Jewish World Review / August, 1998 / Menachem-Av, 5758

When the Penny Vanishes from the Purse

Rabbi Avraham C. Feuer on the key to the Temple's ruin and its future reconstruction

DURING THE SUMMER months of Tammuz and Av we painfully review the events which caused the Bais HaMikdash, the Holy Temple, to be destroyed. We are told that the furious flame of senseless hate, sinas chinam, burned our second Sanctuary and turned its splendor into ashes. One might fail to comprehend what could have stoked the flames of hatred to such destructive force. Chazal, our Sages, who penetrate the surface of events with their Torah vision, offer:

"For their love of money, they came to hate one another" (Jerusalem Talmud).

This answer touches on man's basic nature --- for man, compared to most lesser creatures, is almost totally lacking in natural defenses and thus desperately craves for a sense of safety and security. Men are powerfully drawn to whatever seems to promise them this protection and insurance. In the time of the First Bais HaMikdash, pagan forces impressed many Jews as being their guardian angels, and they placed their confidence in idol worship. The sun, the moon, the wind, the trees and other natural phenomena provided security in a panic-filled present and against the perils of an unforeseeable future.

Deflected Desire

The destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian Exile shook the people back to their senses, and they came to recognize that the Creator is the supreme and exclusive protector. Thus, they merited their return to Zion.

But the attraction of idol worship continued to taunt them and they felt too weak to withstand it. So the leaders of the time, under the guidance of the Prophet Zachariah, took drastic and extraordinary action: They prayed that this yeitzer hara (evil inclination) be eradicated from their passions and their hearts. Their unusual request was granted (Talmud, Yoma).

But the yeitzer hara of idolatry could not be removed without a different temptation taking its place, for the balance between the attractions of good and evil must be maintained to present man with free choice.

The Ari HaKadosh, Rabbeinu Chaim (the brother of the Maharal), and the Chida, among others, tell us that desire for money took its place. This desire for possessing money proved insatiable --- an appetite impossible to still. Even if a man's needs be few, his possessions -- no matter how vast -- never seem sufficient.

"He who loves silver will never be content with silver" (Koheles 5:9).

"He who possesses one hundred, desires two. He who possesses two hundred, desires four." (Koheles Rabbah 1:34).

An endless, vicious, frustrating cycle. When one owns nothing, he has nothing to lose and nothing to protect. But he who has tasted the sweetness of having one hundred is concerned that his hundred remain with him. The only way he can ascertain that is to prove that he can duplicate this amount. Once he has demonstrated this ability to his satisfaction, he has also experienced the incomparable thrill of possessing two hundred, and he cannot be secure with perpetuating this sensation until he duplicates this sum again ... and again ....

As a wise and audacious beggar once said to a king: "Your Highness is really needier than I am, for I need so little to be comfortable and secure, and you need so very much to be at ease."

Insecurity is without limits and so is greed.

Man's true source of security, his bitachon (trust), should be with his Creator. G-d is boundless and so is His protection boundless. No security can compare with this. But man, in his foolishness, has transferred his account; he has withdrawn from G-d and has deposited his faith with his funds and his finances. It follows that to replace a boundless, protective Creator he must forever seek endless, unlimited supplies of money. Thus did the Sages comment: "Man does not die with even half of his desires in his grasp."

As long as man seeks his security in tangible possessions, he will never realize complete security until he has every last cent in the world in his grasp. And more. As long as his neighbor has any personal possessions, he is reduced to a ruthless rival, a competitor who jeopardizes his security and must be quashed. It is not difficult to see how "Because they loved money, they despised one another."

"On account of Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza Jerusalem was destroyed."

While this tragic tale of intense hatred is well known, it is interesting to note that Kamtza (kamtzan) literally means a miser whose fist is clamped over his coins. It was this obsession with money that aroused men to horrible feuds and bitter vendettas.

The Ultimate Defilement

The fate of the Second Bais HaMikdash was irrevocably sealed when the gold rush entered the Temple grounds. This was the ultimate defilement. For this House had been set aside as a spiritual haven, a refuge from worldly pursuits and greed: "One may not enter the Temple Mount wearing a money belt." (Talmud, Berachos)

In the administration of the Sanctuary, a cost-consciousness had no place: Poverty is not befitting an abode of wealth." (Talmud, Menachos).

The Kohanim (priests) themselves were personally divorced from the pursuit of personal profit, for they possessed no real estate or farms. The priestly gifts they received were not even considered "dividends" or tokens of gratitude from the people. "The priests eat from the table of G-d."

In the Second Temple this changed. The post of Kohen Gadol -- the High Priest -- was sold annually to the highest bidder. The High Priest, in turn, misused his power to enhance his personal standing (Talmud, Yoma).

Rabbi Yoseif said: I discern a conspiracy here. Marsa bas-Baysas brought King Yanai three pots of dinarim in order that he appoint her husband, Yehoshua ben-Gamla, Kohein Gadol (Talmud, Yevamos).

Religion became profit-oriented, and the Temple as its focal point had to be destroyed.

Is there any hope for reconstruction? Is there anything we can do to speed its advent? Listen to the prophetic voices of old as they describe a new order which will someday reign:

Rabbi Michel of Zlotchov would point to one prophetic vision: "And there is no strange god with Him" (Deut. 32:12). "This is an assurance that there will be no idolators in your midst. Another explanation: there will be no one engaged in commerce in your midst" (Sifre: ibid.).

If one invests all his trust in merchandise this too can become an object of worship: "As for the merchant, the balances of deceit are in his hands; he loves to extort." (Hoshea 12:8).

"They rely on dishonest profits for they are dealers in fraud. Therefore do they proclaim: I have waxed rich, what need have I for G-d!" (Rashi: ibid.)

The very last words of one of the three last prophets, Zachariah, predict a new era in the Temple. (It was he who was responsible for eradicating the "evil inclination" for idolatry.)

"And on that day there will no longer be a merchant in the House of the L-rd of Hosts" (Zachariah 14:21).

"No longer will there be traders in theHoly Temple." (Targum).

The Temple will be rebuilt when we become like the Kohanim --- who depend on G-d's table, rather than on their own.

Rude Awakening for Moshiach's Arrival

Ideally, we should recognize our utter dependence on G-d and -- whether penniless or endowed with a generous abundance of resources -- we should conceive of every cent we possess as bread from His table. Any measure of affluence would be understood as a Divine trust for us to execute with responsibility and fealty to His wishes. Failing this, G-d resorts to tactics of shock to awaken us to the bankruptcy of the faith we have invested in our own powers of self-support. He then shakes the confidence we have placed in our bulging coffers and fat bank accounts. Depression ... recession ... inflation ... devaluation ... price freeze ... profit squeeze ... wage slash ... stock market slips ... unemployment rise ... petro dollars ... gold craze ... soaring taxes -- all of these elements of economic instability have a definite purpose and are part of a Divine plan. Our Sages tell us with great emphasis that the confusion, the anarchy, and the audacity that mark the era preceding Moshiach's arrival are designed to shake our self-confidence and to make us realize that "... we have no one to lean upon except our Father in Heaven" (Sotah 49b).

Moshiach himself will come empty-handed, "a pauper riding on a donkey" (Zachariah 9:9).

"The Son of David will not come until the penny vanishes from the purse" (Sanhedrin 97a).

Only then will we hear the footfalls. Only then will our mourning turn to joy and will the ruins of the Temple be rebuilt. alive.

Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer, writer, author and lecturer of note, is the rav of Kehillas Beis Avrohom of Monsey, New York.


©1998, Agudath Israel of America