Everyone knows that the Second Beis HaMikdash was destroyed because of baseless hatred. But not everyone talks about why the First Beis HaMamikdash fell, which ought to be surprising.
It’s surprising because the reasons are very well documented. And unlike the Second Beis HaMikdash, the causes aren’t speculative because the First Beis HaMikdash stood in the last era of prophecy. So if we were actually concerned with what issues plagued the society in the days leading to the destruction of a Beis HaMikdash, we need to look no further than God’s own thoughts on the matter, as communicated through the prophets of that era.
It’s important to understand what issues caused the loss of a Beis HaMikdash because they are the issues that preclude a new one from materializing. Our Sages suggest that each generation that does not see it rebuilt has participated in its destruction; a generation that hasn’t resolved the issues that cause the loss of a Beis HaMikdash isn’t ready for one. In other words, if we don’t have a solution, we are part of the problem.
The Shabbos before Tisha b’Av is Parshas Devarim, which is also called Shabbos Chazon, named for the opening words of the Haftara, חֲזוֹן יְשַׁעְיָהוּ – Isaiah’s Vision. He has sharp words for his audience, that reverberate through the ages:
שִׁמְעוּ דְבַר-ה קְצִינֵי סְדֹם הַאֲזִינוּ תּוֹרַת אֱלֹהֵינוּ עַם עֲמֹרָה. לָמָּה-לִּי רֹב-זִבְחֵיכֶם יֹאמַר ה שָׂבַעְתִּי עֹלוֹת אֵילִים וְחֵלֶב מְרִיאִים וְדַם פָּרִים וּכְבָשִׂים וְעַתּוּדִים לֹא חָפָצְתִּי. כִּי תָבֹאוּ לֵרָאוֹת פָּנָי מִי-בִקֵּשׁ זֹאת מִיֶּדְכֶם רְמֹס חֲצֵרָי. לֹא תוֹסִיפוּ הָבִיא מִנְחַת-שָׁוְא קְטֹרֶת תּוֹעֵבָה הִיא לִי חֹדֶשׁ וְשַׁבָּת קְרֹא מִקְרָא לֹא-אוּכַל אָוֶן וַעֲצָרָה. חָדְשֵׁיכֶם וּמוֹעֲדֵיכֶם שָׂנְאָה נַפְשִׁי הָיוּ עָלַי לָטֹרַח נִלְאֵיתִי נְשֹׂא. וּבְפָרִשְׂכֶם כַּפֵּיכֶם אַעְלִים עֵינַי מִכֶּם גַּם כִּי-תַרְבּוּ תְפִלָּה אֵינֶנִּי שֹׁמֵעַ יְדֵיכֶם דָּמִים מָלֵאוּ. רַחֲצוּ הִזַּכּוּ הָסִירוּ רֹעַ מַעַלְלֵיכֶם מִנֶּגֶד עֵינָי חִדְלוּ הָרֵעַ. לִמְדוּ הֵיטֵב דִּרְשׁוּ מִשְׁפָּט אַשְּׁרוּ חָמוֹץ שִׁפְטוּ יָתוֹם רִיבוּ אַלְמָנָה.
“Listen to Hashem, you leaders of Sodom. Listen to the law of our God, people of Gomorrah!”
“What makes you think I want all your sacrifices?” says Hashem. “I am stuffed from your burnt offerings and sacrifices of rams and the fat of cattle. I get no pleasure from the blood of bulls, lambs, and goats. When you come to worship me, who asked you to parade through my courts with all your ceremony? Stop bringing me your meaningless gifts; the incense of your offerings disgusts me!
“Your celebrations of Rosh Chodesh and Shabbos and your fast days are all sinful and false. I want no more of your pious meetings! I hate your new moon celebrations and your annual festivals. They are a burden to me. I cannot stand them! When you raise your hands in prayer, I will not look. Though you might offer many prayers, I will not listen because your hands are covered with the blood of innocents!
“Wash yourselves and become clean! Get your sins out of my sight. Give up your evil ways; learn to do good. Seek justice! Help the oppressed and vulnerable! Defend the cause of orphans! Fight for the rights of widows!” – (1:10-17)
There were many prophets and prophecies whose names and stories are lost; they did were not included in the canon of Tanach. The ones that were selected were included because of their resonance beyond their time.
The prophet goes on to mention bribery, broken institutions, and corrupt leadership. A permanent victory that vanquishes evil forever is childish fantasy; even the most ideal world would still require a justice system. It’s not a flaw; it’s a feature of human choice.
But when our society is challenged, when evil rears its ugly head, how do we respond? Do we respond decisively and with finality? Or with hesitancy and lip service?
