Torah Thoughts for Today
Friday, July 07, 2006
17th of Tammuz – The Day That Wasn’t
Probing a "minor" fast day of Judaism.

The half-day Jewish fast of the 17th of Tammuz is observed on Thursday July 13th, 2006.

But what EXACTLY is this day? In truth, this day should have been one of unimaginable rejoicing! Why? Because that day was to have been the day on which Moses finally brought down the first set of tablets with the divine Ten Commandments inscribed on them 3,318 years ago – a true Simchat Torah, rejoicing with the Torah on a global scale! That would have been forty days after God had spoken the Ten Commandments (the Decalogue) at Mount Sinai, celebrated on the holiday of Shavuot.

The Children of Israel were supposed to have waited patiently for Moses to descend from Mount Sinai but instead they lost their cool and their nerve at the last moment and were diverted from expecting Moses’ imminent arrival to worshipping a Golden Calf in place of God. The day Moses descended was the 17th of Tammuz and when he saw the scene before him, he was enraged and smashed the first tablets (in the Midrashim, God thanks Moses for doing this) destroying a literal God-given opportunity for the Children of Israel to turn Earth into Heaven. Instead, “all hell broke loose” on Earth and many of the Children of Israel died by Moses’ decree and a day that should have been only full of joy, became “a day that will live in infamy” on the Jewish calendar until today, with worse to follow. The evil of the Sin of the Golden Calf ultimately begot the evil of Tisha Be’Av (the worst day on the Jewish calendar)!

Could the tragedy have been avoided? Why does the Torah tell us about a generation in the wilderness that could witness God’s miracles at the time of the Exodus yet fall victim to such subsequent catastrophic miscalculation?

As is true about all events in the Torah, the lessons are many, but one classical lesson comes breaking through again and again: (1) The need for Faith and Trust and (2) There will always be Freedom of Choice in the world as we know it. Even a generation as great as the one that lived through the terror and highs of the Exodus, and one would imagine they would therefore be immune to any sort of challenge to their faith and beliefs, can and must be tested by God so that it can truly be known if that faith is derived from the outside (from having witnessed awesome events performed by God himself) or if the faith that anyone is supposed to have is something that is rooted deeply within what happens inside the hearts and minds of the believers regardless of what they may have or have not witnessed.

Even God’s chosen Children of Israel, standing as they were 3,318 years ago at the foot of Mount Sinai waiting for Moses to re-appear at the foot of the mountain, were tripped-up at the finishing line when they inexplicably reverted to idol worship of a golden statue of a Golden Calf. Admittedly how and why they failed is a deep mystery, but it is safe to say that according to the most basic tenets of Judaism, they were expected to keep cool heads and have brave hearts full of faith yet they simply failed to focus on what should have been emanating from WITHIN them: Strong faith and trust (Emunah and Bitachon in Hebrew) and discerning the illogic of worshiping an image of a “calf” (cow’s steaks are for eating and its milk for drinking – but here the Israelites literally “lower themselves” to worship an animal’s image in statue form.)
A comparison with Holocaust survivors might help to illustrate this point. Studies have shown that during the Holocaust of World War II, most of those Jews who had deep faith and trust in God as a well-imbedded mechanism deep inside their hearts, were able to retain their faith and if they were lucky enough to survive the Holocaust were able to rebuild healthy strong religious lives after the war. Not so for most who lacked strong faith before the Holocaust, they were usually the ones who lost all their faith and often rejected Judaism after the war.

The events that happened on that day so long ago, and 3,318 years is a long time ago, spun out of control and instead of it being a day of joy it wasn’t.

With more consistent faith that emanates from a deep inner sanctum hidden within each and every one of us, from the holy Neshama which is the Soul that God implants within us at birth, there are reservoirs of faith and trust in God that should enable us to pass whatever challenges may confront us. Simultaneously, Judaism teaches that there will always be Freedom of Choice, Bechira Chofshit, and that in addition to an awareness of the faith and trust in God that should radiate from within our innermost selves, there also needs to be an equally strong utilization of our brainpower to recognize and think-through the choices and challenges in front of us so that we make decisions that will leave us sitting on the right side of the fence and not leave us on the outs with God who is our spiritual source.

Sure, mistakes happen, but some mistakes can be like a little spilled milk over which we wouldn’t cry whereas others may cause us to shed bitter tears leaving us sorry for 3,318 years and still waiting for the 17th of Tammuz to become a happy day instead of a monstrous fiasco!

Shabbat Shalom!

Dedicated in Memory of my Parents.

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