Rabbi David Walk
During the fifties and sixties synagogue construction was so extensive that it was said that Judaism had developed an edifice complex. Perhaps the most famous expression of this phenomenon was that even the world's greatest architects were mustered into this effort like Frank Lloyd Wright in Elkins Park, PA and Phillip Johnson in Rye Brook, NY. With some notable exceptions recent construction has been more modest, especially among the Orthodox who have opted for shtiblach over grandiose structures. But in Israel there have been significant recent building projects, like the Belz Great Synagogue and the rebuilt Churva shul. This stuff is on my mind this week as we prepare for Tisha B'av, because to a certain extent that melancholy day is about a construction project. The normative thinking is that we will continue to mourn and fast on this date until the third iteration of the Holy Temple stands on its proper place. This week I'd like to share some thoughts about this effort.
The conventional thinking about the destruction of the Temple is expressed by Reb Chaim of Volozhin (1749-1821) in his seminal work Nefesh Hachaim. The Temple wasn't destroyed by Nevuchadnezer of the Babylonians or Titus of the Romans. The sins of the Jews had already caused the Divine Presence to depart from the stones and wood of the building. Only then could these humans lay waste to this physical structure. It was we and our behavior which caused the departure of God from our midst and the midst of this world. So, as we contemplate rebuilding the Temple we must also consider restructuring our lives and souls. Therefore, in general, we think of the destruction of both Temples as really bad for us, Jerusalem and the world. This disaster was the culmination of God retreating from this world, and, as a result, we are bereft of the Divine Presence.
However, that's not the only approach to this issue. Rebbe Nachman (1771-1809) writing about the same time as Reb Chaim has a totally different take on the sequence of events. The rebbe explains: 'He executed His word" (Lamentations 2:17). He tore His royal robe (Eikha Rabba 1:1). For the Temple is certainly unable to bear the glory and majesty of the Holy One, as it is written: "Why, neither the heavens nor the highest heavens can contain You, how much less this building…" (I Kings 8:27). Nevertheless, out of His love for the Jewish people, He constricted and clothed His majesty in order to cause His Shekhina to dwell in the Temple, thereby revealing His kingship… Thus, inevitably, the Temple was destroyed; for once He had torn and nullified the constriction and garment, the Temple was no longer able to withstand His majesty and grandeur, for "neither the heavens nor the highest heavens can contain You," as explained above. (Likutei Moharan Kama, 219). In other words, this puny structure was containing God's earthly presence as a concession to human frailty and lack of spiritual perception. When the building was destroyed God's power and presence was let out of the bottle. Turning all conventional thinking on its head, Rebbe Nachman views the demolition of the building as ultimately a positive development. If one had the proper perspective, you could watch the Temple tumble and cheer, like watching the implosion of the Kingdome OB"M (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oiftDBtCFt8, it's really cool!).
What is this comparable to? L'havdil (to separate the profane from the holy), when Obi Wan (Star Wars, Episode IV, A New Hope, 1977) prepares for death, he tells Darth Vader, 'If you strike me down I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.' Somehow being imprisoned in physical form prevented the full power of Obi Wan's force to find full expression. It's been said of Prophets that their influence only begins with their deaths. Rebbe Nachman is saying this about the Temple. God has more influence in our realm without the Temple. To reside in the Temple God performed tzimtzum (contraction, constriction), now the Almighty can achieve hitpashtut (expansion, extension), and permeate the total extent of Creation.
So, should this novel idea of Rebbe Nachman revamp our Tisha B'av experience? Do we party? Of course not! But we can and should use this chidush (innovative idea) to make our Tisha B'av encounter more meaningful. We say, 'A generation that does not merit the building of the Beis HaMikdash is reckoned as if the generation destroyed it. Why? Because the people did not do teshuva. (Yerushalmi Yoma, 1:1).' The Sfat Emet (second GereR Rebbe, 1847-1905) is disturbed by this idea, because there have been very impressive generations since 70 CE, and they didn't get the job done. So, he proposes a most important idea. We are building the Temple. Every generation is adding its stones and mortar to this effort. Now, we can put the ideas of Rebbe Nachman and the Sfat Emet together to see this enterprise as both toiling on the edifice and revealing Divine Presence. They are complementary endeavors. Adrienne Clarkson, the former Governor General of Canada, beautifully expressed this idea, 'Each of us is carving a stone, erecting a column, or cutting a piece of stained glass in the construction of something much bigger than ourselves.'
Out of the ashes and mourning of our Tisha B'av commemoration must grow a resolve to work on this double pronged project, proclaiming God's presence in the world and preparing the physical symbol of God's power. We can do this. But only if we remember two critical ideas. First we must work with others. No one individual can accomplish this task alone. The Temple was destroyed because we didn't play well with others And, we must grow and develop ourselves as well. We must see ourselves as 'Under Construction' as well as our Holy Temple.
The social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt declared, 'The most powerful force ever known on this planet is human cooperation - a force for construction and destruction.' Destruction has had its day. Let the day of Construction dawn.