Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Tisha B'Av: Why we mourn....

Dear Rivy,
Here we are trying to have a decent summer and it seems like every other minute it is another fast day; sadness for a Temple long gone. I guess I don't quite understand the notion of mourning for the Temple. Why should I be sad about its destruction? I can't imagine needing or wanting such a place for sacrifices. Additionally, why all this for that one Temple, what's wrong with many holy spaces or synagogues, like what we have today? Please help me understand why we are fasting for the loss of this Temple.
A lot of people feel distanced from Biblical ideas of sacrifice and the role of the Temple, which is reasonable considering how long ago and faraway that temple stood. But I think that after I explain an idea or two you will feel differently. The idea of a centralized temple is at the core of our beliefs.
Let's start with perhaps the earliest mention of such a place. It is found in surprisingly close proximity to the beginning of our peoplehood. Immediately after the Exodus, as soon as the Israelites cross the Red Sea, they stand on the shore absorbing their miraculous salvation. You might remember the dramatic gelatin-facilitated footage from the Cecil B. De Mille film. There, the freed slaves are plunked after having just narrowly escaped a perilous collective brush with death. Led by Moshe, they sing a stunning song of thanksgiving, The Song at the Sea.
In that song they exuberantly proclaim, You bring them in, and plant them in the mountain of Your inheritance, the place, O Lord, which You have made for You to dwell in, the sanctuary, O Lord, which Your hands have established.
This is amazing to me. The Israelites have but stepped one foot out of slavery
and are already envisioning a holy sanctuary in which God will reside. This seems premature - why discuss a temple now? The Israelites have not begun to shed their slave-like persona, they have yet to receive the Torah, and are they certainly nowhere close to entering the land of Israel.
It is not until much later in the Book of Kings that we get an answer to this temple precociousness. But before that, the Israelites must first build a temporary tabernacle in the desert and travel with it into the Land of Israel. This mishkan, or temporary sanctuary, is then planted in the city of Shiloh, where it mostly remains until King Solomon is able to build the Temple in Jerusalem.
When Solomon does indeed construct the Temple, we are offered this rare nugget of chronology: “And it came to pass in the four hundred and eightieth year after the children of Israel were come out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon's reign over Israel, in the month Ziv, which is the second month, that he began to build the House of the Lord.”
An accounting like this, specific to an event, is not to be found in any of the early books of the Prophets. Not Joshua, not Judges, not Samuel. Only here, when the Temple is about to be built, are we notified of the span of years stretching from the Exodus till this temple time. This is the answer to the peculiar reference to the Temple at the splitting of the sea.
Four hundred eighty years from dream to realization. For our people, that is not astonishingly long - it is, in fact, a lilting leap with a profound link. As we are asked to make the connection from Exodus to Temple, we are catapulted back in time, as if standing again on the sandy shores of freedom, dreaming of the day that we will serve our heavenly God in a holy space here on earth.
It is there that we first envision this mystical notion, an ideal that the world has been waiting for since its creation: as God creates a world and makes room for humans, we are given a land and we create a space for God.
This connection between creation and the building of sanctuary is mapped out carefully by a number of Bible scholars such as Martin Buber, Benno Jacob and Nechama Leibowitz. They notice the startling similarities in language used in the creation narrative and the description of the building of the Tabernacle, mishkan. The Israelites mend the exile of the Garden by inviting God into a sanctuary and making space for God fulfilling the command, “and you shall make for me a dwelling place and I will dwell among them.” It is with the Israelites, who are ”a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, “that God's divine presence can finally join together with humans and be drawn down into this world.
First Eden and Exodus, then the Temple. The path of patience finally leads to the realization. As Solomon inaugurates the Temple, he triumphantly sets out what the role for this holy space will be for the Israelites and the entire world. In one of the most magnificent scenes in the Bible, King Solomon offers a soulful prayer to God before the People Israel.
He begins by reminding us when this building was first planned, “Since the day that I brought forth My people Israel out of Egypt,” and continues by asking the essential question, “But will God in very truth dwell on the earth?”
Though it may seem impossible, this place will be a place of prayer. All kinds of prayer - in times of famine and drought. Prayer in the time of war and hardship. This will be place that the whole world will come to pray to God Almighty, a place for penitence and forgiveness. Nary is a word mentioned about sacrifice, for this is a place of reaching out to God.
The Temple is a potent symbol for our people; it reminds us that God can be drawn down to earth and that a people can unite and build a community with God at its center. Perhaps that is the most powerful lesson for each of us. When we mourn the Temple, we mourn for that unity and for that mystical connection to the Holy One. We mourn a loss of land and central leadership. We mourn many missed opportunities.
A story is told of how Napoleon was walking through the streets of Paris. He passed by a synagogue and heard the sound of Jews weeping bitterly inside. He turned to his aide and asked, “What's going on inside there”?
“Today is the Jews' fast of Tisha B'av,” came the reply, “and they are mourning their temple.”
Napolean looked toward the synagogue and said, “If the Jews are still crying after so may hundreds of years, then I am certain that the Temple will one day be rebuilt!”
There is hope, we are still crying.

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