The prophet rails against corruption and perversion of justice as the ultimate crime. If a society’s institutions are too crooked to protect the people who need them, those people can be stepped on with impunity. That society, in a subtle, but very real way, endorses and protects criminals and predators, that society is morally bankrupt and not fit for purpose.
How many vulnerable people do you know? Are they getting all the help they need? What are you doing about it? Are you hiding behind institutions? Are you so sure those institutions are doing everything possible?
The prophet is pretty emphatic that the individuals in his society did not personally take up the fight for the vulnerable people who needed someone in their corner – רַחֲצוּ הִזַּכּוּ הָסִירוּ רֹעַ מַעַלְלֵיכֶם מִנֶּגֶד עֵינָי חִדְלוּ הָרֵעַ. לִמְדוּ הֵיטֵב דִּרְשׁוּ מִשְׁפָּט אַשְּׁרוּ חָמוֹץ שִׁפְטוּ יָתוֹם רִיבוּ אַלְמָנָה.
Every year, we read about another aguna, another fraud, another molester, another scandal, and another cover-up. How many times have once-great institutions and leaders failed to remove malfeasors from their prey or even call them out for what they are? It is the highest betrayal, and it comes at our expense.
We are not a community if we do not protect and ease the burdens of our brothers and sisters. When individuals have been proven dangerous, whether on the balance of probabilities or beyond a reasonable doubt, we should tolerate their presence or influence. If you wonder if there is a veiled reference here to some specific incident that says a lot about where we are.
A generation that does not see the Temple rebuilt has participated in its destruction. The prophet’s words are chilling.
And it’s crucial to understand the prophet’s specific criticism correctly. It is not a polemic against leaders, and nor is this. It was and is a call to action directly to each of us, not to hide behind or rely on institutions or others to get help to the people who need it.
They and we need you.
Our society has much to be proud of today, but make no mistake; we cannot launder or buy off mediocrity in one area with excellence in another. The people of that time were so diligent and meticulous in their prayer and sacrifice, yet awful at other things. The amount and scale of Torah study and charity in the world today is phenomenal and unprecedented in history. But God tells us what He thinks of that if the people who need help go neglected and unassisted:
לָמָּה-לִּי רֹב-זִבְחֵיכֶם יֹאמַר ה שָׂבַעְתִּי עֹלוֹת אֵילִים וְחֵלֶב מְרִיאִים וְדַם פָּרִים וּכְבָשִׂים וְעַתּוּדִים לֹא חָפָצְתִּי – “I am stuffed from your burnt offerings and sacrifices of rams and the fat of cattle. The blood of bulls, lambs and goats does nothing for Me!” (1:11)
The lessons we ought to learn from history knock on our door every year, louder and louder. In Moshe’s parting address to the people he spent his life trying to save, he says to them:
אֲדַבֵּר אֲלֵיכֶם וְלֹא שְׁמַעְתֶּם – “I spoke, yet you would not listen!” (1:43)
We see problems around us, and we do not do enough to fix them. If someone lost their job, or can’t get into school, or is being bullied, you already know that praying more with greater intensity is not the solution these problems require.
If you see something wrong, do not make our ancestors’ mistake of hiding behind false piety. Get involved and lend a hand to fix the problems in your community. And if you have some money, open the checkbook – but don’t forget to roll your sleeves up, or else you’re just hiding behind other people in a slightly better way.
If we had a Beis HaMikdash today, we couldn’t be trusted to keep it; otherwise, it would be here by now. How can we fast, weep, and pray when there are so many abused, hungry, poor, and other vulnerable people in our communities? Our wonderful charities and outstanding individuals and organizations lead the way for the rest of us, but they do not satisfy our personal obligations.
It is easy to make that difference; resolve to be better in a meaningful and substantial way.
Give more charity. Give food and clothes away. Volunteer more. Make sure no child is left without a school. Stop bullying in school, shul, and work. Get involved in your community’s events and organizations. Use any influence you have, talk to influential people, and make that difference. Even if it’s just you alone, take responsibility for the people around you, who don’t yet know that you are someone they can rely on to help them.
If it’s too hard to cry for a tragedy we didn’t experience, that we are thousands of years removed from, then let’s cry for now; for how far we are from where we are meant to be, for the agony in our communities that’s too close for comfort. Cry for the injustices around you that you don’t seem to do anything about.
צִיּוֹן בְּמִשְׁפָּט תִּפָּדֶה וְשָׁבֶיהָ בִּצְדָקָה – “Zion will be redeemed through justice; its restoration will be through righteousness.” (1:27)
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.