The reasons provided by our sages (Talmud, Yoma 9b) as to why each of our two temples in Jerusalem was destroyed is well known.
Why was the first sanctuary destroyed? Because of three (evil) things that prevailed there: idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed… But why was the second sanctuary destroyed, since in that time they were occupying themselves with Torah, (observance of) commandments , and the practice of charity? At that time causeless hatred (sin’as chinam) prevailed. That teaches you that causeless hatred is considered of equal gravity with the three sins of idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed together.
It is noteworthy that despite their active violation of the three cardinal sins of idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed, those who lived during the first commonwealth were still collectively on a significantly higher spiritual level than their successors. For instance, it was they, not their descendants, who merited an open revelation of God’s presence.
In five areas the first temple differed from the second (the first three are considered as one): in the ark, the ark cover, the cherubs, the fire, the divine presence, the spirit of prophecy, and the urim v’tumim (high priest’s breastplate). (Yoma 21b)
More importantly, they were forced to endure a much shorter exile (70 years, compared to nearly two millennia and counting), and knew from the outset as to how long their exile would last.
The former ones whose iniquity was revealed (by not hiding their misdeeds) had their end revealed (through prophecy), the latter ones whose iniquity was not revealed have their end still unrevealed. (Yoma 9b)
The obvious question is why is that so? After all, how can the three cardinal sins for which one is required to give up his life rather than violate, be only equal to (or perhaps even better than) the transgression of causeless hatred?
Before we attempt to answer that question, let us first take a moment to analyze what is perhaps the single most important group of commandments ever presented to our nation -- the Ten Commandments. These commandments include core components of our faith, such as God’s uniqueness and the commandment to observe the Sabbath. We are also instructed to refrain from moral turpitude, such as committing acts of murder and adultery.
Clearly, it is neither fitting nor possible for us to rank the commandments in terms of importance. Still, I suspect that many of us look at the list and think of the tenth and final command, a prohibition against coveting one’s neighbor’s possessions (Exodus 20:13), as being of lesser significance than the others. To the degree that we can even understand the nature of the prohibition, we struggle to comprehend its significance, as well as its rightful place in this foundational list.
To understand its importance, I think we first must be able to grasp its applicability. The great medieval commentator Avraham Ibn Ezra wonders how the Torah can legislate against a person’s desires. Being envious is natural, a built-in urge that is part and parcel of the human condition. How can the Torah command a person not to be jealous?
He answers this question with a parable. No commoner ever thinks he will marry a princess because he knows that the princess is out of his league. Our nature is to covet things that we can relate to and realistically assume may become ours one day. We also do not feel jealous of those who possess things that are of no value to us. An electrician, for example, would not envy the carpenter for owning certain saws meant tor woodwork. Such tools would not help the electrician do his job, so he gives them little consideration.
Ibn Ezra states that people do not acquire spouses or possessions based on their wisdom or cleverness. We have what we have because God wants us to have them. The antidote to coveting is emunah, the faith that all of my possessions are what God wants me to have and all of my neighbor’s possessions are what God wants my neighbor to have. When we are told to not covet, we are really being instructed to strengthen our faith in God as our provider, and work to appreciate the things that we own as exactly what is necessary for us to fulfill our life’s mission.
Taken in this light, the last directive serves as the perfect complement to the opening commandment (“I am God your God”). It is not enough to know that there is only one God. We must also believe that he has a special plan for us that is uniquely ours, and equips us fully to fulfill that mission. If we think in such terms, we will have no intrinsic inclination to murder, steal, engage in adultery, and so on.
Rabbi Chaim Friedlander, zt”l, (Sifsei Chaim, Vol. III, pp. 279ff) noted an underlying difference in the personal motive behind the sinful behavior associated with the two destructions. He suggested that the people from the earlier period had managed to contain their internal urges. Their violation of the three cardinal sins was motivated by compelling external drives (this is what is meant when the Talmud states that their iniquity was “revealed.”)
(Rabbi Friedlander cited a fascinating incident (detailed in Sanhedrin 102b) involving the wicked Judean king Menashe and Rav Ashi, the primary editor of the Babylonian Talmud who lived centuries later. Menashe appeared to the latter in a dream after Rav Ashi had spoken of the ruler disparagingly during a discourse. Menashe proved himself to be quite knowledgeable in Jewish law, prompting the sage to ask Menashe as to why he was so heavily engaged in idolatry. The king replied by saying that during his time the people wore long garments so that when they felt an urge to sin, their clothing would serve as an impediment. He suggested that had Rav Ashi lived during his reign, he would have lifted his garment in order to reach the idols more quickly. His point was that the urge for sin was so compelling that practically no one could resist. This only changed after the sages of the Great Assembly (beginning of Second Commonwealth) prayed for this temptation to be significantly muted.)
In contrast, later generations struggled with their core, inner character and drives. For example, their primary sin, causeless hatred, is motivated by a lack of Emunah, faith. I become jealous of you and feel a form of hatred if I think that you will somehow detract from my needs and aspirations. Such thinking reflects a fundamental weakness in our character and faith.
The reason why the proliferation of causeless hatred independently led to the destruction of the second temple is because it represented something much deeper than societal discord, and even hatred. It reflected a fundamental lack of faith in God as the ultimate provider. The fact that they observed the Torah religiously was of little consequence.
Rabbeinu Yonah, in his work Shaarei Teshuva (3:160), explained that one can fulfill all of the mitzvos to the fullest degree and still be one who hates God if he is bothered when he sees others serving God as well. Such a person is not serving their Maker out of a true desire to fulfill His will, but rather for the purpose of enhancing his own personal stature. In other words, if we lack faith, we start to see a different world, one of competition and externality. Such thinking is antithetical to God’s.
In order to rebuild the temple for the final time we certainly must become more loving towards one another, despite the differences that separate us. We saw our tremendous capacity to do so when we prayed that God #bringbackourboys. But we also need to develop the type of deep faith and refinement that will keep us from being envious of others and instead view each Jew as someone who can assist us in achieving the special, unique mission that only we can accomplish.