(This Dvar Torah was written by Lila Wiener and is presented by Melissa Rayman)
The Danger of Symbols
The months of Tammuz and Av are stained by our deeds of the past and their consequences. We mourn what we have lost year after year, as we dedicate three weeks and two fasts to this loss. But do we acknowledge what led us to this state? Do we learn from these mistakes? Do we maximize the three weeks from the 17th of Tammuz through the ninth of Av for soulful reflection in addition to mourning?
The Mishna in Taanit 4:6 speaks of different tragedies that occurred on the 17th of Tammuz:
“חֲמִשָּׁה דְבָרִים אֵרְעוּ אֶת אֲבוֹתֵינוּ בְּשִׁבְעָה עָשָׂר בְּתַמּוּז … בְּשִׁבְעָה עָשָׂר בְּתַמּוּז נִשְׁתַּבְּרוּ הַלּוּחוֹת, וּבָטַל הַתָּמִיד, וְהֻבְקְעָה הָעִיר, וְשָׂרַף אַפּוֹסְטֹמוֹס אֶת הַתּוֹרָה, וְהֶעֱמִיד צֶלֶם בַּהֵיכָל”
“Five calamitous matters occurred to our forefathers on the 17th of Tammuz… On the 17th of Tammuz the tablets were broken by Moshe when he saw that the Jews had made the golden calf; the daily offering was nullified by the Roman authorities and was never sacrificed again; the city walls of Jerusalem were breached; the general Apostemos publicly burned a Torah scroll; and Manasseh placed an idol in the Sanctuary.”
Our story begins on the 17th of Tammuz of our first year in the wilderness following Yetziat Mitzrayim and Ma’amad Har Sinai. Moshe has been on Har Sinai for a while now and, after Bnei Yisrael’s brief experience of Divine revelation accompanied by fire, they assume that Moshe’s extended time in the presence of the Almighty has most likely killed their leader. So, for the first time in Jewish history, but certainly not the last, in the absence of proper leadership, Bnei Yisrael distorted their worship of God. Bnei Yisrael gather and say to Aaron
“קום עשה לנו אלקים אשר ילכו לפנינו כי זה משה האיש אשר העלנו מארץ מצרים לא ידענו מה היה לו.”
While the context hints to the idea that they might be referring to a new leader to guide them as Moshe did, what followed suit can only be seen as an act against God. Bnei Yisrael’s search for a conduit to God is grossly distorted by the creation of the golden calf. Moshe recognizes this search for a symbol and destroys the luchot, a gift to us made by God Himself to solidify our covenant of Har Sinai, fearful that perhaps the people would rely on the stone tablets in a distorted manner as well.
The destruction of the luchot is historically the first of the travesties of the 17th of Tammuz and sets the tainted tone for subsequent events of the day.
The korban tamid was our daily sacrifice to God, meant to be consumed on the altar twice every day as a means of assuring God’s constant presence in the Mikdash. When Jerusalem was besieged during the First Temple period in 588 BCE, this daily ritual ceased. The prophet Yirmiyahu explained that sacrificial worship would catastrophically end due to the people’s reliance on animal sacrifice as an immediate mode of atonement and amelioration of their corrupt behaviors. In chapter 7 of the Book of Yirmiyahu, we read that the ritualistic symbol for our connection to God was an insult to Hashem because while Bnei Yisrael would show up to the Beit HaMikdash every day to offer the korban tamid to God, they would then leave to serve other gods, steal, and kill.
This recurring phenomenon of Bnei Yisrael missing the point can hold true for the other tragic events that took place on the 17th of Tammuz as well. Yirmiyahu warns about using the land of Israel, Jerusalem, and the Temple as symbols and proof that God dwells with us, when God makes it clear that He has left. This might help us understand why God would allow for the walls of Jerusalem to fall and for an idol to be placed in His sanctuary; Bnei Yisrael were meant to learn that God’s presence is not tied to their rituals but to their moral conduct. Yirmiyahu therefore insists that God’s recipe for restoring His presence in the Temple is dependent not only on allegiant relationship with Hashem but on their sensitive relationship with others:
“כי אם־היטיב תיטיבו את־דרכיכם ואת־מעלליכם אם־עשו תעשו משפט בין איש ובין רעהו; גר יתום ואלמנה לא תעשקו ודם נקי אל־תשפכו במקום הזה ואחרי אלהים אחרים לא תלכו לרע לכם; ושכנתי אתכם במקום הזה בארץ אשר נתתי לאבותיכם למן־עולם ועד־עולם”
The message that we are meant to learn from the events recorded in Tanakh that seem like punishments is to understand them as consequences of our actions. The tragedies of the 17th of Tammuz are consequences of what happens when the rituals and symbols that are meant to connect us to God become distorted and practiced without proper devotion. When Bnei Yisrael’s service becomes purely ceremonious, sorely lacking in meaning and the understanding of the point of that service, then it must be temporarily abolished until proper perspective is restored.
Rabbi Norman Lamm z”l, in his drasha on Why Synagogues Fail, summed it up beautifully: “The authentic ‘Temple of the Lord’ possesses sanctity only because it is brought there by the worshippers, and it is therefore conditioned on their piety and morality, on their character and decency, on their deeds and deportment.”
May we maximize the weeks of Tamuz to reflect on proper Avodat Hashem, recalibrating our perspective, motivation and performance. When we work on aligning our values of בין אדם למקום and בין אדם לחברו, we restore a closer relationship with God that will catalyze the restoration of Hashem’s constant presence in our midst.