The Temple – walking in the path of God – Tisha Be’av

What is the purpose of the Temple? And following that, what are we supposed to be mourning on Tisha Be’av?

Jerusalem's Old City and the Temple Mount (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Jerusalem's Old City and the Temple Mount
This coming Shabbat is the saddest date on the Jewish calendar: Tisha Be’av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av. This is the day on which our nation expresses its pain and mourning over the destruction of the Temple in a number of ways – refraining from eating and drinking, from washing or applying creams or oils, from wearing leather shoes, and from having relations. All these are expressions of national and personal mourning through which we convey the sadness and grief suitable to this date.
It is important to note that this year (5775, 2015) Tisha Be’av falls on Shabbat, and so due to the holiness of the day and the commandment to respect it, we postpone the mourning and fast until Saturday night. All the customs of Tisha Be’av are kept from after Shabbat ends until Sunday evening.
These customs are not only external. Their purpose is to place us in the atmosphere of mourning over the Temple.
We all encounter grief and mourning in our lives. When a relative passes away, God forbid, we mourn him. Even when we experience other kinds of loss, we feel pain and sorrow. However, with regard to the destruction of the Temple, many of us find it hard to understand what we are mourning. What are we lacking when the Temple is not standing? Or in other words: when the Temple is rebuilt, speedily in our days, how will it contribute to our lives? These are basic questions. Without examining them and trying to answer them, we cannot truly mourn.
Firstly, we must negate a commonly-held notion: the Temple was not about sacrifices. Sacrifices occurred in the yard of the Temple, but were not the reason for its existence. Furthermore, the prophets rebuked those who believed the main reason for the Temple was sacrifice, as we find for example with Isaiah: “Of what use are your many sacrifices to Me? says the Lord” (Isaiah 1:11).
Another explanation that must be negated is that the Temple was meant for God. This is a simplistic conception that King Solomon negated resolutely when he said, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold the heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You; much less this temple that I have erected” (Kings I 8:27).
So we ask, what is the purpose of the Temple? And following that, what are we supposed to be mourning on Tisha Be’av? The verse fundamental to understanding of this issue is in the Book of Exodus, when God turns to Moses and instructs him to build a temple using these words: “And they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst” (Exodus 25:8). Our sages ana - lyzed the verse and concluded that the words “their midst” rather than “its midst” serve to show that God will reside in the hearts of each and every person in Am Yisrael.
As opposed to the nations, who believed in idols that had a common denominator with humans, Judaism has always believed in a God who “has no semblance of a body nor is He corporeal.” Meaning, there is no comparison between anything we know and God. If so, how are we to understand the Torah instructing us to cling to God and walk in His ways? Is this not contradictory?
This is why the Temple was built; as a representational and symbolic structure of God among humans. People came to the Temple and connected to their deepest feelings and to their souls’ deepest leanings. This connection, when made with integrity, brought about a deep connection with the Creator of man – God. This purpose was reflected in the blessing recited by the Kohanim when they completed the priests’ work in the Temple: “May He Who caused His name to dwell in this house, make love and brotherhood, peace and comradeship, to abide among you” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot, p. 12) Indeed, the prophets were careful to repeat this purpose over and over again.
They did not cease reiterating this significant message: there is no value to the Temple when it merely expresses ritual and external actions. If a person does not behave with integrity, is not compassionate, or does not pursue justice then the sacrifices and the ritual ceremonies lose all their value. The purpose was always to walk in the ways of God, the path of justice, integrity, charity and grace.
This is also why the Temple was destroyed. It was not destroyed by an external enemy until it had been rendered devoid of content by the sins of the Jewish nation.
“Why was the Temple destroyed?” our sages asked, and they answered, “Because it contained baseless hatred.” The fact that the nation sinned with baseless hatred proved that it did not internalize the true message of the Temple – and did not walk in the ways of God.
That is the depth of mourning over the Temple. If we are privileged to see the Temple stand gloriously, all of our lives will change. The Torah that is suited to each Jew will come out of the Temple in Jerusalem and will guide him and instruct him how to live a life of value full of spiritual and moral content.
Our sages said, “Whoever mourns over Jerusalem will be privileged to behold her joy” (B.T., Tractate Ta’anit, p. 30). If we look closely and recognize what each of us is missing by not having the Temple, the external acts we perform on Tisha Be’av will be an expression of our deep, internal mourning and then we will be guaranteed to merit beholding Jerusalem’s joy, speedily in our days, amen.
The author is the rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites