Tisha B'Av & God's Plan for Man
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
I recently had a discussion with an intelligent woman. She shared her desire to seek out God so as to live the best she could. Having experienced other religions and recently learned elements of Judaism and Torah, she was very impressed by its wisdom. After researching, a family member may have found evidence of Jewish lineage. We spoke for a while, and to assist her journey, I decided to write this article which I hope offers her a cohesive structure of Judaism, significant historical events, Torah's defining truths and values, and God's plan for mankind.
Tisha B'Av is a fast day in commemoration of the many tragedies God visited upon the Jewish nation throughout time, and for our own sinful state, as conveyed by today’s absence of the third and final Temple.
It is a time of reflection and repentance. And repentance cannot be performed unless we each understand exactly what God commands mankind, thereby realizing where we each have failed, why we failed, and how to correct ourselves. When we learn God's will for ourselves by studying His Torah from our great Rabbis, we can attain the most fulfilling lifestyle.
To appreciate God's will, it is vital to briefly review mankind's history and God's involvement in human affairs aimed at correcting our distortions. We have but one life; God wishes that each person He created benefits to the greatest degree.
In the Beginning
God created a perfect world, containing all that man needs, and in their correct proportions. Air is most vital, so it is everywhere. Water is next in vitality, and is almost as abundant as air; also designed in a manner that it can flow to remotely-inhabited regions. And for those inland peoples, rain delivers their water. Vegetation is inexpensive and easily reproduced. This sustains our nutritive needs, as well as our clothing. Homes and heat are necessary, so wood is abundant, and inexpensive. All else man pursues are unnecessary distractions.
God created Adam and Eve with perfect minds. He gave them one command: to accept Him alone as the sole force in the universe; the “Creator.” This command was necessary, as this Master/servant relationship might not be derived from studying nature. Nature teaches there must be a Creator, but not that man is to serve Him. This one command fills that gap.
But for all other discoveries, man could engage his mind to and uncover the sciences, math, and justice.
5781 years ago, Adam’s creation (billions of years after creation evolved) no Torah was given. It was unnecessary, and still largely inapplicable, as man-made religions had not been fabricated; the subject of many Torah laws.
The tools needed to unlock continued insights are planted in the patterns of natural human thought. Truth, false, deduction, induction, equality, comparisons, a fortiory arguments and others, are all natural, not learned disciplines. (For example, no child need be taught comparison: he intuitive compares, recognizing that black is not equal to white, or that this person is not his mother.) Our senses combined with these disciplines enable us to grow in knowledge, and in our appreciation for our Maker. God created the world permeated with His wisdom, as He desired that mankind enjoy life, and the pursuit of wisdom offers the greatest life.
God needs nothing, so His act of creating one intelligent species–man–was purely so this creation could ponder the universe and become amazed and awed by the Creator. Countless intellects were infatuated by the workings of our universe, and this continues to be true for all mankind, Jew or gentile.
It makes no difference whether we are born to Jewish or gentile parents. What is relevant are the choices we make. And if one chooses to follow God, regardless of how he or she commenced life, then that person is cherished by God. The greatest people began life as children to gentiles, like our patriarchs and matriarchs, Ruth, Unkelos, and many Rabbis. And the worst villains had Jewish parents, like King Mennashe. You notice I do not refer to the child as “Jew” or “gentile,” for these are choices, not birthrights. We cannot ask why God determines that one person is born to a specific set of parents. Only God in His wisdom knows why this is best. Abraham was born to an idolatrous father, while King David and Moses both had fathers who never sinned their entire lives. Perhaps specific people and events influence us differently, depending on each of our unique psyches. One personality type will have better opportunities if born to gentiles, and another person will do better with parents who are perfected themselves. Abraham was not a Jew, he was born to an idolater, and yet he reached the highest level a person can reach, as he was a prophet. What Jew today can say that?
