Beit Midrash

  • Shabbat and Holidays
  • The Meaning of Three Weeks
To dedicate this lesson

The Day Our Heart Stopped

It's time to end 2,000 years of "electric shock."


Rabbi Haggai Lundin

Tammuz 22 5782
Translated by Hillel Fendel

The Three Weeks of Mourning, between the fasts of 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av, of which we are now in the midst, are part of a chain of days marking the destruction of the First Holy Temple. On the 10th day of Tevet, the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem began; on the 17th of Tammuz, the city walls were breached; and on Tisha B'Av, the Temple was burned. (There is of course also the Fast of Gedaliah immediately after Rosh HaShanah, commemorating the assassination of Gedaliah, marking the death blow for Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel at the time – but this was already after the destruction.)

Why do we need so many days to mark the destruction of the Temple? Moreover, let's be honest and acknowledge that most of us do not seem to really suffer at its lack. What is so terrible about the destruction of the Temples that we have been weeping over them for 25 centuries already?

Maimonides writes that the purpose of these fasts is not only to remember past events with pain – but actually "to open the paths of teshuva, to remind us of our past evil deeds and those of our ancestors." That is, the authentic purpose of these fasts is not to be hungry, but to understand our ancestors' failures and to realize that we are making the same mistakes. The idea is to ensure that a similar national destruction should not happen again.

Furthermore, we must internalize that the calamity we are recalling is not merely the demolition of a very beautiful synagogue. The day of the destruction of the Holy Temple marks the day the entire world changed. It was "the day the sun went out."

The world was very different during the period of the Temple than that which we know today. Those who lived during the times of the First Temple experienced everyday life and holiness as naturally connected; it was possible to "flow" in the earthly world without fear of spiritual harm. Under King Solomon – a period considered to be the golden age of the First Temple period – the Bible describes amazing intensities of life: "King Shlomo's provision for one day was thirty loaves of semolina and sixty loaves of flour" (Kings I 5,2), and "silver was not counted for anything in the days of Shlomo" (ibid. 10,21). The descriptions are of immense material strengths, whether they be military, economic, or of the arts and aesthetics. Entire chapters relate even the tiny details of the luxurious architecture of the king's palace and of the Beit HaMikdash, of the royal army, and more.

The following verse is quite characteristic: "Judah and were very numerous, as much as the sand on the shore, eating and drinking and happy" (ibid. 4,20). The holiness appears right within the mundane, and the mundane is a manifestation of the holy.

And these things were not limited to our national borders, but rather "people came from all the nations to hear the wisdom of Shlomo, from all the kings of the earth" (ibid. 5, 14). Reading these verses, we see before us the extent of the spiritual and political influence of what was then the Israelite Empire. The Nation of Israel encompassed, sanctified, and advanced all the cultures.

All of this came to an abrupt halt with the destruction of the first Holy Temple. The Talmud tells us that an "iron wall was erected between Israel and its Father in Heaven" (B'rachot 32b), and that "there was no day without a curse; the dew fell but had no blessing, and the taste of fruits was taken" (Sotah 48a). Life lost its vitality. We entered a period in which constant war raged between the secular and the holy, and between the physical and the spirit – and it is still raging today. The spiritual world, which during the Temple period was palpable and was integrated with the physical world, became vague and uncertain, while the physical world appeared to the masses to be the only "real" reality.

Great Torah giants throughout the generations had a practice of reciting a special midnight prayer called Tikun Chatzot – a prayer of weeping for the sorry state of the world ever since the destruction of the Temple. As Rav Kook wrote (Lights of War 10, in "Orot"):

"Men of wise heart arise at midnight, with hands on their loins at the trouble of the world, of the Jewish People, of the Divine Presence, of the Torah – and they cry and weep… They know that all the troubles and darkness, all the rivers of spilt blood, all the troubles and wanderings and hatred and evil are nothing more than a weak and partial expression of the Supreme sorrow, the sorrow of the heavens, of the Divine Presence."

A penetrating look reveals to us that all the troubles in the world, and all the struggles between the various forces that ultimately lead to wars, tensions and crises on both private and public levels - all ultimately stem from the imbalance between the spiritual world and the material world, an imbalance that has been extant ever since the destruction.

The reason that we make sure to remember the destruction and Exile so often throughout the year is because the Exile expresses not just the loss of our sovereignty, but rather the general dismantling of the Jewish People's national systems.

The Exile came about, we learn in the Talmud (Yoma 9b), because of a general ethical breakdown in Jewish society at the time: idol worship, incest and licentiousness, and even bloodshed. The external disintegration was only a reflection of the inner decay. This was expressed by the Sages' account of a Divine voice that told the Babylonian conqueror who burned the Temple not to be so proud of himself: "You are killing a dead lion, you are milling flour that was already milled" (Medrash Eichah Rabbah 1, 43).

This can be compared to a phenomenon from the world of medicine. There exists a severe pathological condition known as ventricular fibrillation, where multiple electrical stimuli create an activity rate that does not allow for normal heart activity. The heart then collapses from the load. To restore normal heart activity, an external electric shock is required, shutting off and resetting all of the heart's electrical activity. After a few seconds of "silence" (asystolia), with no electrical activity, the physiological pacemaker comes to life, once again controlling the normal heart rate.

The analogy is this: The Israelite society in the Land of Israel had begun to take deathly ill, and what was needed was an "electric shock" – in the form of a long Exile. It shut down all the national frameworks that had sunk into a materialistic overdrive, leading to a form of national ventricular fibrillation. During this long period of almost 2,000 years, the Jewish nation was able to rehabilitate itself by going to the opposite extreme: total detachment from administering public systems in the spheres of economics, army/military, and politics, enabling it to focus only on spiritual development. The lack of sovereignty, material scarceness, miniaturized communal frameworks – all these are characteristic of the small Diaspora shtetl, which were exempt from working on more expansive systems and had room only for spirituality.

Now, finally, our national freeze is beginning to end, in these very generations, as we return to the Land of Israel and regain our sovereignty.

This period of the Three Weeks are the saddest weeks of the year. It is a time in which we observe various customs of mourning, and the objective is this: to realize that our world is deficient. Once we understand that, and internalize what exactly is missing, there is a good chance that we will be able to return to the path that will restore that which we have lost.

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