Sunday, July 8, 2012

Today, in Jewish History

The 17th of Tammuz marks the beginning of a 3-week period of mourning over the destruction of both Solomon’s Temple and the Temple built by Ezra and Nehemiah, the first by the Babylonians and the latter by the Romans. Throughout the three-week period, Jews refrain from celebrations; no weddings or engagements take place. Haircuts are forbidden, as is shaving or trimming a beard (as a sign of mourning).
According to the Mishna, five events occurred on the Seventeenth day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz:
1. The sin of the Golden Calf occurred, causing Moshe Rabbenu to throw down the divinely engraved tablets he received from G-d at Sinai.
2. The daily sacrifices ceased at the Temple in Jerusalem. Some scholars say that they stopped because of a order of the king so as to appease the Romans, but most scholars claim that the sacrifices stopped because there were no more sheep for the ritual. Indeed, it is known that there was a famine throughout the city for several years before the actual destruction and that thousands died from hunger.
3.The walls of the Jerusalem were breached: The Babylonians breached the walls on the 9th of Tammuz, the Romans on the 17th. The two memorials were amalgamated after the destruction of the second Temple in 71 AD.  
4.Roman military leader Apostomus burned the Torah scroll kept in the Temple that had been written by Ezra the Scribe upon his return to the Land from exile in Persia; this act formed the precedent for the burning of so many of Judaism’s holy books.
5.An idol was placed in the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem.

Since the destruction of the Temples, other calamities have occurred to the Jewish people on the 17th of Tammuz.
  • In 1239, Pope Gregory IX confiscated all copies of the Talmud under his reign, and had them burned.
  • In 1391, 101 years before the exile of the Jews from Spain, 4000 Jews were killed in Toledo and Jaen in one day.
  • In 1559, the Jewish quarter of Prague was burned and looted.
  • In 1944, the Kovno ghetto in Lithuania was liquidated; the ghetto was destroyed with dynamite and grenades. More than 2000 Jews were burned to death, or shot trying to escape the burning ghetto.
  • In 1970, Libya ordered the confiscation of all Jewish property. Thankfully, by then, most of Libya’s Jews were already in Israel.
These tragedies are but a small fragment of the persecution and suffering the Jews have undergone throughout history. Yet, we remember specifically these events, because they occurred on the 17th of Tammuz, a day set aside for tragedy.
Why was this day set aside for tragedy?
40 days after hearing the Voice of G-d at Sinai, and answering “Naase V’Nishma” (we will do and we will hear), the Children of Israel forged a calf from gold to worship.
"The people saw that Moses had delayed in descending the mountain, and the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, 'Rise up, make for us gods that will go before us, for this man Moses who brought us up from the land of Egypt - we do not know what became of him!'" (Exodus 32:1).
Moses had promised to return from the Mountain after 40 days, so that on the 40th day the people became nervous. Who would lead them to the Land? Who would be their intermediary with G-d?
It is understood that the sin of the Golden Calf was inititated by the Mixed Multitude – those Egyptians, and others nationals, who left Egypt with Israel but who had not yet managed to purge the habit of idol worship from their hearts. The Torah tells us that 3000 of them worshiped the Golden Calf, yet the entire nation was punished.
What was the sin? If the Jews had every right to be scared, and if it wasn’t the Jews who actually created and worshipped the Golden Calf, what was their sin? Why was that day in Jewish history set aside as a day of catastrophe?
Our sages teach us that our response to sin is more important than the sin itself. The Children of Israel allowed the sin of the Golden Calf to happen in their midst. They allowed the creation of an idol, they allowed disobedience and immorality to flourish in their society. 40 days after receiving the word of G-d, the Children of Israel allowed His Name to be desecrated.
After all the miracles that generation had witnessed – the plagues, the division of the Red Sea, the bitter water turning to sweet, the manna – still, they could not stop the dishonor and impurity that was in their midst, they did not have the strength or will to sanctify G-d’s Name. Even when Moses returned and called out “Who is on the Lord’s side, let him come to me!” only the Levites rallied to him.
And therefore, 17th Tammuz is a day set aside for tragedy.
But all bad things must come to an end.
Our sages tell us that Noach sent out the first dove to see if the Flood waters had receded (Genesis 8:8) on the 17th of Tammuz. It was the beginning of the end.
17th of Tammuz marks not only the beginning of a period of tragedy, but the beginning of the end of the tragedies. But it is up to us. First, we must ensure that every action we take, and every word we speak sanctifies the name of G-d. We must create a holy and just society that sanctifies G-d in every manner. Only after that can we try to influence, with loving kindness, the actions of others that do not sanctify the Name of G-d.
Mourning over the events that occur long ago is meant to instill upon us, not just a sense of sadness, but an understanding of how our actions can impact generations. Today, we have returned to our Land. We have been witnesses to countless miracles. We have the unique opportunity to end the tragedies.
In the words of the Prophet Zechariah: “This is what the HaShem Almighty says: "The fasts of the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months will become joyful and glad occasions and happy festivals for Judah. Therefore love truth and peace."

May it be quickly and in our time.

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