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The seventeenth day of the month of Tammuz is a day of mourning for the Jewish People. On this day, our great hopes for the future were shattered. As a nation, we were cast into a terrifying whirlpool which tossed our people about; to this day, we have not freed ourselves from its grasp; it was on this day that the golden calf was created by the generation that received the Torah at Sinai.
To fully understand the significance of this event, we must go back to the status of Adam, the father of all mankind, when he dwelt in the Garden of Eden. Adam was the personification of perfection, and he dwelt in a world which was perfect. Here was a unique human being, completely good. He was able to devote himself entirely to spiritual improvement and further elevating his character. Unburdened by any material lack, his only concern was spiritual self-fulfillment.
True, there existed evil in the world, but its relationship to man was different that it is in our time. As G-d first created Man and his environment, evil took the form of a separate, finite essence, represented by the serpent. This was an external form of evil, on the lookout for an opening, even a small crack, through which it could breach man’s defenses, enter his fortress, and demolish the goodness of his heart from within.
He searched for a breach in the walls, and found it, but not so easily. The path to man's downfall was round-about.
Adam had a natural inclination to good, to seek spirituality. However, the fruits of the Tree of Knowledge, by their very nature, impaired this tendency. They had the power to implant an inclination to evil within whoever partook of them. Once ensconced in man's inner being, it would grow to ever greater proportions, and fester within the heart.
The serpent, representing the powers of evil in this world, sought to inject the venom of malevolence into Adam, to penetrate his defenses with the forces of evil.
But how? Why should Adam agree to commit spiritual suicide?
A sly, cunning creature such as the serpent does not give in to defeat. He persisted, until he found a round-about route to man’s heart that allowed him to trap the first human being in the clutches of evil. His crafty character devised a “challenge” to throw out even to the righteous Adam, formed as he was directly by the Hand of G-d.
“You have no choice but to do good!” the wily snake whispered in Adam's ear. “You were created knowing only good, not evil, so that you are the prisoner of your pristine character. It is not you who decides to do good; you have no choice in the matter!
"But you can change all that! Take just one bite from the Tree of Knowledge, and let your heart enjoy the delectable taste of sin. Then you will be drawn to both good and to evil. Only then will you be able to exercise free will and choose to do good, to act out of righteousness.
“Once you are drawn in both directions, to the good, and to the evil, you will be equipped to exercise free will. Each time you choose to do good, it will be your own personal decision that led you to act correctly. You will be like G-d, who is all-powerful and all-knowing, and yet, always good."
The wily serpent thus enticed Adam to disobey his Creator, telling him: "‘…and you shall be like G-d, knowing both good and evil’, independent in your decisions.”
The serpent knew his craft well; it was a temptation which was extremely difficult to resist. Adam succumbed, and ate of the Tree of Knowledge.
He ate, and his world collapsed around him. His heart became a hornets’ nest of impulses and drives he had not known existed until now. It was infested with serpents and scorpions that refused to obey the dictates of his inclination to be righteous.
He ate, and was banished from the Garden of Eden. Now he had to make his own way in the physical world, to nourish himself by the sweat of his brow. “You chose to be independent; here you are. Now prove yourself in your chosen role!”
The ground, once so productive and fertile, now produced thorns and weeds on its own, similar to the “fruits” that Adam’s new heart produced within him. Only after much toil and sweat would it agree to bring forth nourishing food that would sustain man and cause him to grow.
No longer a purely spiritual being, Man declined morally from generation to generation. Cain rose up against Hevel; Noah’s generation was so immoral that they incurred Heaven’s wrath and were utterly destroyed. The generation of the Tower of Babel were scattered to the four corners of the earth, and divided by a variety of tongues and languages. Sodom followed, with institutionalized evil, imposed upon the public by its perverted judges and courts. Egypt rose to power, steeped in idolatry and immorality.
One individual was not swept along by the surging waves of evil; one man swam against the current: Abraham the Ivri. The entire world stood against him, but he maintained his ground with steadfast loyalty. He invested all his human talents and strength in cultivating the good within him. He extended generous hospitality to an on-going stream of wayfarers, and imbued them with an awareness of the Creator and faith in His Providence. He taught those around him to place their trust in Heaven, that they be deserving of G-d’s guidance and intervention on their behalf.
Abraham passed this spiritual legacy on to his son Isaac, who in turn trained Jacob to follow in his path. These forefathers of the Jewish nation paved a path that led back to the spiritual heights Adam had attained in the Garden of Eden, before he disobeyed G-d’s command not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge.