Be clear on this, God does not create Christian, Catholic, Muslim, or Jewish infants. God creates “humans.” Just as He created Adam and Abraham before Torah was given, and they were simply humans (not Jews, since Torah was not given yet), we too are all equal at birth. After the Torah was given, God made no changes to how humans are created. We all possess the identical potential to follow God’s will. We all have the same soul, despite foolish Jews claiming their souls are better. How distasteful this must sound to a gentile! What a low estimation of God will gentiles have, thinking a Jew is favored, and given a better soul at birth, when no merit yet exists at birth! In fact, it was the “gentile” Abraham who earned his perfection, and only thereafter did God create a Jewish nation from him. Judaism is actually founded by perfect gentiles. It is only the ignorant and arrogant Jew who claims the nonsense that he has a superior soul. We should be mindful that the role of the Jew is to serve all others, sharing God’s Torah with the world. In this manner, the Jew is actually subservient to the gentile.
If a Jew follows God completely, he is loved by God. If a gentile follows God completely, she too is equally loved. Of course, a complete following of God means His 613 laws. Those Jews who look down upon gentile or converts violate God’s words. For God says numerous times in Torah, “One Torah for the Jew and convert” (Exod. 12:49, Num. 15:16, Num. 15:29) thereby proving complete equality among each and every soul. Not only this, but Talmud Sanhedrin (59a) states, “A gentile who engages in Torah is like the High Priest”—meaning this gentile is greatly exalted. And this is only in reference to a gentile who observes the minimal seven Noachide laws. How much more praiseworthy is a gentile who converts! Such a gentile appears to surpass even the greatest Jew. And rightfully so, for how humbling must it be for a gentile to accept his or her very being is not on par with the highest level, of one obligated to observe all 613 laws. When a gentile converts, this person willfully accepts a burden of laws, while the Jew did not make this conscious decision. The Talmud also states (Brachos 34b), “Where a penitent person stands, wholly righteous people cannot stand.” There is no difference between a person who repents, or a gentile who converts. Both have abandoned a life without Torah, and have accepted God's complete will.
Mankind’s Descent into Idolatry
Over time, man abandoned the life of intellectual pursuits, and instead, chased after lusts, passions and imagination. They veered far from the plan that they use their senses and reason to determine what is real and what is true.
Part of this emotional lifestyle is the succumbing to human insecurity. Mankind realized his mortality, he feared death. He also feared the unknown: “What will be tomorrow?” many people worried. The need for the parent or guiding figurehead was retained, instead of God’s plan, that man mature, and recognize that his infant view of powerful parents be abandoned, and they be viewed as simple humans as himself. But those who could not escape the infantile dependency on parents, coupled with the baseless view that the cosmos were deities, invented gods. They felt that figurines shaped as the planets and stars drew their powers down to Earth. The idols, they felt, became repositories of power, deserving worship, and in reciprocation, worshippers would realize success in all they desired. They accepted liars claiming to know how to worship the stars and idols, and soon enough, generations lost all knowledge of the Creator, as numerous religions flourished. Additional ceremonial rites and superstitions were invented that offered mankind a false security and promises of success and health, until the world was predominantly composed of stone gods and witches.
One unique man, Abraham, was raised in this world culture of idolatry. He too worshiped. But at a young age his mind started to probe, as Maimonides teaches in his Mishneh Torah (Laws of Idolatry, chap I). He began to use his intelligence, which became sharper over many years of thought. With no teacher or books, he extricated himself from the false beliefs of all others, and realized the Creator. He started forming arguments and writing texts, teaching the masses that idolatry was false, and there is but one God. When the people would gather around him and ask him about his statements, he would explain [them] to each one of them according to their understanding, until they turned to the path of truth. He soon amassed tens of thousands of followers.
God revealed Himself to Abraham, and promised to establish his offspring as His nation; a people who would possess and transmit Judaism to the world. God gave to Abraham Isaac, and to Jacob, the Twelve Tribes. Due to famine, the tribes descended to Egypt where Joseph was ruler and provided sustenance. Joseph originally came to Egypt due to the divine dreams of leadership God gave him. His brothers deemed him dangerous, and sold him. Joseph’s buyers sold him to Egypt, where he was framed and imprisoned. But his mind pondered his dreams, and over the many years, he became a great psychologist and dream interpreter. This knowledge helped him advance from prison to viceroy. We appreciate God's plan that the original dreams caused both: Joseph's descent to Egypt, and his emancipation from prison so as to sustain his family and the country years later. God’s hand was clearly at work. But God had greater plans…
From Egypt to Sinai
The twelve sons of Jacob died. Their offspring living in Egypt absorbed that idolatrous culture. They were punished with slavery for 210 years. To offer Egypt and the Jews a chance to abandon their idolatrous ways and realize the true God, God sent Moses and 10 Plagues: clearly miraculous demonstrations with precise predictions of their onslaught. They were a message that one God exists, and all Egyptian idols and deities are powerless against Him. Pharaoh refused to heed the Ten Plagues and the numerous lessons contained therein; each one a testimony to a single God who alone controls the universe He created. Egypt was destroyed (as were many Jews) and their army drowned in the Reed Sea.
