For over 2,000 years now Jews the world over have been mourning the loss of the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple in Jerusalem). On a daily basis and especially on holidays, we have parts of our prayers that remind us of our loss and we “grieve” a bit. And every year on the seventeenth day of the Hebrew month of Tamuz (today) we fast and begin a three week period of increased outer mourning for the loss of a life totally centered around the sacrificial service to Hashem that the Mikdash personifies. In fact, during this period, known as the three weeks, men do not shave in keeping with the mourning ritual for close relatives. This culminates with the ninth day of the month of Av- the date of the burning and total destruction of both Holy Temples.
Since my adolescence, living a very “religious” lifestyle in New York, I had trouble with the idea of this constant longing for, what seemed to me to be symbolic, rather than authentic basic Jewish values and behaviors. Since then, to this day, I come across men who grow beards during the three weeks, but are dishonest, even unscrupulous in business. Or women who cry in shul on Shabbat (synagogue) over the absence of sacrifices, but they are awful gossips and often untruthful.
I recently watched a documentary in which Dr. Micha Goodman described so well what I have been trying to describe for years. He says that it was not that the Israelites did nor love the Mikdash enough, it was that they loved it too much. In other words, they were so involved with all the minute details of the mitzvot tied to the rituals of worship that they neglected other basic tenets. The way it is described in Orthodox parlance is that they were very good at mitzvoth between G-D and man, but not between man and his fellow. For this they were punished by losing the Temple and all that went with it.
The most famous Gemara connected to the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem is found in Gittin:55b. The story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza involves a guest incorrectly invited by a house butler as the intended guest. Upon his arrival to the feast he was badly treated and humiliated by the host. All the major rabbis and leaders of the day were present, but did nothing. As he is unceremoniously ejected, he goes directly to the Roman prefect and tells him that the Jews are planning a revolt. The prefect is not sure he believes this. So, Bar Kamtza tells him to bring an animal to the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) at the Temple to sacrifice in the name of the Caesar and see what happens. It is not permitted to bring an animal with a blemish for sacrifice at the Temple. Knowing this, Bar Kamtza puts a small blemish on the animal. It is so small, that the priests are willing to overlook it to prevent possible war if the Caesar were to feel slighted by this refusal. However, Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkolos, a very powerful figure within the religious circle in Jerusalem, would not allow it. And war did, indeed, come.
This glaring preference for exactness in the halacha (religious law) that would mean the death of tens of thousands is precisely what Goodman is referring to and what has kept me up at night. This is not a new phenomena nor does it begin with the Second Temple. In ISamuel:IV/3-11, we are being told of the Israelites’ war with the Philistines. When they lose a major battle, the soldiers call for the Arone (Ark of the Covenant) to be brought to the next battle. There is great pomp and cheering when it arrives and the Israelites commence battle. Despite the fact that the Ark is in their midst, they lose the next big battle, 30,000 foot soldiers die, the Ark is taken and the two sons of Eli the Kohen are killed. They are too stunned to fully understand what the Divine message here was. Namely, that the Ark is not a magic talisman. That they would not be guaranteed a victory unless they were worthy of it. And that would would happen when they conducted their lives as prescribed by Hashem which puts heavy emphasis on how they treat each other.
In this corona time, we really do need to finally “get it”.