The primary condition to be met by all who wish to follow this path is that they place their trust in their Creator, Who has taught us which path to follow in order to achieve goodness and righteousness. It is this path alone which will lead you to everlasting life and greater joy than mortal man can picture to himself in his earthly existence.
Trust your Creator, Who has shown you how to avoid the pitfalls along the path of life which are likely to cause you to forfeit both this world, and the next. Do not attempt to be overly clever, to pave your own route through the minefields of life. Do not seek to be independent of your Creator, and to make your own decision whether or not to forge ahead into the minefields of life.
When the Creator sought to bring the Jewish People near to Him, as His Chosen Nation, to give us His Torah-instruction, and elevate us to a higher spiritual plane, He set up a condition as a pre-requisite: Uproot your inclination to prideful independence that shouts out: “No man will dictate to me what path I shall follow in life, not even the Creator of the Universe!”
To eradicate this human failing from the national character of Israel, G-d sent us into exile in the Land of Egypt for a period of four hundred years.
Had we remained in our exile in the Land of the Nile, our submission to the will of Heaven would have been perfected by the trials and tribulations over the years. Subsequently, upon our liberation from Egypt, after a full four hundred years of training-through-exile, we would have accepted the Torah at Sinai with a wholesome, perfect submission to G-d’s sovereignty that is the key to a life of unadulterated goodness. The entire nation of Israel would have attained a spiritual level similar to that of Adam in his primeval state in the Garden of Eden.
However, there in Egypt, our moral standard of living was eroded by the gentiles around us. Israel regressed, so much so, that approached the point of no return.
G-d, who formed man and fashioned his heart, knows His creatures; had we sunk only slightly lower, He knew that we would never be able to climb upward again and regain our former moral stature. The Jewish People would be fated to remain permanent prisoners of the demoralization they underwent in Egypt, with no hope for rehabilitation.
Consequently, G-d redeemed the Jewish People after only two hundred and ten years of exile, rather than waiting the full four hundred years He had mentioned previously to Abraham.
Their suffering had not been in vain. They had absorbed the lessons of exile well, and when asked by their Creator whether or not they wished to accept His Torah, they replied in unison, “We shall do (His will) and we shall hearken.” They were prepared to undertake whatever precepts G-d would command them, without having heard them beforehand, or setting any pre-conditions. At that moment, the nation reached the epitome of its spiritual elevation. There at the foot of Mount Sinai, the People of Israel regained the sublime spiritual level of Adam before he sinned. Had they succeeded in retaining this elevated spiritual standard of living, Adam’s transgression would have been rectified completely. In this way, the Jewish People might have brought the world to its ultimate perfection.
However, at this momentous juncture in history, Heaven put them to a test, and they faltered. Moses ascended to receive the Ten Commandments, and remained there for forty days. He learned the inner wisdom of the Torah, its secrets and all its details. On the final day, only a few hours before his descent back down to the encampment at the foot of Mount Sinai, some of the people lost patience. They were convinced that Moses would never return to them; they would be abandoned, there in the wilderness, without their saintly mentor and guide.
What would become of them? Where would they turn? Understandably, they were overcome with fear for their very lives, both physically and spiritually.
They decided to take matters in their own hands, which was a grave error. The evil inclination of pride and overconfidence once again raised its ugly head, with tragic, far-reaching consequences. “We’ll make our own decisions, and carry them out ourselves! We don’t need to ask any questions, and we don’t need to accept the authority of any one else!”
In response to their actions, G-d told Moses: “I have seen the people, and behold! They are stiff-necked!” (Exodus 32:9)
This headstrong obstinacy was a direct contradiction of their role as G-d’s Chosen People. Similarly, it was a rebellion against the spiritual legacy of the patriarchs who had founded the nation generations beforehand.
The people at this juncture might be compared to a platoon of infantrymen who are ordered to follow their commander and cross a minefield. Arrogantly, a few of them announce to their commander they would decide by themselves whether or not to follow orders. As a final flout to his authority, they add: “We’ll make up our own minds about what path to take through the minefields.”
When Moses witnessed the rebellion taking place within the encampment, he knew how G-d wanted him to react. He took the most appropriate measure, breaking the tablets of the law on which the Ten Commandments had been inscribed by G-d Himself.
Humility is the first requisite to receiving the Torah. In its absence, there was no one to whom Moses could deliver the precious gift he had intended to pass on to his people.
All this took place on the seventeenth of Tammuz.
Each year, when we fast on this date, it serves to remind us of our errors in the past that we not repeat them. Each year, we renew our resolve that in the future, we shall cling to the path our forefathers paved for us and follow it faithfully.