Chazal tell us that any generation in which the Beis HaMikdash is not rebuilt is viewed as if it were destroyed in that very generation. Rav Yaakov Weinberg, zt”l, explained that this means that had the Beis HaMikdash been extant in that generation, it also would have been destroyed as a result of people’s actions. Accordingly, the actions that caused the initial destructions are still very relevant to the present generation.
The Gemara in Nedarim offers one explanation as to why the first Beis HaMikdash was destroyed. It tells us that after the destruction of the first Beis HaMikdash and the galus that followed, the sages and prophets did not know what had caused such a terrible punishment, until Hashem Himself told them that it was because “they left My Torah.” Rav explains that this does not mean they were not learning Torah. Rather, they did not say birkas haTorah before learning. The commentaries find a number of difficulties with this Gemara. Why were the people punished so severely for the relatively minor sin of not saying birkas haTorah? Moreover, this gemara seems to contradict another gemara, which states that the first Beis HaMikdash was destroyed because of murder, idol worship, and immorality.
The Maharal addresses these problems. He writes that it is impossible to understand the Gemara literally, that they were not saying birkas haTorah. Rather, they did not say the berachah with the proper intentions. When a person says birkas haTorah, he should focus on his great love and gratitude toward Hashem for giving him the tremendous gift of the Torah. The sages of the generation did say the berachah. Moreover, they did not say it merely by rote. However, they did not focus sufficiently on their love of Hashem when saying it. The Maharal proceeds to explain how this subtle failing was the root of the terrible sins that led to the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash. If a person focuses sufficiently on Hashem in his learning, he merits tremendous siyata diShmaya in avoiding sin, and even if he does falter, it enables him to repent without great difficulty. Rav Yitzchak Hutner, ztz”l, writes that this is what Chazal mean when they say that “the light of Torah returns a person to goodness.” However, if one does not connect to Hashem through his learning, he loses that special siyata diShmaya, and if he falters, he is far more likely to become trapped in a downward spiral of sin.
Based on this explanation, we can resolve the contradiction between the gemaros in Nedarim and Yoma. The Beis HaMikdash was destroyed because of the terrible sins enumerated in Yoma. However, the failure to say birkas haTorah with the proper attitude was the root of the deterioration of the Jewish people to the point where people were sinning so greatly. Because they didn’t connect to Hashem properly, they lost their siyata diShmaya and consequently fell prey to the powerful temptations of the evil inclination. The Maharal offers a fascinating and somewhat surprising explanation of why people may fail to show proper love of Hashem in their birkas haTorah. He argues that it is impossible to love two entities at the same time. Consequently, focusing on love of one thing will reduce one’s love for something else. Based on this idea, he writes that one can express two possible “loves” when saying birkas haTorah: love of Hashem or love of the Torah—and it is impossible to love both simultaneously! When a person says this berachah, he is more likely to express his love for the Torah than his love for Hashem! The Maharal therefore warns that “one must be very careful to say the blessing on the Torah with all his heart and soul.”
This explanation may seem to contradict the approach of Rav Chaim Volozhin, ztz”l, in Nefesh HaChaim. Rav Chaim emphasizes that when one learns Torah, he should not be thinking lofty thoughts about Hashem. Rather, he should delve as deeply as possible into the Torah he is learning. Rav Chaim argues that this approach is the optimal way of becoming close to G-d. The Maharal’s distinction between love of Hashem and love of Torah seems to clash with the Nefesh HaChaim’s emphasis on Torah as opposed to thoughts of Hashem. However, on deeper analysis it seems that there is no disagreement. The Maharal doesn’t say a person should focus on his love of G-d during his learning. Rather, before he begins to learn, when he says birkas haTorah, he should be careful not to lose his focus on G-d. The Nefesh HaChaim himself makes a very similar point with regard to one’s attitude before learning: “Whenever one prepares himself to learn, it is proper for him to spend at least a small amount of time contemplating a pure fear of G-d with a pure heart.” Rav Chaim even argues that at times one should take a small break during his learning to rekindle his yiras Hashem.
Thus, these two gedolim seem to agree that before a person learns, he must be very careful not to lose sight of Whose Torah he is learning. With regard to the actual time of learning, there is no reason to say that Maharal does not agree with the Nefesh HaChaim that one shouldn’t be thinking lofty thoughts about Hashem.
The Three Weeks is a time to reflect on the various causes of the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash. A key area of avodah is to maintain a constant awareness of Hashem during one’s Torah study and fulfillment of other mitzvos. By doing so, Maharal teaches, each of us will have great siyata diShmaya in avoiding the other sins that caused the destruction. May we all be privileged to see the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash speedily in our days.
“From the book “A Light in Time”