The Spiritual Roots of Redemption: Lessons for the Three Weeks

by Rabbi Yonatan Neril

 

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The Talmud teaches that the First and Second Temples were destroyed because of Israel’s sins: the First Temple because of idol worship, sexual immorality, and bloodshed, and the Second Temple because of senseless hatred[1]. The Maharal of Prague explains that “the destruction [of the First Temple occurred] when it was not fitting for the Shechina [Divine Presence] to dwell among them, that is, when [the Jewish people] made the Temple impure, as God does not dwell amidst their impurity.”[2] Thus, at a proximate, physical level, the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple and the Romans the Second Temple. But at an ultimate level, the Sages teach that the Jewish people were ultimately responsible.

Our Sages record a powerful interaction after the Babylonian general Nebuzaradan set fire to the First Temple: “His mind was now elated [with his triumph], when a voice came forth from Heaven saying to him, ‘You have slain a dead people, you have burned a Temple already burned…” At a physical level, the Temple had not been ‘already burned’[3]–the Cohanim (priests) were bringing offerings soon before it was destroyed. Rather, the Talmud is speaking of a spiritual deterioration that made way for the destruction of the physical structure.

In our times we are beginning to witness the planet’s ecological balance weakening due to human influence: rainforests shrinking, deserts expanding, hurricanes intensifying, the planet heating. The Three Weeks and Tisha B’av occur at the hottest time of the year, when the effects of the heating planet are most felt. What is driving the deterioration of our physical environment? To answer ‘fossil fuels’ or ‘wood use’ or even ‘consumerism’ would only provide partial answers. The Talmud shows us that in order to truly understand a problem, we need to look under its surface to understand the underlying causes, which center on the spiritual health of human beings. If one only sees physical causes (such as, in the case of the Temple, the foreign armies), one will incorrectly view them as the primary reason why an effect occurred. A person’s response to the problem will be limited to the physical level. Yet in neglecting the underlying spiritual source, the problem will keep reemerging in different physical forms, growing out of the untouched root.

Let us explore—through the prism of Jewish teaching– one root cause of our contemporary environmental challenges. King Solomon teaches, “The wise man has his eyes in his head.”[4] The Sages learn from this that a wise man foresees what will come while still at the beginning of an action.[5] Thus when Alexander the Great asked the Jewish Sages, “Who is called a ‘wise man’?” They responded to him, “The person who sees the consequence of their action.”[6] The Rambam understands this to mean that a person in the present is able to see the effect their actions will have in the future[7]. Maimonides emphasizes that the Sages are teaching about the present—one who sees in the current moment what is likely to be.

How can a person cultivate this quality within himself or herself? By being conscious and aware in the present moment. The Psalmist, King David, teaches: “I hold God before me always”–‘Shiviti Hashem l’negdi tamid.’[8] The awareness that God is always present with us enables a person to ‘make friends with the present moment,’[9] because they know that whatever is happening now emanates from the Higher Source[10]. Presence and foresight go hand in hand: a person who is truly present with what they are doing will be better able to sense what effect their action will have, in part because the process itself generates the product.

The spiritual opposite of acting with foresight is acting from a place of desire or lust. The Sages teach that desire or lust is one of three traits that remove a person from the world.[11] A person driven by desire is less likely to consider the effect of their action, both in producing and in consuming. Concerning producing, God wants us to be human beings whose doing resonates with the Divine will. Yet when we become human doers, with our doing detached from Divine consciousness, the doing can become very destructive and misguided. Doing as such is usually about achieving—making a product, profit, or accomplishment. If all I want is the end product, then I am likely not to consider the consequences of the means employed. Yet those means—especially in producing consumer goods for billions of individuals– are extincting species and altering of planet’s climatic balance.

At the level of consumption, Rabbi Daniel Kohn teaches that a person who lusts may use any means possible to satisfy their desire. The present moment, and a consciousness of what will come of the action, is sacrificed in order to fulfill the desire. A trail of destruction—in human relationships, in the physical body, or to the planet—may lie in its wake. Thus the environment is but one symptom of this spiritual problem. The link between eating and good health or obesity, or between relationship and healthy marriage or divorce, also goes back to this central issue. In Proverbs it is written, “Without vision the people destroy, but praised is the person who keeps the Torah.” [12] Lack of vision—i.e. of long-term thinking–generates destruction, while the Torah appears as an antidote to such a short-sighted mentality. While the effect on the planet of a single Westerner’s personal consumption will be negligible, with appropriate reflection we can see that the long-term effect of billions of people consuming similarly will be tremendous. Thus one root cause of environmental degradation is our not being conscious and aware of what we are doing, and as a result not seeing the effect of our actions.

