Second Temple 224.88 courtesy.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
What caused the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE and of the Second Temple in 70 CE?
A historian will give you a clear answer: the folly of trying to stand up against the greatest powers in the world at that time - first the Babylonians and then the Romans. But the prophets and the sages, who are more interested in theology than in history, might give you a different answer, one that is encapsulated in the phrase in our prayers "because of our sins we were exiled from our land."
True, Jeremiah, the prophet who lived before, during and after the first exile, warned against becoming entangled in the rivalry between the great powers, Egypt and Babylonia, and later counseled submission to Babylon, thus earning himself the title of traitor. But basically he saw the event as the punishment brought by God for sinning against Him.
Jeremiah's attitude was largely based on the teachings of the Book of Deuteronomy, where Moses warns the people that "I know that, when I am dead, you will act wickedly and turn away from the path that I enjoined upon you, and that in time to come misfortune will befall you for having done evil in the sight of the Lord and vexed Him by your deeds" (Deuteronomy 31:29). This is spelled out in great detail in Parashat Ha'azinu (32:1-43) in which it is also said that the enemies who destroy Judah, even though they are permitted to do this because of her sins, will themselves be destroyed when God avenges "the blood of His servants" (32:43).
What were the sins that Jeremiah castigated? Forgetting God and going after idolatry is obviously the first one, as he says: "Yet My people have forgotten Me - days without number" (Jeremiah 2:32). But together with this is the fact that they have forgotten the ways that God has commanded them to live, the ethical and moral precepts that are the very essence of God's commands. That is, as Deuteronomy put it, they have "done evil."
Jeremiah poignantly describes his search through the streets of Jerusalem for a man "who acts justly, who seeks integrity" (5:1) but there is none. He especially castigates the wealthy who "set up a trap to catch men... their houses are full of guile... they will not judge the case of the orphan, nor give a hearing to the pleas of the needy" (5:26-28). Indeed he describes a society that does not deserve to exist, a society that is the very antithesis of the program set out in the Torah when it describes the "holy nation" that the people of Israel are to become.
In Chapter 7, surely one of the greatest in the books of the prophets and one of the finest speeches in world literature, Jeremiah stands at the gate of the Temple where the people have gathered in hypocritical worship, trusting that the presence of the Temple in their midst will guarantee their safety, and tells them that sacrifices are no substitute for righteousness. "Will you steal and murder and commit adultery and swear falsely and sacrifice to Baal...? Do you consider this house, which bears My name, to be a den of thieves?" (9-11).
It is not incidental that Jeremiah refers back here to the Ten Commandments, the very basis of the covenant between God and Israel. He specifically enumerates five that they have violated - 2, 6, 7, 8, 9, only one of which (2) refers to idolatry. The rest are concerned with relations between human beings. Indeed it is instructive to note that the majority of the rules of the Decalogue relate to ethical conduct. The first three have to do with belief in the one God. The fourth - Shabbat - is a combination of showing belief in God as the creator and granting a day of rest to all humans and animals. The next six all concern human relations.
How then are we to understand the prophetic attitude toward the destruction of Judea? To Jeremiah and to the sages who followed his lead, the people deserved to dwell in the land only so long as they followed God's ways. And the ways that they emphasized were the concern for the poor and the upholding of human rights, the creation of a civil society in which people could live in peace.
I am reminded of the rabbinic statement, "Would that they would follow My ways even if they abandon Me" (Y. Hagiga 1:6). Even belief in God takes second place to ethical living. In our parlance, this would mean that a nation that does not uphold human decency, a society in which there is no law but the law of force and might, weakens its moral fabric to the extent that it cannot continue to exist. This is what happened to the Roman Empire, to the Axis powers and to the Soviet Union. Unfortunately there are today other governments that still exist but that should not. Perhaps they too will eventually fall under the burden of moral corruption.
In the meantime, even as we consider the tragedies of the past, it should be our concern to see to it that the Third Temple - the modern State of Israel, its government and we, its citizens - exemplify the ways of God and do not turn aside from the just and rightful path that the Torah has set out for us.
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.