There are many days that are auspicious, commemorated for a powerful event that happened on that date, earning them personal or even national significance. Birthdays and national holidays are like this. The same is true for sad days commemorating tragic events. People commemorate the passing of a loved one or a national tragedy.
But what if five national tragedies happened on the same date?
Today is the 17th day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz, a somber fast day. And these are the five events that scarred the Jewish people on this day:
- Moses broke the tablets upon seeing the Golden Calf
- The priests ran out of animals for sacrifices as a result of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem
- A Roman general named Apostamos publicly burned a Torah scroll
- Apostamos then placed an idol in the most sacred room in the Temple.
- The walls to Jerusalem were breached and the city fell into enemy hands
One or two tragedies taking place on the same date might be attributed to coincidence or bad luck. But five tragedies of such proportion? This was clearly not a coincidence. What was it about this day that established it as a magnet for tragedy?
A casual observer disinclined to ascribe spiritual significance to historical events might dismiss the synchronicity of the events on the 17th of Tammuz, noting that most of them were a result of the Roman destruction of the Second Temple.
But the first event stands out. It seems that the shattering of the divinely inscribed tablets on the 17th of Tammuz established a precedent, setting the nature of the day for all time. So what was the connection between the Sin of the Golden Calf and the destruction of the Temple?
Answering that question requires taking a closer look at the nature of the sin of the Golden Calf and how it can manifest even in our generation.
A close encounter with God can be an intimidating, even terrifying, experience. Standing in the divine glory of God’s light sounds appealing, but in reality it is a terrifying experience, exposing all of our flaws, all of our fears, and requiring total devotion to the exclusion of anything ego-bound. And so the Children of Israel hesitated, preferring to hide behind Moses who acted as an intermediary, than to form a real, intimate relationship with the Divine. For this reason they asked Moses to speak to them instead of hearing from God Himself (Exodus 20:16).
When Moses was delayed on Mount Sinai, they saw an opportunity to establish an even larger intermediary between them and God, something that would allow them to be more distant from the awe-inspiring experience of being so closely associated with God in a covenantal relationship. Thinking Moses was gone, they had Aaron create a golden calf to hide behind so they would not have to get too close to God.
The tablets were a code of law unlike any established by Man before or since. They were written by the finger of God himself. Seeing the people with the Golden Calf, Moses smashed the tablets because he understood their inclination to ascribe holiness to objects or rituals rather than connect with God himself. Moses understood that even the Tablets could be corrupted, and used by the people as a symbol to avoid connecting directly with God.
So Moses destroyed the Tablets on the 17th of Tammuz, establishing the essence of the day.
How is this connected to the other four events associated with the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem?
Anyone who has seen the walls of Jerusalem can sense that they are far more than a system of defense or demarcation of the municipal boundaries. Just as the shattering of the tablets was far more than the breaking of a set of inscribed stones, the destruction of Jerusalem’s walls was far more than the destruction of a stone wall. Similarly, anyone who has held a Torah scroll knows that it is far more than a book. Referred to as a tree of life, a Torah scroll is a physical object that is intrinsically connected to the source of life, a present-day manifestation of the tree of life in the Garden of Eden. And the animal sacrifices were a powerful act connecting the nation directly to God in an ongoing covenant of blood, a constant reenactment of Abraham’s Covenant of the Pieces.
Just like Moses knew they would do with the first set of tablets, the nation of Israel had come to rely on these symbols, using them to connect to God while retaining just enough distance to feel safe. And so they were destroyed on the 17th of Tammuz, the day that Moses smashed the tablets.
Yes, losing them was a tragedy. But losing them forces us to reevaluate our relationship with God. The lack of a Temple, the lack of Jerusalem, forced the Jews to dig deeper, to remain connected to God without a material intermediary.
Every year on the 17th of Tammuz, Jews fast and are reminded that they no longer have the Temple. They are forced to ask themselves how they can remain deeply connected to God without the physical structure. We are forced to ask ourselves if we hide behind our symbols or have we created a direct relationship with God.
After Moses threw down the tablets, he returned to the mountain to prepare a new set, and the Jews prepared to continue their journey to the Promised Land. And while we mourn on the 17th of Tammuz, we also pray for the Third Temple as a new conduit for connecting to God. The seeds of hope and redemption are plucked from the ruins of despair and destruction, and these seeds are watered by our tears.