The Three Weeks in particular are a time when we connect to the tragedies our people have experienced. We engage in long-term thinking—hearkening back to the Temple which was built about 3,000 years ago and first destroyed over 2,500 years ago. By comparison—when scientists write about likely ecological disruptions in 2050—41 years from now, when we or our children are likely to be living—we may discount their warnings as unimportant long-term admonitions. But we do so against the wisdom of our Sages.

The Pulitzer-prize winning scientist Jared Diamond identifies what he sees as the twelve greatest current environmental problems, among them water scarcity, overfishing, soil salinization, and biodiversity loss.[13] About extincting species he writes that “destroying a lot of little species matters to the same extent that taking out a lot of little screws from an airplane matters”–another example of seeing the long-term effect of an action. Any of these twelve problems, he writes, are like time bombs with fuses of less than 50 years.[14]

Today our foresight must be informed by global and ecological awareness, as well as our Jewish values. The wisdom of our tradition is vast and accessing its deep-rooted spiritual messages will be critical in addressing today’s environmental challenges at their root. The message of the Sages to Alexander the Great remains relevant for us, the Western world, and the whole world today: Be present now to the consequences of your actions. Wise action stemming from such foresight will set an example to the world—a light for the nations—that can inspire humanity to live differently.

Tisha B’av contains within it the seeds of redemption: according to tradition, on this day the Messiah will be born.[15] Yet the Sages also link the manifesting of the Messiah to the spiritual level of the people.[16] So as we prepare for Tisha Ba’av, let us transform our own consciousness and merit to see a humanity redeemed.
 

Notes:

[1]       Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma 9b

[2]       Sefer Netzach Yisrael, chapter 4, p. 58-9, translation by the author. Similarly, the Netivot Shalom teaches about both Temples that “Israel’s sins caused the holy, elevated influence from God to stop, and then there was not able to be a higher union [between Israel and God]…Since the strength of the Temple was taken away, the Temple was destroyed on its own.” Sefer Netivot Shalom: Bamidbar, p. 210, translation by the author.

[3]       Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 96b, translation adapted by the author from Judaic Classics Library translation. The Talmud teaches how Nebuzaradan single-handedly broke through the walls of Jerusalem, struck down Jerusalem’s defenders, and set fire to the Temple. As he was feeling haughty over what he did, a voice came down from heaven telling him the above.

[4]       Ecclesiastes 2:14, Artscroll translation.

[5]       Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Sotah 8:10

[6]       Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Tamid 32a. Translation by the author. Pirkei Avot (Chapter 2, sections 10 and 13) teaches that “Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai had five [primary] disciples…He said to them: Go out and discern which is the proper way to which a man should cling. Rabbi Shimon says: One who considers the outcome of a deed.” (ha’ro’eh et ha’nolad’) Translation by Artscroll.

[7]       Maimonides, Commentary on the Mishna to Avot 2:9, based on Rabbi Yosef Kapach Hebrew translation from the Arabic.

[8]       Tehillim 16:8, translation by the author.

[9]       Eckhart Tolle writes extensively about this and cultivating presence in his books The Power of Now and A New Earth, and provides practical techniques for how to do this.

[10]     Rabbi Shalom Arush in The Garden of Emuna focuses on the importance of emunah, which I believe relates deeply to being present with what is occurring.

[11]     The Sefat Emet quotes this teaching of the Sages in his commentary to Sefer Bamidbar, Parshat Beha’alotcha, year 5644.

[12]     Mishlei 29:18. Translation by the author. Rabbi Matis Weinberg Frameworks–Genesis p. 259 explains that “the literal translation is, incredibly enough, “Visionless people are pharaohed, meaning ‘exposed,’ ‘ruined,’ ‘broken down.’

[13]     Collapse, p. 487 He lists the twelve most serious environmental problems as 1) Destroying natural habitats 2) Overfishing and the environmental impact of aquaculture 3) Biodiversity loss. 4) Soil erosion and salinization 5) Energy ceilings for fossil fuel extraction 6) Over-utilization of fresh water 7) Using or diverting sunlight for human purposes vs. allowing it to be used for plants 8) Impacts of chemicals on the natural world and people 9) Alien species 10) Emissions leading to a depletion of the ozone layer and climate change 11) Population growth 12) Human consumption

[14]     Collapse, Viking publishers: New York, 2005, p. 498.

[15]     Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Berachot 2:4. The Talmud here uses the same word, ‘nolad,’ as is used concerning seeing the outgrowth (‘nolad’) of one’s actions.

[16]     This is taught in a number of Chasidic texts.

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