Destructions of Our Past and Present

By Aviva Shinnar

 
The summer sun is upon us and although we may enjoy this season, Av 9 marks the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. The fast on the 9th of Av is a culmination of a period known as the three weeks, beginning with the Fast of Tammuz on the 17th. During these weeks we deprive ourselves of certain pleasures in order to reflect on what caused the destruction of the Temple and the accompanying suffering. As we reflect on these past destructions, this can also be a time to think about current and future destruction of the environment.

Psalms 104:24 elaborates on G-d’s creation, “How many are the things You have made, O’Lord; You have made them all with wisdom; the earth is full of your creations. There is the sea, vast and wide, with its creatures beyond number, living things, small and great.” Yet, conservation biologists estimate that up to half of existing plant and animal life may be extinct by the twenty-second century.[2] Sadly, we only know about threats to approximately 34,000 plant species and 5,200 animal species (there are thousands of species that go extinct before they are even identified). Since the 1600’s, the rate of extinction has rapidly increased with human population growth leading to destruction of habitat, commercial exploitation, and damage by nonnative species.[3]

In Deuteronomy, parshat Ki Tetze, we learn about the commandment of Shiluach Haken. It says “Send away the mother and the children (i.e. the eggs) take for yourself.” The Shulchan Aruch [4] teaches us that this pasuk (sentence) explains man’s responsibility to preserve all living creatures. Since Hashem created all living things, it is forbidden for us to completely destroy them from this world. Furthermore, the Shulchan Aruch states that it is man’s responsibility to protect these creatures and that anyone who understands this concept, truly understands Hashem.

Similarly, our fast on the 9th of Av can help teach us this lesson of responsibility, destruction, and conservation. On the Shabbas preceding the 9th of Av we read parsha Devarim in the book of Deuteronomy, “But how can I bear your troubles and your burdens and your disputes all by myself?” (Deuteronomy 1:12). In many congregations, this Pasuk is read to the mournful tune of the Book of Lamentations (Eicha) instead of in the usual trope (melody). Rabbi Yosef Horowitz[5]  comments on the connection, “Traditionally, this verse is read to the melody of the book of Eicha, to teach us that if a person refuses to assume the responsibility for communal needs and thinks that by doing so he makes things easier for himself, he will in the end find out that matters will be worse for him and he will remain alone and isolated.” He further states that a person who chooses not to “get themselves dirty” by involving themselves in the social needs around him, is himself a true cause for mourning, as such a person is missing out on what makes them human.

In Rambam’s (Maimonides) commentary on the Mishna in Rosh Hashana [1] [3], he states that the Jews in the Second Temple period observed the fast of the 9th of Av. Why would the Jews mourn the destruction of the Temple AFTER it had been rebuilt? Dr. David Hanschke of Bar Ilan University suggests an interesting idea: The destruction of the First Temple ended the notion that the House of Hashem is indestructible; it showed the Jews, and the world, that the Temple could be destroyed. The Jews learned that the responsibility for what happens in this world and the responsibility for their continued existence rests on their shoulders alone. The awareness of the past destruction needs to act as the catalyst for preventing future destruction of all types. It is this awareness that we need to nurture.[6]

In his commentary on Parshat Noach, Professor Dov Landau (Jewish Literature Department at Bar Ilan University) states that “The importance of human questioning and wondering is so important in Judaism that these are considered characteristics that set human beings apart from other creatures and are the basis for the morality and cultural restraint that human beings impose on their lusts and impulses.” Just as we stand in wonder and awe of Hashem every second of every day, we must also stand in awe of the world around us which He has created; and just as we strive every day to glorify and preserve Hashem’s name, so too must we strive to glorify and preserve the world around us because the two are interconnected. If “the world loses its power to astonish and amaze us, if the human soul accepts the world without wonderment then the cause for moral development disappears.”[7] Rav Hirsch explains that morality is what our sages deemed the groundwork for intellectual development and diligent religious observance.[8] As our sages state:”it is not the philosophic reasoning that is central, but doing the good deed.”

While we reflect on the actions that brought about the Temples’ destructions, this is an apropos time to reflect on the actions that are bringing about the destruction of all the land, and the planet earth.

 
Aviva Shinnar completed a year of sheirut leumi before getting a combined BS/MS in occupational therapy. She currently resides in Israel and does a tremendous amount of volunteer work for Canfei Nesharim.

 

Notes:

[1]    Wilson, E.O. (1992) The Diversity of Life. Massachusets: Harvard University Press, p 424
[2]    From the New Georgia Encyclopedia online
[3]    From MSN Encarta Encyclopedia online
[4]    Taken from the Shulchan Aruch on Parshat Ki Tetzeh in Deuteronomy
[5]    Quoted in Itturei Torah V 6 pg 19 from Rabbi Yosef Yozel Horowitz (Mechachamei Hamussar)
[6]    Hanschke, David. (1998). Tisha B’av during the second temple period. A Divinely Given Torah in Our Day and Age. Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University Press
[7]    Landau, Dov. (2002). The significance of the flood story; on restoring awe. A Divinely Given Torah in Our Day and Age Volume II. Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University Press.

– Originally posted in “On Eagles’  Wings” July 18th 2004

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