A Lesson on 17th of Tamuz: How a Moment of Anger Can Last Forever

If one solitary moment of anger from our teacher Moses can have an everlasting impact on the Jewish people, then perhaps the same is true for all of us.

Today the Jewish calendar on my desk reads the 17th of Tamuz, and therefore my stomach is rumbling. Not out of any sense of anticipation, but rather due to the fact that the 17th of Tamuz is one of the minor fast days that are scattered across the Jewish calendar year. This minor fast is the third of four fast days associated with the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem; the 10th of Tevet, the 17th of Tamuz, the 9th of Av, and the Fast of Gedaliah, which occurs on the 3rd of Tishrei.

As I learned years ago in Jewish summer camp, the 17th of Tamuz commemorates the breach of the outer walls of Jerusalem in the Roman period, marking the beginning of the end to Jewish sovereignty of Jerusalem for close to two thousand years, until the establishment of Israel in 1948 and the victory of the Six Day War in 1967. But what most people do not know is that there are other events that the rabbis associated with this day that will live in Jewish infamy.

In Mishnah Ta’anit 4:6 the rabbis teach us that:
“Five events befell our ancestors on the 17th of Tamuz…on the 17th of Tamuz the tablets were broken, the daily sacrifices were canceled, the city walls were breached, Apastamos burned the Torah, and an icon was erected in the courtyard.”

What is interesting to note is that of this list of five things, four of them occurred in the period of the Roman siege of Jerusalem, and are directly related to the sacrificial worship of the Second Temple, but, glaringly, one does not. In fact, the first item on the list, “the breaking of the tablets” refers to the biblical account of Moses our teacher, descending from Mount Sinai with the tablets of the Ten Commandments in hand, only to discover that the Children of Israel had sinfully constructed the Golden Calf; and in a moment of everlasting anger, Moses smashes the tablets into pieces. Doing some simple math, the rabbis calculated that after receiving the Torah on the 6th of Sivan, and ascending the mountain of the 7th, forty days then passed, which brings us to the 17th of Tamuz and the moment of the breaking of the tablets.

And now I sit at my computer, two thousand and forty two years after the destruction of the Second Temple, and likely more than three thousand years removed from Moses’ breaking the tablets, and my stomach is achingly empty. What I can’t help but asking is, why?

Aside from the important national connections of our people to our ancestral homeland and its tumultuous history, I believe that the rabbis also wanted us to ponder Moses’ moment of unbridled anger as an eternal lesson about the dangerous impact of losing control. Believe me, I do not mean to blame Moses for losing his temper – it was only natural, a moment of profound humanity from the greatest leader and prophet our people have ever known. But nonetheless, it was a moment when restraint gave way to rage, when equanimity was dominated by exasperation.

In eight weeks time, as one of the Haftarot of Consolation we read following the major fast day of Tisha B’Av, we read from the Prophet Isaiah:

B’shetzef ketzef histarti phanai rega mi’mekh…

“For a small moment I have forsaken thee…”

In this verse, God explains that in a brief moment of divine anger, God’s face was hidden from the Jewish people and disaster occurred. Such is the impact of moments of anger, whether human or divine: they have the capacity to cause devastating destruction.

The truth is that no matter what generation we find ourselves living in; our lives, our relationships, and our societies are fragile indeed. We walk along a very narrow bridge, knowing that at any moment a misplaced word, a deed left undone, an apology left unsaid, can cause a break in our delicate existence. And so perhaps this is why I fast this year: to recognize that if one solitary moment of anger from our teacher Moses can have an everlasting impact on our people, then perhaps the same is true for all of us.

Rabbi Joel Seltzer is the incoming director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos, a Jewish Summer Camp experience under the educational auspices of the Jewish Theological Seminary.