As we enter the final stretch of the three-week cycle that began on the 17th of Tamuz, we begin to look forward to the following Shabbat (Shabbat Nachamu) when we can rejoice in having completed this period of mourning culminating in Tisha Be’av – and the summer can properly begin.
However, we still have a few more days to think about this framework of increasing restrictions and its intentional focus on a past that remains incredibly present.
It is particularly significant that the Talmud places much of the blame for the Temple’s destruction on the Jews themselves. No one is spared critique: The priests, Jewish zealots, and rabbis are held accountable for varying degrees of corruption, religious extremism, and indifference or skewed perception of reality, respectively. In the end, it is understood there is no choice but to watch Jerusalem burn to the ground. Rebuilding will take place elsewhere, and it will be almost 2,000 years before we return to study and pray in the holy city.
The initial rabbinic response is silence, presumably burdened by the weight of memory. Stunned by the width and breadth of their grief, there is nothing to say beyond the primal, pain-filled, mortal cry of the Book of Lamentations itself. The rabbis of the Tannaitic period do not write laments or seek refuge in apocalyptic ideas. They devote energy to creating a religious system to ensure the survival of Judaism.
Breaking the silence on the destruction of the Temple, and who is to blame
Silence is broken in the Talmudic area (from 400 CE onward). Anecdotes, stories, and dreams begin to emerge, many against the backdrop of biblical text using the format we call midrash (commentary). Through midrash, the rabbis seek answers and resolutions to some of the inexplicable issues raised by the destruction.
In Leviticus Rabbah 20:5, the midrash questions the death of Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu on the eighth day of commemorating the Tabernacle. It introduces the voice of The Holy One Blessed Be He struggling to reconcile with His own course of action: “Shall the sons of Aharon not even be like his rod which entered dry and came out full of sap?”
The death of the innocent is presented through the images of the violent destruction of the Temple at the hands of the Romans.
“The wicked Titus entered the interior of the Holy of Holies with his sword drawn in his hand. He cut into the curtain and his sword came out full of blood. He [Titus] entered in peace and departed in peace, yet the sons of Aharon came in to offer incense and came out burnt…” The midrash, with God as the narrator, questions how wickedness and bloodshed can go unpunished, while the righteous are cut down.
Nonetheless, within the darkness of the discussions there also emerge glimmers of consolation and hope as the texts move us toward rebuilding a relationship with God as His chosen people. The Talmud tells the story of Rabbi Yossi, who seeks to enter the ruins of Jerusalem to pray, despite both physical and spiritual danger, and rabbinic warnings against entering such ruins. Rabbi Yossi is not only searching among the ruins for the world that was, he is also seeking out a voice from heaven that weeps three times a day in anguish over the Divine destruction of the Temple and exile of His people. The story, however, continues with the perceptive words of Elijah the prophet, who comes to teach Rabbi Yossi that there is something greater than witnessing the grief of heaven over the loss.
Elijah tells Rabbi Yossi that “When Israel enters synagogue and study halls and answers, ‘May His Great Name be blessed,’ the Holy One Blessed Be He shakes his head and says, ‘Happy is the king who is thus praised in his house. Woe to the father who exiled his children, and woe to the children who were exiled from their father’s table.’”
God’s voice pities the father who exiled his children, along with the children exiled, but there is happiness now for the king who is praised in his house by his people.
Rabbi Yossi is taught that the spirit of the Temple continues in the space of the synagogue and in the study hall, where there is renewed interaction with the Divine. This refocusing of the mourning away from the Temple itself and into the synagogues and study halls is so successful that we feel the rebuilding of God’s house through every act of prayer and study of Torah that we undertake.
The destruction of the Temple allows for a world of prayer and study to emerge that involves the significance of every individual in every Jewish community actively choosing to engage with God, rather than an automatic Temple service in which an elite priesthood is meant to represent the people before God. It preserves the yearning for the return to the land and the sacred space of Jerusalem throughout the 2,000 years of exile.
In addition to prayer and Torah study, acts of hesed (kindness) are paramount in the aftermath of destruction. Rabbi Joshua turns to his teacher Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai as, from a distance, they watch the Holy Temple being destroyed. He laments: “Woe to us for this is destroyed, the place where all of Israel’s sins are forgiven!” Rabbi Joshua cannot fathom a world in which atonement cannot be achieved and the only path to atonement, in his mind, is through the sacrifices in the Temple. Rabbi Yochanan, without hesitating, replies: “My son, do not be distressed, for we have a form of atonement just like it. And what is it? Acts of kindness as it says (Psalms 89:3) “For I desire kindness, not a well-being offering.”
Using a verse from Scripture, Rabbi Yochanan unequivocally asserts that atonement will continue. Instead of priesthood and sacrifices, it will be achieved through our own inner call to action when confronted with the needs of those around us. Such acts of kindness represent walking in the ways of God, who is known to clothe the naked (Adam and Eve), visit the sick (Abraham after his circumcision), comfort the mourners (consoling Isaac after Abraham’s death), and bury the dead (Moses).
In a similar vein, Rabbi Elazar, son of Rabbi Yossi, states that all charity and kindness performed by Jews in this world contribute to peace and are great intercessors between the Jewish people and their Father in Heaven. This is a significant shift away from the world of sacrifice, of being solely focused on a relationship with God in a world in which our relationship with others is at the forefront of our relationship with God. It is a tikkun for a Temple that was destroyed because of a dearth of acts of kindness.
Ironically, many Jews have difficulty in finding contemporary meaning in that time period. Today, we have Jewish independence in the Land of Israel. We are living in a rebuilt Jerusalem with freedom of worship and more Torah learning than ever in our history.
Yet we are still subject to some of the same challenges that led to the destruction of the Temple, now that we are sovereign in our land.
These nine days allow us to mindfully remember the forces that led to destruction from within our own nation, the thousands of years yearning to return, and finally, the transformative power of rebuilding and reconnecting. ■
The writer teaches contemporary Halacha at the Matan Advanced Talmud Institute and Talmud at Pardes, along with courses on sexuality and sanctity in the Jewish tradition.