -- the difference being that the first, and biggest step is much shorter. Just as one has willingly forgotten about the proper place that Hashem has in daily human life, so too the task now before us is to reinstate our knowledge of that fact on an hourly basis.

For an observant Jew, every moment of the day is filled with declarations of Hashem's presence. We call these mitzvos. Lowered standards of observance may have at one point been a matter of cognizant choice, but they quickly become a matter of habit. Reinstating behavioral patterns at any level is not an easy thing to accomplish, and here it has an added dimension of self-denial. As there is quite a lot to do before Rosh Hashanah, I'm certain you'll agree that the 17th of Tammuz is none to early to start.

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