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Shiva Assar B'Tammuz: Chipping Away

The nature of the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors has been the subject of much debate in psychology. The James-Lange theory of emotion, a combination of the theories of 19th century psychologists William James and Carl Lange, states that emotions are caused by physiological responses to external events. Sigmund Freud and others proposed that unconscious drives, urges, and tensions generate emotions and motivate actions. The cognitive-behavioral model of emotion asserts that thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are all interconnected, such that thoughts can lead to feelings, which motivate behavior, and at the same time, our behaviors create new emotions, which can affect our thoughts, and our emotions can similarly generate thoughts and behaviors, as well.

As we’ve explored previously (see articles for Parshas Va’eschanan, Pesach), the Torah seems to recognize this trifecta, and it is perhaps fair to say that Torah Judaism might reflect the idea that behavior is the strongest catalyst of change and growth - for we are, of course, most often commanded to enact behaviors and rituals in specific ways. As the Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 380) teaches, the heart goes after one’s actions, “Acharei HaPeulos Nimshachim HaLevavos.”

This idea is further illustrated in this week’s Parsha, when God applauds Pinchas’s actions following his zealous act of killing Kazbi and Zimri in last week’s Parsha. The pasuk (25:12) describes Hashem’s reward for Pinchas’s actions, “Hineni nosein lo es brisi shalom,” - behold I grant him My covenant of peace. This seems at first glance to be ironic; why does Hashem reward Pinchas’s act of vengeance with a covenant of its antithesis?

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, in his book The Person in the Parsha, writes that despite Pinchas’s righteousness and the purity of his intentions, Pinchas’s behavior was violent. Murder is an inherently aggressive act, and such a behavior affects a person on a soul-deep level. One of the best metaphors for this idea is illustrated in the Harry Potter saga, my all-time favorite book series. The main villain, Voldemort, tries to make himself immortal by creating what is known as a Horcrux, an object in which is contained a piece of his soul, meant to tie him to life even if his physical body is attacked. To make a Horcrux, however, one must commit murder, a vile, terrible act that literally tears one’s soul to pieces.

L’havdil, actions affect our emotions, and the more we behave in a certain manner, the more that behavior chips away at our spirituality and personality, for better or for worse. Hashem needed to reward Pinchas with a Bris Shalom in order to counteract the effects of his actions; violence and aggression foster feelings of hatred, vengeance, and antagonism, and these feelings can create spiritual and interpersonal blockages. Despite Pinchas’s very lofty and admirable intentions, the impact of behavior on man’s emotional and spiritual well being is all too real and must be proactively combated in order to be contained.

As we head into the three weeks, we are reminded of many actions that led to the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash. We fast on the 17th day of Tammuz to commemorate five different events that occurred on that day in our history, including the breach of the walls of Yerushalayim prior to the Romans’ destruction of Bayis Sheini.

One could ask, what is the significance of the walls being broken? Certainly, by that logic, we could fast every day of the year, as each day was one day closer to the destruction! Are we really fasting just because this was one more cog in the wheel that led to the Chorban? Yet, there is deep wisdom here. We fast to commemorate the walls being broken because this symbolized a turning point in our history and in our spiritual health as a nation.

Interestingly, the sages seem to be unable to come to a consensus as to why the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed. One of the most oft-cited explanations is that the First Temple was destroyed due to the three cardinal sins - immorality, murder, and idol worship - while the Second Temple was destroyed due to “Sinas Chinam,” baseless hatred (Gemara Yoma 9a-b). In other places, however, the sages tell us that Yerushalayim was destroyed because we did not making a proper blessing on Torah learning, which the commentaries explain means we did not sufficiently appreciate or glean meaning from our Torah learning (Nedarim 81a, Tur 47). Of course, the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, and the Lashon Hara about the Jewish people generated by their mutual hatred, is also cited as a cause of exile and destruction.

The reality is that none of these actions or incidents alone was the direct cause of the destruction. Rather, each of these actions chipped away at our spiritual foundation, at the strong, iron-clad walls and structure that joined us together as a nation, and bound us jointly to God, His House, and our land. With each misstep, with each act of vengeance, pride, immorality, mindlessness, apathy, or anarchy, our souls were metaphorically and metaphysically torn piece by piece, until God had to rescue us by exiling us and waking us up, lest we destroy our land, our spirituality, and ourselves completely.

Pinchas required a Bris Shalom, a global, comprehensive healing of peace to counteract the ill effects of his well advised yet destructive actions because behaviors have an impact. If just one act of justified vengeance and aggression can leave such a deep impact that Divine Intervention was required to protect Pinchas against the consequences of his actions, how much more so did a series of actions leave a generations-long impact on us as a nation. This is why Chazal tell us that the antidote to exile is Ahavas Yisrael – not just as a pithy and simplistic recipe for redemption, but because it is through actions of love that we can begin to proactively rebuild what we have broken. No matter the intention behind our actions, we must recognize that everything we do, every word we say and every action we take, chips away, either at barriers to or at fortifications of spirituality and interpersonal connection.

This week, we take the small action of fasting, and we begin to consider what daily actions we can employ as spiritual hammers, to chip away at the barriers keeping us from God, from each other, and from our land. Just as Chazal point to myriad causes of exile and destruction, one can never truly know which of our personal and national actions will be part of the mountain of evidence brought before HaKadosh Baruch Hu to convince Him that it’s time for His children to come home.

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