Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

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Walk Article


Tisha B'av-5772

Rabbi David Walk


            What are we mourning on Ninth of Av?  This is a not an easy question to answer.  At one point in Jewish history, I believe that this question was relatively simple to answer.  Both holy Temples were destroyed on this melancholy date, and, therefore there were periods when it was the absence of those majestic edifices which dominated the sense of loss on this tragic day.  During the seventy years between destruction of Temple 1.0 and the building of Temple 2.0 (Herod's Temple was 2.1) , the Jews mourned the lack of Temple and offerings.  Clear-cut and straight forward.  As the seventy year mark was approaching after the destruction of the second Temple, people were mourning its absence on the Temple Mount, but expecting the rebuilding within the same seventy year window.  It was this anticipation, turned consternation that triggered the Bar Kochba Rebellion 62 years after the destruction of Temple II, when Hadrian, the Roman Emperor refused to grant the proper building permit.  But I think that as the years went by the issue got murky.  Allow me to explain.

            The Mishnah at the end of Masechet Ta'anit explains that five misfortunes befell the Jewish nation on Tisha B'av:  The first calamity that occurred on Tisha B'av was the decree on our ancestors in the desert that they would not enter Eretz Yisrael, then there was the destruction of both Temples, the two other calamities that occurred on that day were the capture of Beitar ending the Bar Kochba Revolt and the plowing of Yerushalayim into a field (chapter 4, mishnah 6).  So, already by the writing of the Mishnah (c. 225 CE) the Ninth of Av wasn't only about the destruction of the Temple.  As the observance of Tisha B'av became more structured the Kinot or sad poems were written.  The greatest of these poets was Eliezar HaKalir.  Now there's an argument whether he wrote these scholarly poems in the third century or the seventh century.  In either case he wrote at a very early time in the development of Tisha B'av, and he started the custom of adding events which didn't happen on Tisha B'av.  He wrote about the death of King Josiah which took place twenty two years before the destruction of the first Temple.  This practice has been greatly expanded over the years.  Ashkenazim have included Kinot about the massacres by the Crusaders and the burning of the Talmud by the Catholic Church during the reign of Louis IX of France, while most Sephardim recite poems about the expulsion from Spain in 1492 (which did actually happen on Tisha B'av), and almost everyone has added Kinot about the Ten Martyrs during the Hadrianic oppression and the Holocaust.

            It would seem that as memory of and connection to the Temple dissipates, the nature of Tisha B'av has transformed into a more general day of mourning.  Indeed, Rabbi Soloveitchik maintained that Tisha B'av was the occasion for commemorating all Jewish tragedies.  What does this mean about our relationship to the long lost Temples?  Could it mean that we no longer feel the loss of the Temple and its service?  Does it imply that we no longer anticipate the rebuilding of these national shrines?  Well, perhaps, but I don't think so.  I believe that as the experience of the Temple fades into the mists of time our Sages have shifted their educational emphasis from the physical structures to an explanation of what we lack because there is no national religious center for the Jewish nation.

            This pedagogic idea has been expressed both in the ancient and modern worlds.  In Psalm XLIV we explain the national pain of destruction in two ways.  First we say:  But now You have abandoned and disgraced us, You no longer accompany our hosts (verse 9), then we recite:  You let our neighbors mock us. We are an object of scorn and derision to those around us (verse 14).  We feel the deep pain of Divine rejection and the humiliation of disrespect from those we had expected to guide.  These depredations are the result of destruction of the Temples.

            Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) turned these facts on the ground into an intellectual concept.  He explained a rather difficult Midrash on the following verse in the book of Lamentations:  God has executed His statement which He ordained long ago, he destroyed without pity and He let the foe rejoice over you (2:17).  In the Midrash it explains that this means that God tore His royal robe (Eicha Raba 1:1).  The robe was the Temple, and it represents the Kabbalistic concept of garment (Levush) which not only covers things but, in the case of God, makes the hidden manifest.  When King Solomon built the Temple, he explained that even the heavens can't contain God, but God allowed for the Divine presence to be perceived in this puny edifice through the graciousness of God.  God constricted the Divine Presence for our edification.  The essence of the Temple isn't a building at all.  It's a portal for our minds and souls to reach out to God.  Then we could bask in God's majesty, and spiritually grow.  But we sinned.  The sins caused the Divine Presence to recede, and eventually disappear.  In the Talmud, the Sages described how the miracles of Yom Kippur had stopped occurring forty years before the physical Temple building was actually destroyed (Yoma 39b).  In other words, we're really mourning the departure of God, the rending of the garment.  The Temple was gone long before the stones were cast down. 

It's not about the Temple.  It's about feeling all alone in this vast universe, and God not available to give us dignity of purpose.  We're abandoned and disgraced, because we had stopped turning to God for so long that when we turned back, God was gone.  So, over time our great spiritual guides have taught us that Tisha B'av isn't about the Temple.  It's about what it represented.  The heavens, the earth, the Temple can't contain God, but the Divine Presence will return and don the robe again if we learn the historical lesson and return to God.  Then we'll regain our dignity, and, by the way, get the beautiful building back, too.          


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