Today is the second day of Rosh Chodesh Elul, or the beginning of the Jewish month of Elul, a time traditionally noted as beginning a process of introspection (cheshbon hanefesh) and internal and external forgiveness leading up to the High Holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. It is for this reason that the shofar is sounded daily from now (yesterday) until Yom Kippur. We are meant to wake up, to consider what may have fallen down the priority list among the hustle and bustle of daily life, or amid the long, glorious summer days we have been treated to.
The Talmud famously relates that it was a lack of this virtue — forgiving others — that led to the destruction of the Second Temple. However, the gloss ‘baseless hatred led to the destruction of the Second Temple’ (as it is generally heard in Jewish circles) fails to include some of the nuance originally conveyed by the Mishna:
“As to Jerusalem’s First Temple, on what account what is destroyed? Because of idolatry, licentiousness, and bloodshed. But as to the Second Temple, we know that they devoted themselves to Torah and were meticulous about tithes. On what account did they go into exile? Because they loved money and hated one another without cause. This teaches that hatred of one another is evil before God, and it is deemed equivalent to idolatry, licentiousness, and bloodshed” (Jerusalem Talmud Tractate Yoma 1:1, translation from Lau’s The Sages Part II)
In the view of the Rabbis, it was not just the fact that 1st century CE Jews could not behave even remotely as our tradition imports us to that led to the destruction of the Temple. Rather, it was the specific sin of loving money that is tied to the Destruction in this homiletic understanding of the calamitous events of 70 CE. As is abundantly clear today, greed can easily lead to caring less for our brothers and sisters living among us.
The sins juxtaposed with that of greed and baseless hatred, those that led, in this homily, to the destruction of the First Temple, are not chosen by accident. In Rabbinic discourse (see, e.g. Sanhedrin 74a) they are collectively referred to as yaharog v’al ya’avor — those sins that a Jew is commanded to allow herself to be killed before committing. Which is to say that this passage equates greed that allows us to be blind to the need to make peace amongst ourselves to not one, but all three of the worst sins a Jew can commit. Put another way, we ought to forfeit our lives before stooping to such a level of greed and baseless hatred.
As we collect ourselves emotionally and spiritually for the task of taking stock of where we are, specifically in relationship to others, let us remember that at the heart of our task here on Earth is a cultivation of loving, respectful, and forgiving relationships. According to this Rabbinic teaching, through forgetting this truth, Jews banished the most concrete manifestation of God in the world, and have yet to recover it. We all have forty days — an auspicious number in Judaism — with which to work. Beyond tallying our good and bad deeds, and making amends in our relationships to God (a task that is crucial as well), let us take time to speak to one another and mend our ben adam lechavero (interpersonal) relationships, reaffirming the centrality that human relationships ought to have in building a community and world in which God’s presence can be manifest.
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