God delivered the sons of Jacob, the Israelites, from Egypt, to Mount Sinai where they would receive a divine religion as contained in 1) the Ten Commandments, 2) the Written Torah scrolls, and 3) in the explanatory Oral Law or Mishneh that God communicated to Moses.
A Religion of Proof & Reason
Revelation was the seminal event in forming the nation of the Jews. For it was Revelation that proves God's existence, and rejects all other religions as impostors to this day. Had revelation at Sinai never occurred, and Moses lied to any of the 2 million Jews, telling them they heard a voice emanating from a fiery mountain, they would laugh at him. They would not replace their true histories with Moses’ fabrication without evidence. Nor would the world today be in unanimous acceptance of the Torah (Bible).
No one could ever succeed at making masses accept that they witnessed miracles, when they had not. The only explanation for the world's acceptance of the Torah, is that it is true. The Jews did in fact witness Revelation at Sinai. They did see a mountain on fire, and hear intelligent speech emanating from fire, which is impossible, unless the source of that speech is not of this world. Had Revelation never occurred, there would be at least one other version of Jewish history today. But there isn’t. It is impossible that only one account of Jewish history exists, and that it is false. That cannot occur. Therefore, we know that what we have received unanimously transmitted from all Jews is accurate. God gave mankind only one religion, Torah. It applies to all peoples. Jews must observe 613 commands, and gentiles must observe 7 Noahide laws. If a gentile wishes, he or she may accept the other 606 laws, and become a Jew; identical to a born Jew.
No other religion claims mass attendance at a miraculous event, since it never happened to those religions. And this is reasonable. For God created only one mankind, so only one religion makes sense. Only one revelation of one perfect system could occur. There can be only one best way for mankind to live, since we all share the identical design. And as God knows all, and the future, His Torah never expires. He knew how to create a system that applies to man throughout time. Changes in culture over the millennia, do not change man’s make-up. Torah is applicable forever.
Despite their attempts to validate their historical or miraculous claims, all other religions are at best, a belief or a blind faith, not based on any evidence of truth. We are not concerned that other religions largely outnumber Jews. We understand that appealing notions like being forgiven for one’s sins attracts millions of followers to Christianity. A man-god is very appealing, and so is a Golden Calf. But the intellect reveals the gross errors of their religion: one god cannot be three gods, just as the number 5 cannot be greater than 10; God does not become a man, and other idolatrous nonsense.
After God gave the Jews the Torah, the Tablets and the Mishneh, He included the command to follow the Rabbis’ rulings on law (Deut. 17:11) formulated in what we call the Talmud and written over hundreds of years, about 2000 years ago. The Talmud presents tremendous insights into the precise and abstract structures of Jewish law that are like beautiful mathematical equations, also including philosophy and allegories. From the Talmud, the Rabbis formalized Jewish law that we follow today, the Shulchan Aruch, or Halacha.
Originally determined by God's Torah verses, and elaborated by the Mishneh (Oral law) all aspects of life are governed by Halacha. This includes idolatry, Torah study, morality, charity, dietary laws, prayer, speech, holidays and Sabbath, monetary laws, worship and marital laws.
Torah was given at this point, 2448 years since Adam, partly due to man’s need to be warned against man-made religion and the numerous idolatrous practices that had risen over time. Many prohibitions like copying Egypt’s ways could not be commanded before Egypt was formed. And as we said, originally man had all the tools to live intelligently without a formal Torah system. Of course, we do not know the final answer why Torah was not given in part earlier; this is God's knowledge.
It is important to know that Torah contains laws of varying degrees of importance. Realizing certain ideas are more vital than others, imbues us with Torah’s primary identity. As the Rabbis teach, “One who rejects idolatry is as if he kept the entire Torah. And one who commits idolatry is as if he abandoned the entire Torah.” Thus, the knowledge and laws relating to what God is and is not, worshipping God and the error of idolatry are most crucial; they carry far more weight than laws governing the placement a parapet on one's roof, or kosher laws.
