Abandoning Torah: The Cause of the Temple’s Destruction and the Exile
It is written, “But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was evil in the eyes of the L-RD, and the L-RD caused him to die. …What [Onan] did was evil in eyes of the L-RD, and He caused him to die also. Then Judah said to Tamar, his daughter-in-law, ‘Remain a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up’ ” (Genesis 38:7-11).
The account of Er and Onan requires a few clarifications:
1. Why does the Torah tell about the sin of Er and Onan, who according to the Sages refused to have children: “They refused to give children to Tamar so she would retain her beauty” (Bereshith Rabba 85:5). It is a known fact that whoever spills his semen in vain is punished from Heaven with the penalty of death.
2. We also know that a woman whose two previous husbands have died no longer has the right to remarry (Yebamot 64b). How is it possible that Judah told his daughter-in-law Tamar to wait until his son Shelah grows up? If the death of two husbands had been attributed to her, she could still not marry Shelah when he grew up, for she would represent a danger to him.
It is certain that there are frightening secrets contained in this account, and the verses serve only to cover them. We must understand the meaning of the account of Judah, Tamar, Er, Onan, and Shelah by means of the Torah’s allusions, and we know that “the Torah says nothing unnecessarily” (Zohar III:149b).
To explain this section, we must first point out that it refers to the two Temples, the Torah, the Messiah, and the Divine Presence. We also need to present a brief introduction that will lead us to a clear and proper understanding of the subject.
It is a fact that G-d causes His Presence to reign in this world so that we may connect to Him. The Divine Presence connects itself to us when we please our Creator, which allows us to receive and rejoice in the abundance of G-d’s kindnesses. Man was created in order to obey his Creator’s will, and he should sense that He breathed into him a soul and life (Genesis 2:7). A person should perceive the image of G-d, and he should feel that G-d watches over those who fear Him and that the light that connects to man gives him life. It is then that he will yield unconditionally to his Creator.
Such was the greatness of Adam, the first man. He knew that he was immortal, since G-d had forbidden him to eat from the Tree of Knowledge under penalty of death (Genesis 2:17), which indicates that if he had not eaten of it, he would not have died (Bereshith Rabba 9:6). Adam did not eat of the fruit of the Tree of Life before the sin, for he did not require the attribute of everlasting life. How could he die, since G-d had breathed life into him? However after the sin, Adam’s life was shortened and his greatness diminished. King David said of Adam, “I said, ‘You are angelic, sons of the Most High are you all’ ” (Psalms 82:6). Adam was so filled with wisdom that “the angels took him for divine and wanted to sanctify him” (Bereshith Rabba 8:9). It is difficult for us, ordinary people, to imagine how and in which form G-d created man and breathed life into him. Concerning the subject of the Tree of Knowledge, the Sages teach us that G-d “gave Adam a simple commandment and he transgressed it” (Shabbat 55b) – Adam, who was created in the image of G-d – and they add that “Adam could see from one end of the world to the other” (Hagigah 12a). It is difficult for us to imagine and describe his greatness.
We understand just to what extent Adam spiritually fell when we consider that he ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, an act that earned him the penalty of death. If he had not heard the “voice of the L-RD G-d walking in the garden” (Genesis 3:8), the Torah testifies that he would have quickly eaten of the Tree of Life as well (v.22) in order to live forever (Bereshith Rabba 21:6). He was immediately chased from the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:23) before he could eat from the Tree of Live, since it is true that “one transgression brings about another” (Perkei Avoth 4:2). In order to minimize his punishment, G-d immediately chased him out of the Garden of Eden.
We must add that when Adam ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, he damaged all the sparks of holiness that the Patriarchs and the Children of Israel would later extract, purify, and return to their source during their long exile in Egypt (Ohr HaHayim Bereshith 49:9). The entire world could have been repaired and put under the sovereignty of G-d, since the evil inclination was uprooted from the hearts of the Children of Israel (Kohelet Rabba 3:14), as it was at the Giving of the Torah (Zohar l:63b), and they could have immediately entered Eretz Israel after their departure from Egypt. Similarly, they could have then built the Temple, which would have been indestructible, as it is written: “Before having committed the sin of the golden calf, the Divine Presence accompanied each Israelite,” and the Messiah would have come because they accepted the incontestable sovereignty of G-d when they stated “the L-RD shall reign for all eternity” (Exodus 15:18).
