Dvar Torah on Tisha'h B'av

Tisha'h B'av 2013 / 5773 - Tisha B'Av and the Crisis of Jewish Leadership

15.07.2013 by

One of the well-known traditions about Tisha B'Av and the destruction of the Temples which we commemorate on this day is the reasons they were destroyed. The first Temple, destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, was lost because the Jewish people at the time were guilty of the worst sins in the Jewish legal hall of shame: idol worship, illicit sexual relations, and bloodshed. Evidence for this can be clearly gleaned from the words of the prophets who foresaw the destruction. They rail against the worship of the Ba'al and other Canaanite gods, murderous and venal kings, and a general lack of justice and compassion in the land. The second temple period, however, is traditionally seen as a good one. As we are told in the Tosefta Tractate Menachot (chapter 13), "they worked hard at the study of Torah and were careful to give tithes." Why, then, was the second Temple destroyed? The famous answer, found in Tractate Yoma, is that it was due to  שנאת חינם  - pointless or baseless hatred. Now, human nature being what it is, we don't usually have too much trouble understanding what it means to hate someone for no reason, if by 'no reason' we mean petty jealousy, sheer bloody-mindedeness, or a general dislike of anyone not like us. But, when you think about it, we are left a bit up in the air with this explanation. Were the folks in Israel at the end of the second temple period just a rotten, petty bunch of snobbish creeps, who couldn't get along with one another, and that was why the Temple was destroyed, or might there have been something more specific to it?

The explanation for the destruction found in the Tosefta of Tractate Menachot is a bit different than the "baseless hatred" one in Yoma, and sheds a somewhat different light on Jewish society and its failings at the time. The failings of the late second temple period is described in the following way: "Why were they exiled the second time? Because they loved money and they hated one another." Just before this statement, the Tosefta tells us about a number of economic and physical abuses committed by the high priests and their families and friends.  These well-placed families abused their positions and took financial advantage of the common people, cruelly using their leadership roles to oppress the common people. This version of events puts the somewhat amorphous "pointless hatred" into a specific context of power and its abuses. The high priests of the late second temple period were materialistic, often politically well-connected - some were appointed by King Herod - were very Roman culturally, and often used their positions in the Temple for financial gain; their "love of money" is the soil in which the "hatred of one another" grew.  

Looked at this way, we see an interesting development from the first to the second temple. The first temple period was a time when Jewish values had not yet been assimilated by the general population. Telling us that they were guilty of idol worship, sexual crimes, and murder is the equivalent of saying that the values of the Jewish project had not taken hold in society. They were, in very basic ways, not good Jews. By the end of the Second Temple period, we have, happily, matured into a society that does know how to behave Jewishly - "they worked hard at the study of Torah and were careful to give tithes" - but our leadership class had been corrupted by money, power, and Roman culture (money and power are not Roman, they are universal). The masses have, finally, become good Jews; it is the ruling class that has allowed itself to be corrupted by its power, and thereby become a hot-bed of hatred. 

Today, one can see parallels to this situation. Although, Lord knows, we have our problems, we are certainly living in a Jewish golden age. Israel and Jewish population centers in the Diaspora are full of wonderful  institutions that are educating our children, and serving our communal and cultural needs. Jews are free to live as Jews in almost every country they choose too, and Israel is the most vibrant and educated Jewish society since the last time we had sovereignty in our homeland (the end of the second temple period). Many are "working hard at studying Torah and careful about giving tithes". But I think we all have the feeling that our leaders are letting us down, that money talks too loudly at the leadership levels of our community, and too many of our leaders keep getting caught with their hands, for one reason or another, in someone else's pocket.  On Tisha B'Av we are meant to remember that, although we need leadership to get us to a good place communally, to help us become good Jews, leadership comes with terrible temptations, which our leaders themselves must guard against, and which the community must police. To not do so, to give our leaders a free pass when they fail, to allow them to misuse and abuse their positions and get away with it, leads to destruction, of even the heathiest and most robust community.

Have an easy and meaningful fast this Tisha B'Av,

Rabbi Shimon Felix

Tisha'h B'av Summary

תשעה באב

The ninth day of the month of Av marks the destruction of both the first temple, by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, and the second temple, by the Romans, in 70 CE. We mark the day by refraining from eating and drinking, washing, wearing leather shoes, putting oil on our skin, and having intimate relations. This is a day of mourning for lost Jewish freedom and sovereignty, and many also remember other Jewish tragedies, such as the Holocaust, on this day. With the creation of the Jewish State in 1948, and the recapture of Jerusalem in 1967, some question whether we should perhaps make some changes in the ritual or liturgy to reflect these events. 

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