The greatest law (mitzvah) is the study of Torah itself. This surpasses giving charity, setting up courts, prayer and all other laws. The Talmud derives this from King Solomon’s words (Proverbs 8:11): “All desirous things do not compare to it [Torah study]” (Moade Kattan 9b). That is, all desirous things (i.e., all other commands) do not equate to the command of Torah study. The intellect, our distinction over all created things, is to be our primary pursuit, and affords the greatest fulfillment. This explains why the greatest minds were absorbed in Torah and the sciences.
The Tragedies of the Ninth of Av
Now we come to this holiday. What is the theme of the tragedy of the Ninth of Av? Talmud Taanis 29a recounts the Spies’ sin: the ten corrupt leaders who had no faith in God’s promise of the Jews’ conquest; they wished to spy out the land first. God did not instruct the Jews with any need for spying the land. God told them they would be successful: “Just go in and I will guarantee your victory!” The spies and the Jews should have trusted fully in God's capabilities and promises. Instead, the Spies scouted Israel for forty days and returned with an evil report. They told the Jews the current inhabitants were invincible. Despite God’s promise, they said the Jews would fail, had they tried to conquer the land. The Jews became frightened. As a punishment, God prohibited that generation from entering Israel to enjoy its great goodness. They were sentenced to travel the desert for forty years until they perished. Their children would inherit Israel. The day of the Spies’ sinful report and the Jews’ fear was the Ninth of the month of Av.
Rabbi Yochanan said, “God said to the Jews and the spies, ‘You cried a cry without justification; [therefore] I will establish a cry for you for generations.’” Rabbi Yochanan referred to the destruction of both Temples that took place on the Ninth of Av; this would be the cry for all generations. God did not say these words, they are Rabbi Yochanan’s metaphor. Rabbi Yochanan meant that just as the Spies and that generation had a specific sin—they rejected God as omnipotent enough to vanquish the enemies—so too, future generations in both Temple eras continued in to sin, and were punished on the same date to indicate the common flaw.
The first Temple fell due to idolatry, and the second due to baseless hatred. Idolatry is a clear expression of man’s failure to view God as omnipotent. Disbelief in God drives man to other means of securing his wishes; idolatry. And baseless hatred towards others only occurs when we seek social approval, and fail. We hate others as a means of saying, “I don't really need your approval.” But if we don’t, we should not care enough to expend energy hating someone. Hate only exists when we care enough to hate, when we truly want that person’s recognition of our existence. Jeremiah chapter 17 teaches that seeking man cannot coexist with seeking God. If one seeks human approval, he thereby says this is to be valued, and rejects a life where God determines his fate. Here too, man does not view God as omnipotent. If he did, he would care less about what people say, he would not focus on himself, but on God.
So God didn’t predetermine that future generations would sin with idolatry and hatred, and that the Temples would be removed as a response. God didn’t say that phrase, it was Rabbi Yochanan. Man sinned of his own will. Rabbi Yochanan scripted this “quote of God” to link a few sins, as he saw the dates of the tragedies were linked.
These two tragedies occurred when man is not pursuing Torah knowledge. Had the Jews adhered to God's Torah truths, they would not view idolatry as offering any value, nor would man seek social approval over the pursuit of God’s wisdom.
Application to Ourselves
Today, mankind still falls prey to both crimes that destroyed our Temples: idolatry and social dependence. In Jewish and gentile circles, the world still seeks baseless security in false religions, amulets, the dead, astrology, superstitions, and idolatry. People still crave human accolades, laboring to keep up with the Joneses, keeping in style, and talking behind the backs of others to elevate themselves…in their imaginations. So the third and final Temple must wait. Man is still not ready to follow God; to make Him our focus. Only very few people truly desire this.
May it be, that soon, we all abandon idolatrous practice—in all its “Jewish” permutations—and social approval. Only through dedicated study, where we seek the truth in all its forms do we live happily and fulfilled, the way God planned we each live. These include the search for truths in areas scientific, mathematical, philosophical, moral, and of course through Torah observance.
I thank my friend in Texas for inspiring many of these comments.