We just observed the fast of the Seventeenth of Tamuz, which occurs exactly three weeks before Tishah B’Av and we are now in the middle of the period of mourning known as “The Three Weeks.” The Mishnah states: Five things happened to our ancestors on the Seventeenth of Tamuz: The First Tablets were broken, the daily offering ceased, the walls of Jerusalem were breached, the evil Apostomus burnt a Torah scroll, and an idol was set up in the Sanctuary. Let’s look at the significance of these events. The first calamity to occur on the Seventeenth of Tamuz was the sin of the Golden Calf. Only forty days after hearing God speak on Mt. Sinai, the Jewish men (not the women) created and worshipped an idol. When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai and saw what had happened, he broke the Tablets of the Law that God had given to him. The Jews were forgiven for this sin on the Day of Atonement and received the second set of Tablets. Nevertheless, the perfect unity of the Jewish people with the Torah, which had been created at Mt. Sinai, was now damaged. With the sin of the Golden Calf they weakened their connection to the Revelation at Mt. Sinai and created the possibility that in the future, other Jews would also sever their connection to the teachings first begun at Mt. Sinai. Had they not sinned in this way such a possibility would never have existed.
Similarly, when the Jews rejected the Land of Israel by despairing at the report of the spies on Tishah B’Av, they cut off their connection to the Land and thereby created the possibility of a Jewish people disconnected from the Land of Israel. In essence, all the tragedies of the Exile are products of our separation from Torah and from the holiness of the Land of Israel. This idea is alluded to in Lamentations, which is read in the synagogue on Tishah B’Av: “All her pursuers overtook her, in dire straits.”
The words “in dire straits” can also be translated as “between the calamities,” a reference to the period between the Seventeenth of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av. The commentaries point out that every punishment visited upon the Jewish people carries within it a tiny measure of punishment of the sin of the Golden Calf and that of the spies that took place on those dates.
The second tragedy mentioned by the Mishnah was the cessation of the daily offering. This was a communal offering which was brought in the Temple in Jerusalem every morning and every afternoon on behalf of the entire Jewish people. It was a continual reminder to the Jewish people of their connection to God and their obligation to Him, as well as of their connection to one another as parts of a single body. It reminded them that the focus of their national life was in the spiritual realm, and that as individuals their connection with God could only be guaranteed by observance of the Torah and affiliation with the nation. During the siege of Jerusalem, supplies ran out, and for the first time in over half a millennium, the daily offering ceased.
Both the Babylonians and the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem, and caused the death of thousands by starvation, disease and violence. During both sieges, the walls of Jerusalem were breached on the Seventeenth of Tamuz, beginning the bloody battles for possession of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount.
The next two catastrophes listed in the Mishnah do not seem as serious as the first three — the burning of a Torah scroll and the setting up of an idol seem to be minor events in comparison to the destruction of Jerusalem and its population. In order to understand the magnitude of these events, we must take a deeper look at the tragedy of exile.
Perhaps the most terrible aspect of exile and destruction is the illusion it creates that God is not present or is not concerned with our fate. This concern was expressed by the prophet Joel:
Have pity, God, upon Your people — let not Your heritage be an object of scorn, for nations to dominate them. Why should they say among the peoples, “Where is their God?”
To all appearances, the Divine Presence was absent when a pagan Roman general, Apostomus, was able to publicly burn a Torah scroll, and an idol was erected in the Temple itself. The Hebrew expression for this illusion is “chillul Hashem,” usually translated as “desecration of God’s name.” The literal translation, “absence of God’s name,” reflects this idea, because any action of blatant rebellion against God that occurs without hindrance creates the impression that “God is not here.” In reality, God is everywhere. Even at the moment that an evil person commits a sin, it is God Who sustains him and gives him life and the free will to act as he chooses. When confronted with the falsehood of a “chillul Hashem” we surely have reason to mourn. It is during these times of suffering that the whole world asks “Where is your God?” Our response to this is that He is with us in our suffering, and that our survival through the horrors of the exile, our continued connection to the Torah, to the Land of Israel and to each other are all witnesses to the Divine Presence that rests among the Jewish people even during our exile.