Submitting to a Higher Will


naphtali-hoffBy Rabbi Naphtali Hoff

The three week period has historically been a difficult time for Klal Yisrael. The gemara (Ta’anis 26a-b) informs us that five misfortunes befell our ancestors on each of those dates.

On the seventeenth of Tammuz the luchos were broken, the daily sacrifice was discontinued (shortly before Churban bayis sheni), a breach was made in the city (the wall around the Har Habayis was breached on that same date), Apustamus (a Greek officer during the second commonwealth) burnt a Torah scroll or scrolls, and placed an idolatrous image in the heichal.

On the ninth of Av it was decreed that (Bnei Yisrael) should not enter the (Promised) Land (for forty additional years, following the incident of the meraglim), both batei mikdash were destroyed, Beitar was captured (following the failed revolt of Bar Kochva), and Yerushalayim was plowed up.

From the Torah’s perspective, it certainly cannot be considered coincidental that all of these tragic events occurred during this particular period, and specifically on these dates. Surely, Hashem intended to relay an important message to us.

In order to understand this message, let us examine the explanations of chazal for the destruction of each bais hamikdash.

Why was the first sanctuary destroyed? Because of three (evil) things that prevailed there: idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed… But why was the second sanctuary destroyed, since in that time they were occupying themselves with Torah, (observance of) mitzvos, and the practice of charity? At that time causeless hatred (sin’as chinam) prevailed. That teaches you that causeless hatred is considered of equal gravity with the three sins of idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed together.  (Yoma 9b)

It is noteworthy that despite their active violation of the three cardinal sins of idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed, those who lived during the first commonwealth were still collectively on a significantly higher spiritual level than their successors.

It was they, not their successors, who merited an open revelation of Hashem’s presence.

In five areas the first Bais HaMikdash differed from the second: in the aron, the kapores (aron-cover), the keruvim (the first three are considered as one), the fire, the Shechina, the spirit of prophecy, and the urim v’tumim. (Yoma 21b)

More importantly, they were forced to endure a much shorter exile (70 years to nearly two millennia), and knew from the outset as to how long their exile would last.

The former ones whose iniquity was revealed (by not hiding their misdeeds) had their end revealed (through prophecy), the latter ones whose iniquity was not revealed have their end still unrevealed. (Yoma 9b)

The obvious question is why is that so? After all, how can the three cardinal sins for which one is required to give up his life rather than violate (yehareig v’al ya’avor – see Sanhedrin 74a) be only equal to (or perhaps even better than) the transgression of sin’as chinam?

I would like to suggest two possible approaches to answer this question.

One is based on the idea that sin’as chinam really is not a graver sin than the “big three”. The reason as to why it brought upon the current, seemingly endless golus was the fact that it destroyed the communal framework necessary to overcome our personal deficiencies, leaving us susceptible to the rigors of individual assessment.

The same idea can be observed regarding the two sinful generations of antiquity, the eras of Noach and Nimrod. The people of each period were punished severely for their respective misdeeds (deluge and dispersion). However, when one considers the nature of each one’s primary cheit, Nimrod’s generation emerges as the more decadent of the two.

While the people of Noach’s time were wicked to each other (“And the world was filled with violence (I.e. theft)” – Bereishis 6:11), those from Nimrod’s time actually rebelled against Hashem Himself! (See Rashi to Bereishis 11:1) Still, it was the former, rather than the latter, which was completely annihilated.

Rashi explains why this was the case.

Now which (sins) were worse, those of the generation of the flood or those of the generation of the dispersion? The former did not stretch forth their hands against Hashem, whereas the latter did stretch forth their hands against Hashem, to wage war against Him. Nevertheless, the former were drowned, while the latter did not perish from the world. (The reason for this) is because the generation of the flood was comprised of robbers and there was strife between them, and therefore they were destroyed. But these behaved with love and friendship among themselves… How hateful is strife and how great is peace! (Rashi to Bereishis 11:9, quoting Bereishis Rabbah 38:6)

Despite the fact that they were, as a whole, less sinful than the generation of dispersion, Noach’s generation was completely destroyed. The reason for this was because they failed to foster the requisite degree of love, peace and harmony with each other. Conversely, the dor haflaga excelled in this area. As a result, they were not destroyed, despite their sinful, rebellious nature.

There’s another aspect of sin’as chinam that causes it to supersede the other problems. Harav Eliyahu Dessler, zt”l, noted the underlying differences in the personal motive behind each form of sinful behavior. He suggested that violation of the three cardinal sins is based on one’s drive to satisfy his personal desires. Even the drive to worship idols was really inspired by a craving for adultery. “Bnei Yisrael knew that the idols were nonentities, but they engaged in idolatry only that they might openly satisfy their incestuous desires.” (Sanhedrin 63b) Eventually, however, a person reaches his saturation point and the sinful pursuit diminishes.

