This Tuesday is the saddest day of the Jewish calendar – Tisha Be’av.
Ever since the destruction of the Temple, Am Yisrael has used this day for introspection, for remembering the past and hoping for the future. On this day, the entire nation expresses our national mourning in several ways: we do not eat or drink, we do not bathe or wear perfumes, we do not wear leather shoes and we do not engage in marital relations. All these express our national and personal mourning and set the appropriate mood for this day. These expressions of mourning all begin the evening before (Monday) and last until the evening after.
The mourning we express so strongly is for an event that took place almost 2,000 years ago – the destruction of the Temple. The question that perturbs so many is how can we care so much about the Temple’s destruction after so many years? When it’s been so long since anyone living could remember the Temple in all its glory? How can we mourn something we never knew? Indeed, someone who has never examined the special role of the Temple would find it difficult to mourn its destruction. Our job, therefore, is to think, learn, and try to understand what existed in the Temple that we so lack nowadays.
If we try to summarize the Temple and its central role, it seems that the best way to describe it would be that the Temple served as the internal connection between Am Yisrael and God.
Let us try to define this further. We are all familiar with those moments when we yearn for something higher, a sense of holiness, yearning and spiritual transcendence. These feelings come from the depths of our soul and seek a mode of expression. When we try to repress them, our emotional balance goes awry, but when we focus only on these feelings, this can also cause damage.
When the Temple existed, it served as the greatest spiritual center of the Jewish nation in that every person could come to the Temple and give maximum expression to these transcendental feelings, allowing him to return home after having risen and advanced emotionally.
The Temple has not been around for many years and we still mourn this. Our national sense of this lack is expressed well by the verse, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand wither.” With this verse, we express that the lack of Jerusalem – and we mean Jerusalem in its glory when the Temple stood – is like missing your right hand. This understanding can bring us to a deeper identification with the mourning of Tisha Be’av.
Along with the expressions of mourning, or perhaps because of them, we hold on to the strongest hope that the day will come and we will merit to see the national, spiritual revival of Am Yisrael, with the rebuilding of the Temple.
There is a famous story told about Napoleon Bonaparte, ruler of France, who walked the streets of a city on Tisha Be’av and passed by a synagogue.
He noticed the atmosphere of yearning there, the congregation sitting on the floor and crying. When he asked about the reason for this unusual behavior, he was told by the congregation, “We are crying over our Temple which was destroyed.”
“And when was this Temple destroyed?” Napoleon asked.
“Almost 2,000 years ago,” the congregation responded.
When Napoleon heard this answer, he responded with wonder and said, “A nation that can mourn for a Temple that was destroyed 2,000 years ago, is a nation that will merit building it anew.”
The memory of our glorious past does not only bring us sorrow, but also provides us with the motivation to act in order to advance history. Indeed, it is a historical fact that various Jews led a significant number of the world’s revolutions. This phenomenon is an expression – albeit not always a successful one – of that same internal drive to advance the world; an urge based on memories of the past and hopes for the future.
We are now undergoing a difficult period, beginning with the kidnapping of the three boys, and centered now on Operation Protective Edge which has taken from us the pure lives of the best of our sons. Alongside the mourning and pain, we have also seen hope and faith in the Eternal of Israel, and great miracles. We pray to God that these days turn into ones of joy and happiness, and that we will merit the fulfillment of the verse in Isaiah, “...and they shall come to Zion with song, with joy of days of yore shall be upon their heads; they shall achieve gladness and joy, and sadness and sighing shall flee.”
The author is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.