Rebbe Yochanan understood from a text in the Neve'em ( Prophets) that if Israel had studied Torah, even with their sins, the Temple would not have been destroyed. The Gemara questions Rebbe Yochanan by asking "that will work for the first Temple, but in the second Temple they did study Torah." Rebbe Yochanan responded by saying that the sin that brought down the first Temple was idolatry, that sin the study of Torah can mitigate. The second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, unwarranted hatred between Jews. That sin is more severe and even the study of Torah could not prevent the destruction.(Talmud,Kalah Rabati)
At first glance Rebbe Yochanan's remark is startling. Can the sin of sinat chinam really be a worse sin than avoda zara (the worship of idols). The worship of idols is one of the three most grievous offences. The perpetrator incurs the death sentence. Surely its not proper to hold hatred towards another. We need to dispel inappropriate enmity. But how can that sin be worse than the worship of idols.
If one studies the texts surrounding the destruction of the second Beit Hamikdash one begins to resolve the mystery. The stories told in the Talmud of the times prior to the churban (destruction) reveal a society that while functioning at a high level was corrupt and self-righteous. The story of Kamtza and bar Kamtza, for example, tells of how the high society,one that prided itself on its sophistication and yes piety, could be cruel and humiliating to the individual. Rabbis, sages, communal leaders sat idle and allowed the public shaming of another.
The Talmud in Gittin tells us that the same rabbis who witnessed and remained silent to a Jew's public disgrace were so scrupulous in keeping the law that for far fetched reasoning they would not offer a sacrifice with a blemish sent by the Romans even while knowing to not do so would risk war and devastation.
The Jerusalem Talmud goes further in telling how when a visitor came from the village to Yerushalayim to worship at the Temple those in positions of power would create devious plots to take his land from him. They would pretend to befriend him and get him to surrender his lands. When that didn't work they would draw up false documents saying he sold his land to them. He would go home and find himself without a home. And then say I wish I would have broken my leg and never have come up to the holy Temple.
Its not that the sin of baseless hatred is as great an offence as the worship of idols. Idol worship for an individual is a cardinal crime . It is rather that the sin of sinat chinam when it prevails in society is more deleterious to the survival of that society as one healthy and good. Avoda zara is terrible but it can be remedied. As Rebbe Yochanan said the study of Torah can offset its dire consequences. But unwarranted hatred, the mistreatment of a fellow Jew is a disease that effects the very fabric of the society. No topical cure, no medicine, no amputation can get rid of it.
Unless the whole society is brought down and remade there is no hope for rehabilitation.
What Rebbe Yochanan was saying was not that the sin of baseless hatred is worse than idol worship. But it is more pernicious and more consequential. If a society, one that otherwise is high functioning and even learned is plagued by sinat chinam there is not alternative but to tear it down and start over. Sometimes even sins not that large on the scale of punishable offences can be so insidious as to warrant tearing down the house. There is no other way to get rid of the rot.
I believe there is a message here for you and me. And its important. We do the best we can, but each of us has sins. For some sins its enough we do teshuva. We remain who we are and seek to correct our wrongful behavior. Typically those sins are sins bein adam la Makom, between man and G-d.
But some sins. while not as severe an offence in themselves are in fact more pernicious. They cause a rot inside us. Most often they are sins bein adam l'chaveiro, between a person and his/her neighbor. They often have to do with bad midot, character flaws like arrogance, intolerance, judgementalism and others. Where they exist in us they are part of who we are. We do all the mitzvot, we daven , we learn, we live our religious life with them. We look frum. we eat frum , we live frum, and feel no lack.
And yet those are the kinds of sins most corruptible. We cannot get rid of them unless we remodel who we are, and yes bring ourselves down. When we have entrenched within us bad character traits they are a disease, a rot, that cannot be mitigated by learning, davening or mitzvot. To save the purity of our souls we need a churban of self. And then to make ourselves over.
I know these are strong words. But I also know they are a compelling truth. No one will tell you you are spiritually diseased. After all you participate in the community with everyone else. The disease, like that at the time of bayit sheni was hidden from those who lived through it. But in your soul you know it. And you know you cannot make it disappear, at least not without facing the truth and tearing your self down in order to rebuild anew.
The churban while a great tragedy was also a great good. It paved the way for the times of mashiach. That's why the end of Tisha B'av, a day of great and intense grief has a dimension of joy. I invite you to think with me about a personal churban that we might invite as a means to pave the way for our own yeshua. I suspect that for near all of us at some time or other in our lives we will need a churban to be spared from the consequences of a spiritual disease within.
What that churban will look like is different for each individual. But be sure in all cases it means life cannot go on as it was, neither on the inside nor on the outside. Our churban, like that of our people is sad but not bad. Each is the necessary harbinger of hope.