Picking Up G‑d’s Signals

The Rambam introduces his discussion of the commemo­rative fasts as follows:1

There are days when our people all fast because of calamities that happened to them — to arouse [their] hearts, and open the paths of repentance [to them]. This will serve as a reminder of our undesirable con­duct2 and that of our ancestors, which... brought these calamities upon them and upon us.

This understanding of the commemorative fasts echoes an idea that appears elsewhere in the writings of the Rambam:3 A person should not say, “What has happened to us is simply a natural phenomenon and this difficulty is merely a chance occurrence.” Instead, a person should realize that a calamity is a signal from G‑d, intended to motivate him to repent. By the same token, on the national level, the commemoration of the sequence of calamities which led to the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash is intended to spur us on to attain a deeper bond with G‑d.

Five Calamities

Our Sages explain4 that G‑d metes out reward and pun­ishment, “measure for measure.” Therefore, by analyzing the national crises associated with these commemorative fasts, we should be able to infer the direction in which our repentance should be channeled.

Five calamities occurred on the 17th of Tammuz:5 The Tablets of the Law were broken; the offering of the daily sacrifices was interrupted (even before the First Beis HaMikdash was destroyed); the walls of Jerusalem were breached (before the destruction of the Second Beis HaMikdashF6); Apostomos the Wicked burned a Torah scroll; and he erected an idol in the Beis HaMikdash.7

The repeated association of a particular date with national catastrophes cannot be coincidental; rather, it points to the spiritual character of the day.8 In examining the meaning of the 17th of Tammuz, the breaking of the Tablets is particu­larly significant, for it is the first in the chronology of the five calamities that occurred on that day. And chassidic thought9 teaches that precedence in time reflects primacy in impor­tance.

A Breach in Man’s Union with the Torah

The Tablets are symbolic of the deepest possible connec­tion between the Torah and man, for the letters of the Ten Commandments10 were hewn into the body of the stone Tab­lets. When the letters of a Torah scroll are inscribed with ink on parchment, they are a separate entity, and not an integral part of the parchment. In the Tablets, they and the Torah were one and inseparable.11

This fusion into utter unity reflects a corresponding state which a person can attain — a state in which he is totally at one with the Torah. He does not see the Torah as an entity separate from himself which he must study and whose laws he must follow, but rather as part and parcel of his own very being. He and the Torah are a single whole.12

The breaking of the Tablets indicates a deficiency in this connection. And thus it is the lack of unity between man and the Torah which is the root of all the difficulties which led to our fasting on the 17th of Tammuz.

Compensating for the Breaking of the Tablets

The Biblical account of the breaking of the Tablets also indicates the form of divine service that can compensate for this deficiency. Moshe Rabbeinu broke the Tablets as an act of ahavas Yisrael, out of his love for the Jewish people. In order to minimize the sin of the Jewish people — for without the Tablets, the wedding bond they share with G‑d would not appear complete13 — he took that which he cherished most dearly, the Tablets of the Torah, and broke it.14

Moshe’s action embodies a lesson for future generations. We can compensate for the lack of unity between man and the Torah (symbolized by the breaking of the Tablets) by in­creasing our efforts to establish unity within the Jewish peo­ple.

Jerusalem — Consummate Awe

The importance of ahavas Yisrael, loving a fellow Jew, also relates to the tragedy most usually associated with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz — the breaching by the Romans of the wall surrounding Jerusalem. In terms of our divine service, Jerusalem (ohkaurh) represents (as hinted at by its etymology) yirah shalem (oka vtrh), meaning “complete fear.”15 When a person’s fear of G‑d is complete, it has an all-encompassing effect on his conduct, influencing every aspect of his thought, speech, and deed.

Fear of G‑d requires a protective “wall”, a willingness to “make a fence around the Torah,”16 i.e., to undertake strin­gencies which are not required by the minimal letter of the law. When this wall is broken and undesirable influences penetrate and affect one’s “complete fear” of G‑d, this is a tragedy which requires a fast.

A Positive Dimension of the Breaching of Jerusalem’s Walls

A vigilant individual who has “complete fear” of G‑d often erects a wall to separate himself from those people and influences which threaten his observance. He need not, how­ever, cut himself off entirely from the world around him; the wall protecting his fear of G‑d can have gates and doorways that will allow entry and exit. These gates and doorways will allow him to diffuse the influence of Jerusalem outward, and will allow people from outside Jerusalem to enter and be ex­posed to its uplifting atmosphere.

Traffic through such entrances is, however, usually lim­ited, in order to enable one to monitor his interaction with his surroundings. Seen from a positive perspective, breaking down Jerusalem’s walls thus symbolizes an unrestrained drive toward outreach, extending oneself to people who have not [yet] attained “complete fear,” with a commitment beyond the ordinary.

Unearned Love Compensating for Unearned Hatred

Our Sages explain17 that the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of our people came about because of unwarranted hatred. It follows that by displaying love even for our unde­serving fellow man, we can eliminate the cause of the exile so that the exile itself will cease to exist. Indeed, commitment to loving the undeserving will lead to the advent of the era when “All the [commemorative] fasts will be nullified... and indeed, will be transformed into holidays and days of rejoicing.”18

The 17th of Tammuz19 is a particularly appropriate time for focusing on the transformation of hatred to love. For the breaching of Jerusalem’s walls can be perceived as a prelimi­nary stage in the cosmic process leading to the fulfillment of the prophecy,20 “Jerusalem will be settled like an open city, because of the multitude of people and cattle it will contain,... and I... will be a wall of fire around her.”

The potential for transition from exile to redemption is highlighted in the present generation. As a result of the Pre­vious Rebbe’s redemption on Yud-Beis Tammuz, the month of Tammuz has been transformed into “a Month of Redemp­tion” in our age. May we merit witnessing the culmination of this process with the coming of the ultimate Redemption, and may this take place in the immediate future.

Adapted from Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XVIII, Yud-Beis Tammuz; Vol. XXIII, p. 277 ff.