However the Satan confounded and deceived them, and they worshipped the golden calf and spiritually stumbled, taking with them the sparks of holiness that they had repaired. When they repented of this sin, they merited entering Eretz Israel, and they could have brought about the Final Redemption. However they again sinned when the spies “brought forth to the Children of Israel an evil report on the land that they had spied out” (Numbers 13:32), and it was then that it was decreed that since the Children of Israel had “cried over nothing, I will give you something to cry over” (Taanith 29a). This would occur until the advent of the Messiah, when again all the sparks of holiness will be repaired. Even though the Messiah can come in each generation, he delays because of us, because we perpetuate the sin of the spies, for the reparation of their sin depends on us and our abilities. In the meantime, the first Temple was destroyed, as well as the second Temple, because of the sins of idolatry and baseless hatred (Yoma 9b), and also because we “abandoned the path of the Torah.” The prophet laments: “For what reason did the land perish and become parched like the desert, without a passerby? And the L-RD has said, ‘Because of their forsaking My Torah that I put before them. Moreover they did not heed My voice nor follow it’ ” (Jeremiah 9:11-12). We know that Jerusalem was destroyed because they abandoned the Torah (Shabbat 119b), to the extent that G-d sighed: “If only they had abandoned Me, yet observed My Torah…” (Yerushalmi Hagigah 1:7), for the light of the Torah would have shown them the path to follow.
We are now in a position in which we can understand the account of Er and Onan, Judah, Tamar, and Shelah, for everything is related.
Judah alludes metaphorically to Hashem, Who gives the Torah, for Judah’s name is composed of the letters of G-d’s Name. Tamar alludes to the righteous, as it is written: “A righteous man will flourish like a palm tree [tamar]” (Psalms 92:13). There are many things in common between the righteous and a palm tree. For example, “The palm tree awakens desire, and the righteous have a desire to know G-d” (Bereshith Rabba 41:1), and “The palm tree has thorns just as the righteous have thorns, and it is forbidden to harm them” (Yalkut Shimoni 690). The palm tree also figurative alludes to the Torah, for both are sweet, as it is written: “Taste and see that the L-RD is good” (Psalms 34:9), and “They [the words of Torah] are…sweeter than honey and drippings from the combs” (ibid. 19:11). The palm tree also alludes to the Temple and the Torah, for the Divine Presence dwells in the Temple because of the Torah, and just as the palm tree is not affected by any wind, so too does the Torah not change under any circumstances. Er and Onan allude to the Children of Israel, to whom G-d gave the Torah in order to bring the world under His sovereignty and bring about the Final Redemption.
What we have just stated may be read between the lines in the storyline of our verses: Judah [who represents G-d] gave Tamar [the Torah] to Er and Onan [the Children of Israel]. The Torah was given as a gift to Israel for having brought the sparks of holiness back to their source. Afterwards they sinned in the desert, but they could purify themselves of their sin through the Torah, since “impurity does not affect the Torah” (Berachot 22a), and the Redemption will only occur because of the Torah.
The Torah continues the story, recounting how instead of effecting a repair and bringing the world under the sovereignty of G-d and ushering in the Redemption, the Children of Israel (Er and Onan) profaned the Torah (Tamar). The Temple was destroyed because the Torah was abandoned, in that Er and Onan wasted their seed. They seemed righteous and occupied with the Torah, but in fact they spilled their seed, practiced idolatry, and hated one another without justification, to the extent that both Temples were destroyed. It is not without reason that the Sages associate the Torah and the exile to the palm tree, as it is said: “G-d exiled Israel to Babylon only so that there they would nourish themselves with dates and be occupied with the Torah” (Pesachim 87b), meaning that they were only exiled in order to correct the sins that had caused the destruction of the Temple and the neglect of the land. The Sages also said, “Forty years before the destruction of the Temple and the exile, they planted palm trees in Babel” (Yerushalmi Taanith 4:4). For having neglected the Torah that had been given to them in 40 days (Menachot 99b), already 40 years earlier (one year for each day), the Sages had prepared a path for the exile – palm trees – meaning the study of Torah in order to correct the sins that had brought about the exile. It was for all these reasons that G-d punished Er and Onan with death. Which death was that? The exile of the Children of Israel, who were chased from the land of their fathers for having abandoned the path of the Torah, and we know that “children die because of the abandonment of the Torah” (Shabbat 32a). Such was the death of Judah’s children.
Despite all the delays, Jews have retained their belief that the exile will end with the arrival of the Messiah. This is indicated in the words of Judah to Tamar: “Until my son Shelah grows up.” This means that the Children of Israel will wait for the arrival of the Messiah, who is also called Shelah (Sanhedrin 98b), which is to say that they will correct their sins “until Shiloh arrives” (Genesis 49:10) and the Temple is rebuilt. While waiting, they will remain in exile where they will have their sins forgiven. When the Messiah arrives, he will bring them to the land of Israel and rebuild the Temple. Until that day, the Children of Israel must vigilantly keep the Torah in the fear of G-d in order to repair everything that has been damaged. When they will have effected this repair, the Messiah will be sent in order to unite us and build the Temple. He will teach the Children of Israel the secrets of the Torah, and with G-d’s help we will experience the Final Redemption. Amen.