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Home » Ninth of Av, Seventeenth of Tamuz, Vayeshev

Vayeshev: Restoring The Neighborhood

Submitted by on July 17, 2009 – 8:41 pmNo Comment | 2,914 views

The Celebrity

Imagine yourself living in a nice neighborhood where a well known celebrity chooses to make his home. Property values rise and for the first while you enjoy the distinction; you go out of your way to make the celebrity feel welcome. But time passes and the aura wears off. Soon your children are littering the streets and your neighbors are partying at night. This, however, is not what the celebrity had in mind so he sells his home and leaves.

Predictably property values plummet and your community determines to lure the celebrity back. New laws are passed, new policies are adopted and the neighborhood is spruced up. To your joy the celebrity returns and property values rise again.

How would you feel if, with the passage of time, your children once again let down their guard and allowed the beautiful neighborhood to go to seed? How would you feel if the celebrity left and this time refused to accept your promises of reform? This is precisely what happened to our ancestors.

Two Homes

G-d made his home among us and instructed us to build a temple for him in Jerusalem. For a while we were ecstatic and in awe, but after a while we came to take His presence for granted and began to indulge ourselves with self-serving pleasures. The Temple was destroyed and our ancestors were driven away, but G-d accepted their repentance and allowed them to return and rebuild. But soon they grew lax again and the second temple was also destroyed. How disappointing it is to realize that we failed Him again. Our only consolation lies in the fact that we know precisely how we failed Him and what steps we can take to correct it.

Two Sons

Er and Onan, two of Judah’s sons, were sinful and died in Canaan. Er spilled his seed for fear that he might impregnate his wife and mar her physical beauty. Onan, who married Er’s widow, also refused to impregnate her because the first issue of a levirate marriage is associated with the deceased brother rather than the father. (1)

Jewish mystics perceived the stories of Er and Onan as precursors to the rise and fall of the two Temples. (2)

The Hebrew word Er means alert. Onan means bereaved. The first Temple was fully alert to the presence of the Divine; all the sacred vessels, including the Holy Ark, were in place.restoring the neighborhood - innerstream The second temple was somewhat bereaved. Among other things, the most sacred vessel, the Holy Ark was missing. (3) The first temple was thus synonymous with Er, fully alert to the presence of the Divine, but the second temple was associated with Onan, somewhat bereaved of the Divine presence.

Our sages taught that among other sins, of which our ancestors were guilty at that time, the first temple was destroyed in punishment for the sin of Onanism (4) whereas the second temple was destroyed for the sin of civil discord. (5) These two sins parallel the sins of Judah’s two sons. The first son was guilty of Onanism whereas the second son could not bear to benefit his brother at a cost to himself.


Nowhere in the Torah is Onanism defined as a sin, yet Onanism is singled out as the primary offense for which the temple was destroyed. Clearly this sin is one of grave spiritual damage.

The ability to reproduce is humanity’s most sacred gift. It is the kiss between G-d and man; the one area in life where the human partners with the Divine. The seminal fluid is a physical substance, but one that is charged with grandeur and sanctity. The soul, during the moment of emission, is fully engaged with the body, endowing it with the Divine power of recreation. This moment is filled with surreal pleasure precisely because it is wrapped up in holiness. A temporal being is, for the moment, absorbed by the Divine and in its grip we experience a glimmer of eternity.

Such a holy moment should be filled with wonder and reverence. Such a holy alliance should be charged with devotion and love. Such a holy experience should be graced with sanctity and dedication. To waste the profundity of this moment to indulge a physical stimulation is to exhibit a terrible apathy for the Divine. Rather than realizing the exaltedness of the experience we waste it on the transient thrill and self absorbed pleasure of the flesh. Rather than appreciating the presence of G-d we are wrapped up with ourselves. (6)

This typified the attitude of our ancestors in the waning years of the First Temple. G-d’s presence filled the Holy of Holies yet the Jews worshiped Idolatry and had the audacity to place an Idol in the sanctuary. Rather than appreciating the immense privilege of hosting the Divine they were absorbed in self centered pursuits. The Temple was thus destroyed and the presence of the Divine removed.

Even when the Temple was rebuilt the Divine presence was not restored to its original glory. We anticipate the complete restoration of this presence in the Temple that will be built in the Messianic age. To bring about this age we know what is required of us: We must reverse the self centered trend.

When we come to appreciate the immense privilege of the Divine Presence among us and direct our energies to holiness and eternity rather than to the temporal and transient, we will have reversed the trend that brought about the destruction. At that happy time we will prepare to greet the Moshiach and restore the Temple to its original glory.

At that time G-d will move back into our neighborhood. We, in turn, will ensure that ours is a community cognizant, desirous and, above all, worthy of His presence.


  1. Genesis 38: 9.
  2. Or Hachaim: Numbers 26: 18.
  3. Babylonian Talmud, Yuma, 21b
  4. Just before the first Temple was destroyed king Zedekiah instructed that the Ark be concealed in the catacombs that King Solomon had built for this purpose beneath the Temple Mount. Sadly the Ark was never found again and was absent in the second temple. See Babylonian Talmud, Shabbos, 62b.
  5. Babylonian Talmud, Yuma, 9b
  6. Tanya ch. 7.

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