Sin’as chinam, on the other hand, is motivated by gaavah (arrogance). Nothing inherent in the person brought about the hatred; it’s “causeless”. Rather, the very presence of the individual causes the resentment, as someone who can potentially alter my balance of power (real or imagined) in some way.

A similar expression can also be found in Orchos Tzadikim, perek 1:

One who is arrogant, his heart is desirous and is driven by a lust for wealth. He will not be satisfied with his portion, because he views his possessions as being insignificant. In addition, his arrogance generates an inability to tolerate others.

This idea ties in well with another stated reason for our exile.

What is meant by, “Who is the wise man, that he may understand this (. . . for what is the land destroyed etc.”)? (Yirmiyahu 9:11) Now, this question was put to the chachamim, neviim, and malachei hashareis, but they could not answer it, until Hashem did so. As it is written, “And Hashem said, ‘Because they have forsaken my law which I set before them, and have not obeyed my voice, neither have they walked in them.’” (Ibid, 10) … (It means) that they did not first recite a blessing over the Torah. (Nedarim 81a)

Ran explains that surely they learned Torah regularly, otherwise why was the source of their punishment so difficult for all to discern? Rather, the issue was more subtle. Not making the blessing before the study of Torah means that their attitude to learning was not where it was supposed to be.

These individuals were not motivated to learn for the appropriate reasons. They studied for personal, self serving objectives, such as practical knowledge, intellectual stimulation, increased honor, etc., all of which betray a certain degree of selfishness and arrogance. There focus was not on Hashem (as indicated in the idea blessing Him forgiving us the opportunity to study His Torah), but rather on themselves.

Rabbeinu Yonah, writing in Shaarei Teshuva (3:160), explains that one can fulfill all of the mitzvos to the fullest degree and still be one who hates Hashem if he is bothered when he sees others serving Hashem as well. Such a person is not serving their Maker out of a true desire to fulfill His will, but rather for the purpose of enhancing his own personal stature.

Of course, we must realize that as we commemorate the tragic events of this period, we are not simply recalling someone else’s misdeeds and their disastrous consequences. As our sages make clear, the root of the problem is as much a function of our times as it is theirs.

Any generation in which the Bais HaMikdash is not rebuilt is considered as if it was destroyed in its days. (Jerusalem Talmud, Yoma 5:1)

Our mission must be to attempt to counteract the pride within us by submitting our own will to that of Hashem. We must understand that when our sages refer to something as “causeless”, they are not indicating that these behaviors were completely arbitrary. Rather, they are describing a trait or behavior in which the perpetrators allowed their own agenda to take precedence over Hashem’s will.

We can now begin to understand yet another related but seemingly perplexing statement of our sages.

“And the entire congregation lifted up their voice, and cried; and the people wept that night.” (Numbers 14:1) Rabbah said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan, “That night was the night of the ninth of Av. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to them, ‘You wept for no justifiable reason, therefore I will set (this day) aside for weeping throughout the generations to come.’” (Ta’anis 29a)

A very basic question arises from this passage. How could their crying be considered as lacking a “justifiable reason” when they had just received a very negative report from the spies?

But the men who went up with him said, “We are unable to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we.” They spread an (evil) report about the land which they had scouted, telling the children of Israel, “The land we passed through to explore is a land that consumes its inhabitants, and all the people we saw in it are men of stature. There we saw the giants…In our eyes, we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes.” (Numbers 13:31-33)

The answer again is that the people of that generation allowed themselves to place their own agenda of fear and uncertainty before Hashem’s objective of bringing them to their homeland. In so doing, they helped to foster similar responses in the future, which consequently led to many more opportunities for “weeping throughout the generations”.

It is for this reason that we engage in active mourning during this period: fasting, mourning, lamentations, etc. We also turn our attention away from personal honor (by sitting on floor, removing our shoes and adornments), and eschew all forms of personal desire (by abstaining from eating, drinking, marital relations, etc). Instead, we try to reconnect with Hashem and the true objectives of our existence.

Let us hope that this year we can replace the “unjustified” weeping of our troubled past with a sincere weeping reflective of a true desire to fulfill Hashem’s will and thereby deserve the great opportunity to witness the complete restoration of Hashem’s active and open presence in this world.

Everyone who mourns for Jerusalem merits to share in her joy, and any one who does not mourn for her will not share in her joy. (Ta’anis 30a)

Rabbi Naphtali Hoff is Head of School at Torah Day School of Atlanta. He can be reached at

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