The Three Weeks have begun. Sunshine, a gentle breeze, and fluffy clouds belie the painful history of this, the Fast of the 17th of Tammuz. More than any other day of the Jewish year, the 17th of Tammuz is the convergence of different realms of reality: physical and metaphysical; spiritual and mundane; time and space.
History is famous for repeating itself. Jewish history repeats itself on the same day. The five major catastrophes which occurred in Jewish history on the 17th of Tammuz are connected not solely by the same date on the calendar but by another common denominator as well: Destruction.
The five catastrophes were:
1. Moses breaking the tablets at Mount Sinai, in response to the building of the Golden Calf
2. Suspending the Tamid offering (the daily offering in the Beit Hamikdash) during the siege of Jerusalem in the 5th century B.C.E., destroying the uninterrupted performance of the sacrifice
3. Breaching of Jerusalem’s walls culminating with the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash in 70 C.E., three weeks later
4. Burning of a Torah scroll by the Roman general Apostamos prior to the Great Revolt in 132 C.E., setting a precedent for the horrific burning of Jewish books throughout the centuries (an example of which was referred to in last week’s column, Fuel for the Fire, with the burning of the 24 cartloads of the Talmud in Paris in the year 1242).
5. Placing an idol in the Beit Hamikdash, a brazen act of blasphemy and desecration. This event is shrouded in controversy; some say that this too was done by Apostomos, while others say that this was done by King Menashe of Judea. Regardless of who set the idol in the Beit Hamikdash, the sanctity of the space was destroyed.
Moshe’s breaking the luchot in anger was in truth an act of great compassion on his part towards Bnei Israel. The luchot were the physical manifestation of a bilateral contract, binding the legal relationship between G-d and Bnei Yisrael who, when saying Naaseh v’Nishma, chose to accept His law. If Moshe had returned with the luchot intact, the deal would have been sealed and literally “written in stone” and the Nation of Israel would have undoubtedly faced far greater consequences than it did.
The list includes another shattering of stones: the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, leading to the destruction of the second Beit Hamikdash, the spiritual epicenter of Judaism and therefore of the world. When the destruction of the fortifications of Jerusalem and the Beit Hamikdash (representing Religion) is taken together with the destruction of luchot (encapsulating Law), a breakdown of religion and government occurs and Jewish society is destroyed.
With the suspension of the Tamid offering and the placement of the idol in the Beit Hamikdash, both time and space were violated. The burning of the Torah by the Romans represents the metaphysical expression of the violation of time and space as both emanate from the Torah’s words in the first week of creation.
The most recent of this list of calamities occurred 19 centuries ago yet we still feel the reverberations of the events. How are they still relevant and contemporary?
Tragically, within the last year we have seen various manifestations of all of the calamities. Burning of sifrei kodesh and desecrations of shuls have occurred throughout the world. Like the breaching of the walls, the suspension of the Tamid offering, and the placement of an idol in the Holiest of places, Torah Judaism does not fully control the holiest places of Judaism. Most notably, here in Israel, the government fails to recognize that Israel, though a democracy, is first and foremost a Jewish country and must restore a synthesis of government and Judaism.
The phrase derech eretz kadmah laTorah, meaning that “good manners come before the Torah,” can be understood in two ways. Generally, it is understood to mean that before anything, even before the Torah, one must be considerate. It also can be understood to mean that like coming before a King, in this case the Torah, one must act with great courtesy and consideration. Taken together, these two understandings of the one phrase may be the path out of the mistakes of our history and the antidote to the famous quote from Winston Churchill, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
I would like to dedicate this column to the memory of all the Holy Jews who perished in the Kovno ghetto which was liquidated on this day in 5704 (1944).
Meir Solomon is a writer, analyst and commentator living in Alon Shvut, Israel, with his wife and two children. He can be contacted at msolomon@Hamodia.com.