This week's reading of Devarim falls on the Sabbath before Tisha Be'av, the bleak fast mourning the destruction of our Temples. This isn't merely an "accident" of the calendar; in our biblical portion, Moses recaps his life as leader of Israel and cries out: "Howso [Eicha] can I bear your bothersomeness, your burdens, and your belittling barbs?" (Deuteronomy 1:12) - a verse which begins with the same word that opens the Scroll of Lamentations ("Eicha does she sit alone, the city that was filled with our nation?"). Hence according to most customs we read the biblical verse Eicha with the same haunting melody used for the Eicha reading on Tisha Be'av.
What is the real significance of our weeping for the destruction of the Temples? How important could the Temples have been if Judaism has managed to survive without one for the past 2,000 years? And how many modern Jews can identify with the slaughter of animals that some feel was the essence of the Temple service?
I believe that if we explore a fundamental difference of opinion between two great Jewish leaders - Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai and Rabbi Akiva - we'll gain insight into the profound significance of the Temple, an insight which will make clear the irretrievable loss of its destruction.
It's common knowledge that Rabbi ben Zakkai managed to leave Jerusalem and meet with Vespasian, leader of the Roman forces besieging the city in 69 CE, with the request that he spare the city of Yavne and its wise men (the Sanhedrin of 71 Jewish sages). Rabbi Yohanan was willing to relinquish Jerusalem and the Temple as long as the Jews could remain in Israel and maintain their ongoing interpretations of the Oral Law.
About six decades later, Rabbi Akiva bitterly condemned the accommodating stance that had been taken by the teacher (R. Yohanan) of his two teachers (R. Yehoshua and R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus), referring to a verse from Isaiah: "God turns the sages backwards and transforms their wisdom into foolishness" (B.T. Gittin 56). Apparently, Rabbi Akiva believed that Rabbi Yohanan gave up too much too soon, and that he should have continued to fight for Jerusalem and the Temple.
Indeed, R. Akiva put his ideas into practice by spearheading the Bar Kochba rebellion against Rome (approx. 135 CE) for the avowed purpose of liberating Jerusalem and rebuilding the Temple.
What was the fundamental difference of opinion? Apparently, R. Yohanan ben Zakkai believed that the only cause (other than avoiding murder, sexual immorality and idolatry) for which one may forfeit one's life is the survival of the Jewish nation; after all, the Bible introduces the concept of a life-endangering obligatory war (milhemet mitzva) for the sake of conquering Israel at the dawn of our history, because without the land there would never have been a nation of Israel. Given the overwhelming might of the Roman Empire, Rabbi Yohanan concluded that if the Land of Israel and the Torah of Israel - represented by Yavne and its wise men - can be preserved, it would be halachically inadmissible to risk the survival of the Jewish people in a war for Jerusalem and the Temple.
Rabbi Akiva believed differently. He understood that the Temple is cardinal to Israel's purpose as a holy nation and a kingdom of priest-teachers through whom all the families of the earth are to be blessed. The people of Israel were entrusted to teach the world that because God created every human being in His image, each must be free and inviolable, and that our God of love and morality wants a world of peace and security for all. The place from which this message must emanate is Jerusalem, the City of Peace (Yeru Shalom); and the Temple is to be the beacon from which this message goes forth, inspiring the nations to "beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks," and usher in the time when "nation shall not lift sword against nation and humanity will not train for war anymore" (Isaiah 2, Micah 4, Zechariah 7, 8, 9). If Israel is not disseminating this teaching to the world, the nation has no purpose, believed Rabbi Akiva.
Hence the centrality of our messianic vision and the need to continue fighting for Jerusalem.
For centuries, the overwhelming majority of our sages have taught that Rabbi Yohanan was correct, and that it was he who "rescued Judaism" by his exchange with Vespasian. But contemporary history teaches us that the nation of Israel can't survive without a Jewish state and a Jewish army; the fact that we are now living in a world in which one madman with (God forbid) nuclear weapons can destroy civilization teaches us that unless the universal acceptance of a God of peace becomes an axiom, there will be no free humanity left, and certainly no Jewish nation.
Only a Temple teaching absolute morality in the City of Peace can secure the future of freedom in our global village!
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.