Why do bad things happen to Holy Temples?

This week’s Haftarah reading: Jeremiah 2: 4-28, 3:4,  4:1-2.

In addition to the portion from the Torah which is read on this Shabbat in synagogues around the world, there is also a Haftarah (additional reading) chosen from the Nevi-im (books of prophets), the second section of the TANACH (Hebrew Bible). Usually there is a connection between the Torah portion and the Haftarah portion, but the Haftarah can also be determined by other events in the Jewish calendar. Such is the case with this week’s Haftarah portion. This portion is the second of three “Haftarot of rebuke” read on the three Shabbatot just prior to Tisha b’Av. Tisha b’Av is the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, the day on which tradition tells us that both of the Holy Temples were destroyed, the first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the second by the Romans in 70 CE.

Unlike many of us, the Biblical prophets and early Rabbinic Sages believed that God controlled history and that history was all about us. According to the Prophets of the age, the first Temple was destroyed, not because of the geo-political forces of the day or because the God of Israel lost a heavenly battle with the gods of Babylon. No, the destruction of the Temple was ordained by God as a punishment for having forsaken God and worshiped idols, ascribing infinite power and value to finite objects As Jeremiah rebukes and laments in this Haftarah,

They say to the wood, “You are my father,” and to the stone, “You bore us,” for they turned to Me their back and not their face, and at the time of their misfortune they say, “Arise and save us… ” Now where are your gods that you have made for yourself? Let them get up if they will save you at the time of your misfortune, for as many as your cities were your gods, O Judea.
(Jeremiah 2: 27-28)

In choosing readings such as these to precede our Jewish day of national and spiritual disaster, the Rabbis expressed their fundamental understanding that “mipnay chatataynu galeenu may-artzaynu – because of our sins, we were exiled from our land.” The first Temple was destroyed, they believed, as a punishment for the sin of idolatry.

But why was the second Temple destroyed? The Jewish people had long ago forsaken idols and lived more of a life devoted to God and Torah. According to the Talmud (Yoma 9b), the Rabbis believed that the sin which brought down the Temple again was sinat chinam – baseless hatred, Jew against fellow Jew. They told the story of Kamza and Bar Kamza which illustrated how enmity between individuals, miscommunication, unforgiving stances, the public embarrassment of others, grudge-holding and revenge-taking combined to bring down the Temple.

The Rabbis of the time also played a part by not speaking up when they should have and by being unwilling to compromise principle for the sake of the community.  All in all, the Temple fell because our hearts became hardened and our anger for past wrongs was expressed in hurtful ways.

What are we to learn from all this? We learn that what keeps our “Temples” (synagogues, churches, communities, homes) standing strong is our ability to share our differing thoughts and feelings, even on matters about which we feel strongly, with open minds and receptive hearts, to disagree without being disagreeable, to understand the principled positions behind the personal passions of others, and, perhaps most importantly, to allow our higher selves to forgive.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Don

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