Tisha B’Av: The Spies and the Temples


Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim



Talmud Sanhedrin 104b shares God’s sentiment: “You cried an unwarranted cry, (therefore) I will establish for you a cry throughout the generations.”  The Rabbis suggested this was God’s sentiment addressed to the Jews on the ninth of the month of Av—Tisha B’Av—when the Jews cried at the spies’ divisive report. The spies spoke against God’s promise that He would conquer the land of Canaan, Israel. The spies incited a riot, declaring the Jews could not succeed over Canaan’s mighty inhabitants, despite God’s age-old promise to Abraham. The Talmud says that as a response, God established Tisha B’Av as a day of crying for many years to come.

Many questions emerge. Why would future generations pay the price for a former generation’s sins? Didn’t God punish that former generation with 40 years in the desert? If so, why is additional crying necessary? How is a crying for many generations justified: why not just one generation? What was the sin of the spies and of the Jews? What is meant by an “unwarranted cry”? And finally, we are taught that the latter generation’s sins of immorality, idolatry and baseless hatred are what brought upon us the destruction of both Temples respectively, not the sin of the spies. So which is the cause for the mourning of Tisha B’Av: the spies, or the latter generation’s sins?

Our first step is to note that the Talmudic statement does in fact tie the sin of the spies and the Jews’ cry, to both Temples’ destructions, “You cried an unwarranted cry, (therefore) I will establish for you a cry throughout the generations.” The Rabbis teach there is a direct relationship. We must analyze the sin of the Jews’ cry. Why did they cry at the spies’ report? They did so out of a fear of destruction. This fear was caused by their overestimation of their enemy’s strength. But the Jews failed to include the essential element into their military equation: God’s promise. The Jews’ cry was baseless, as they were already guaranteed victory, despite the strength of their opponent! God’s word should have outweighed any other consideration, and should have been all they heeded. As we read at Mincha (afternoon prayers) of fast days, “As the heavens are higher from the land, so also is My way higher than yours, and My thoughts from your thoughts”(Isaiah 55:9).

Digging deeper, we discover that “tragedy” is directly proportional to one’s sense of the good. If A is greater in importance than B, the loss of A is a greater tragedy, than the loss of B. In other words, God was saying, “With your cry, you display your value system, and your system does not include Me.” This must be corrected. A life where God is not part of our daily considerations is not the life God planned for man. He did not give us intelligence to gather riches, create fame, or overindulge in pleasures. The gift of intelligence has but one aim: knowledge of the Creator. What is God’s remedial action? The destruction of both Temples, on the same date. How does this address the problem?

What is “Temple”? Without understanding its purpose, we cannot mourn its loss. According to Sforno, the Temple was given as a response to the Golden Calf, towards which the Jews displayed a distorted approach to God. With the Golden Calf, man displayed his inability to approach God bereft of sensuality. They did not feel the Calf was God, rather, a means to reach Him. Their corruption required a fix. “Temple” was the answer: Temple realigned man’s proper approach to God through corrected religious practice, with true ideas, not man’s imagined, idolatrous emotions displayed via the Calf. However, when man is left to his own devices, he creates golden calves and idolatry. Man’s religious expressions require guidance, and Temple’s strict and meticulous system of laws satisfies this need. Additionally, the Temple’s presence indicates God’s continual acceptance of our worship, and thus, His providence over the nation. Conversely, its destruction indicates God’s absence.

The Jews cried over their imagined defeat, had they attempted to conquer Canaan. They discounted God’s guarantee of success. In response, God destroyed the Temples to correct a few errors: their destructions indicated that His absence is what the Jews should view as a true loss. God is the most essential factor for one’s happiness. During the epoch of the spies, the Jews did not view God’s promise as a reality, as much as their own military prowess. Therefore, God used Temple—His presence—as an indicator that herein lies the greatest factor in our lives.

But how would the Jews accept that this destruction is God’s will? Primarily by the element of duplicate dates. Both Temples fell on the ninth of Av. This cannot be coincidence. God must have executed this judgment. Not only that, but this devastation recalled the spies’ crime committed on this same date: the Jews reliance on “self” and omission of God from their view of reality. All three tragedies falling on the same date teach that God’s hand is evident; it is Divine Punishment.

It is true, that latter crimes of immorality, idolatry, and baseless hatred demanded their own, exclusive punishment, without the sin of the spies. But perhaps the exact punishment of the Temples’ destruction, and on duplicate dates, would not have been the selected measure, had the spies never sinned. The Talmud’s exact words “I will establish crying throughout the generations” might be understood as God duplicating a date alone to link the spies’ sin with latter evils, not the “nature” of the punishments. The spies determined the date, while the punishment was determined by later generations. However, the Meharsha disagrees with this theory, stating that based on the spies’ and the Jews’ cry alone, was the date fixed, and the Temples were marked for destruction.

Even subsequent to the 40-year term in the desert, this corruption in the Jews was not yet removed. Certainly the original offenders have passed on. The Temples’ destructions can only address later generations. We are forced to conclude that remnants of the original sin are still cleaved to by us today. Even during the times of the Talmud, the Talmud says that later generations lacked faith in God’s ability to provide, so they worked most of the day, and learned little, instead of the Torah’s prescription for the exact opposite. Man still limits his equations solely to natural law, omitting God’s promises, disbelieving that which does not compute mathematically. But Chanina ben Dosa displayed the correct philosophy. His daily activities incorporated the promise of God’s assistance. He did not rely on business calculations alone, nor did he rely on miracles, on which we must not rely. But he also did not rely on his own knowledge as the sole determinant of how a successful life is achieved. He knew of God’s unlimited abilities and His natural design that favors one devoted to Torah. Chanina ben Dosa believed God would provide, even with less work and greater time learning. This was not an abstract belief, but one by which he lived each day.

God wills the best life for man. If man has shortcomings, it is addressed by God’s mercy. Our shortcomings today begin with a lack of Torah study, which can teach us the proper way the world operates, what to value, and how to achieve true happiness. It is foolish for man to continue in the sin of the spies, to abandon the one invaluable tool—Torah knowledge—that can open doors which as of yet, remain closed to many. Torah ignorance prevents man from working within God’s reality instead of fighting it, all for temporal wealth, fame, or lust.

To mourn for the Temples’ losses properly, we must first realize the loss: an incomplete Torah system, one if sustained today, would offer us the most rewarding and enlightening existence with God’s Torah, and His providence, unparalleled by anything else. “All desirous things do not compare to her (Torah)” (Proverbs, 8:11). In the messianic era, Mosihach, who will surpass King Solomon and approach Moses’ level, will imbue us all with tremendous Torah knowledge that will provide the most fulfilling and satisfying existence.

“Return to Me, and I will return to you.” We must take the first step. Trust God that through minimizing work and maximizing Torah, God will ensure we do not lack our needs.