The Jewish calendar associates certain times and places with different events and emotions. In the summer, the Jewish calendar marks several days and weeks for mourning in general, and in particular, the loss of sovereignty in the land of Israel, and especially the destruction of the religious order of the Temple.
Believing that history is written by God’s hand alone, our sages do not accept the notion that the Roman Empire went up against the God of Israel and won a victory; rather, our sages teach that there was a fatal flaw in the Jewish People’s religious observance that gave rise to a weakness the enemy could exploit. In the instance of the loss of the Second Temple, our sages attribute the weakness to baseless hatred and internal strife. People talk about this a lot, that working on this weakness is the mechanism to right all wrongs and restore the Temple and Jewish sovereignty and invite a new utopian era of history.
But not enough people talk about why the First Temple fell, which ought to be surprising because the reasons are extremely well documented.
While our sages can only speculate why the Second Temple fell, the reasons the First Temple fell is crystal clear for the simple reason that it took place in the age of the last prophets.
If we wanted to know what issues plagued a society to the extent it could destroy or prevent a Temple from existing, God’s prophets have some thoughts on the matter.
We ought to want to understand the issues that cause the loss of a Temple 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 crescendo of the days of mourning is Tisha b’Av, and the Shabbos before is always Parshas Devarim, also known as Shabbos Chazon, named for the opening words of the Haftara, Isaiah’s Vision – חֲזוֹן יְשַׁעְיָהוּ.
Isaiah’s words are so clear and sharp they need little embellishment or explanation. He speaks through his doomed audience in words that reverberate through the ages in the hope that one day we might actually pay attention:
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 were not included in the canon of Tanach. The ones that were selected were included because of their resonance beyond their time.
The prophet rails against bribery, broken institutions, corruption, and perversion of justice as the ultimate crimes. 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.
These aren’t relics of the past; they’re part and parcel of the world we live in, a constant specter we must battle against. 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 denial, hesitancy, and lip service?
The prophet is 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 – 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!
The prophet’s words are chilling.
You cannot hide behind institutions. How many vulnerable people do you know? Are they getting all the help they need? What are you doing about it? And are you so sure those institutions are doing everything possible?
How often do we learn of 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 acknowledge them as the predators they are? It is the highest betrayal, and it is a crime against the victim and the Jewish People.
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 not tolerate their influence or presence. If you’re wondering which incident this is a veiled reference to, that says a lot about where we are and how much work we have to do.
A generation that does not see the Temple rebuilt has participated in its destruction.
It’s crucial to understand the prophet’s specific criticism correctly. Isaiah’s words are not a polemic against leaders or the establishment, and nor is this. It was and is a call to action directly to each of us as individuals, not to hide behind or rely on institutions or anybody else 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 prophet acknowledges that the people of that time were diligent and meticulous in their prayer and sacrifice, yet awful at other things, and it wasn’t enough to save them.
The quantity and quality of Torah study and charity in the world today are phenomenal and unprecedented in history; we should rightly be proud, but let’s not kid ourselves that there’s still lots more to do. We know precisely what God thinks when people need our help and 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 regularly. In Moshe’s parting address to the people he spent his life trying to save, he admonishes their refusal to be receptive:
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 has financial issues, family issues, health issues, or can’t get into school, you ought to know that thoughts and prayers are not the solutions those problems require.
If you see something wrong, do not make our ancestors’ mistake of hiding behind false piety. Get involved and lend a hand in fixing 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 more sophisticated way.
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. If we had a Temple today, we couldn’t be trusted to keep it; otherwise, it would be here by now.
If it’s too hard to cry for tragedies we never experienced, tragedies we are thousands of years removed from, maybe that’s fair enough. But then let’s cry for now; for how far we are from where we could be, for the agony in our communities that’s way 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)
It is easy to make that difference; resolve to be better in a meaningful and substantial way.
Help people find jobs and grow their businesses. 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 some of the people around you who don’t yet know that you are someone they can rely on for the helping hand they need.
If the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing, are you so sure you’re not one of them?