“The paths of Zion are in mourning, without anyone coming for the holidays” (Eichah 1:4). The overwhelming majority of commentators understand this verse to be consistent with the verses that precede it and follow it, describing a facet of the tragedy that befell Jerusalem after its destruction. In this verse, the prophet laments the emptiness of the roads leading to Jerusalem, which are now desolate because after the Temple was destroyed, the throngs of people who had traveled on them to make the thrice yearly pilgrimage were no longer coming. The Targum, however (see also Palgei Mayim, the commentary of the N’sivos on Eichah), explains the verse’s intent differently. Rather than lamenting the roads now being empty, the cause of the destruction is being described; because the streets were empty while the Temple still stood, as people were not making the required pilgrimages to Jerusalem, the Temple was destroyed. Why does the Targum (and the N’sivos) explain this verse differently than the verses that surround it?
Another question posed (asked in Iyun HaParasha #113 and by Rabbi Yitzchok Sorotzkin, sh’lita, in Rinas Yitzchok) is how the Targum could say that the cause of the destruction of the First Temple was not going to the Jerusalem at the required times, if the cause of the destruction is said (Yuma 9b) to have been the major sins of idol worship, adultery and murder. Rather than the Temple being destroyed so that the streets would become desolate (as a punishment for not filling them when they should have), the streets being desolate was a consequence of the Temple being destroyed for other reasons (the three big sins). How can the Targum say the focal point is having deserted streets if it was not having the Temple anymore because G-d couldn’t live among us and our sins?
Rabbi Sorotzkin answers this question by quoting Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian’s explanation of what it means that “G-d is trustworthy, with no injustice” (D’varim 32:4). After all, what kind of praise is it to say that G-d doesn’t do any injustice? However, if we contrast the consequences of a human court’s decision, where judges do not (and cannot) take into account the impact it will have on others (such as family members), with the decrees issued by the heavenly court, where any “collateral damage” is calculated before a decree is issued, this is high praise indeed, as with G-d “there is no injustice” to anyone. There are no “innocent bystanders,” as if they were really “innocent,” G-d would not have allowed them to suffer. Applying this to our verse, the decree that the Temple should be destroyed was issued because of the idolatry, adultery and murder being committed, but since one of the consequences of the destruction was desolate streets, if such a consequence was not deserved, it wouldn’t have been allowed to happen.
In this context, the verse can be said to be consistent with those that precede it and follow it, as it is describing the consequence of the destruction, with the Targum explaining how that consequence was allowed to have occurred. We would have to add that before the destruction the streets weren’t completely “desolate” (or this wouldn’t be a consequence of the destruction), they just weren’t close to being as crowded as they should have been, since so many had shirked their responsibility to go to Jerusalem.
Rabbi Sorotzkin ends his piece with a question, based on Shir HaShirim Rabbah (8:11) saying that even after the destruction people still made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem three time a year. How can the verse say that the streets of Zion became desolate after the destruction “without anyone coming on the holidays” if they still came after the Temple was destroyed? It should be noted that the Targum says explicitly that the roads to Jerusalem were desolate after the destruction, so it would be easy to say that it does not agree with Midrash Shir HaShirim’s premise that it wasn’t. Nevertheless, as stated above, the roads being empty after the destruction couldn’t have been a consequence of the streets being empty before the destruction if there was no real diffrence and they were just as empty before and after. Rather, they were emptier than they should have been before the destruction, and even emptier after the destruction, even if there were still some making the pilgrimage. It could be therefore be argued that the streets would be considered desolate after the destruction even if a somewhat significant number of individuals still made the trip to Jerusalem for the holidays, since it couldn’t compare with the number of people who did so before the destruction. But there’s another possible way to answer the questions posed above.
Perhaps it is precisely because there were still those who made the trip to Jerusalem three times a year ,even after the destruction, that the Targum avoids explaining this verse to be just referring to a consequence of the destruction, positioning it instead as a cause for the destruction. Which leaves us with the question of the dual causes, the three major sins and people not making the pilgrimage. However, multiple causes are not necessarily mutually exclusive (as Rabbi Sorotzkin’s answer demonstrates) and both could have been at least contributing factors to the destruction.
There are many reasons why traveling to Jerusalem several times a year is spiritually beneficial. It creates social peer pressure to do what’s right, as everyone is gathering for religious purposes. It also brings about contact with individuals who can have a positive impact on us, whether it be righteous people who also traveled to Jerusalem, or the Kohanim we interact with when bringing our offerings in the Temple. The offerings themselves are designed to foster an improved relationship with G-d, as well as demonstrating the value of the intellect over the mundane by subjugating something that shares our animalistic characteristics for a higher purpose (see Ralbag’s explanation of the purpose of bringing offerings, discussed when Noach brought his offerings after the flood, and in his concluding thoughts to Parashas Tzav). The bottom line is that making the thrice yearly trip helps us attain new spiritual heights, or at least maintain levels we had previously attained. It certainly helps prevent slipping to a lower level of spirituality. Just as someone who attends synagogue services on a regular basis has a much better chance of being, or becoming, more religious, so too did the regular trips to Jerusalem help raise the spiritual level of those who went. (Which then helped raise the level of the community as a whole, which then helped individuals continue to grow even more. And so the cycle continued, at least as long as the pilgrimages to Jerusalem were being made.)
It can therefore be suggested that had everyone made the thrice yearly trips to Jerusalem, they never would have sunk to a level whereby idolatry, adultery, and/or murder were committed, at least as pervasively. The Targum is pointing out that had the thrice-yearly trips to Jerusalem been made, the nation’s level would not have sunk so low that these sins would become so rampant. It may have been the worshipping of idols, committing adultery and murdering others that brought about the decree that the Temple be destroyed, but avoiding the religious environment that could have prevented those sins from being committed started the process that allowed it to get to that point.