Tisha B’Av—are we missing the point?
There’s a hidden aspect to Tisha B’Av, mourning the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem, that could put holy sites, and the Temples themselves, into a new perspective.
I had the privilege of living in Jerusalem for 22 years, and now, I’m there at least once a week to see my kids and grandkids. I can tell you that even after driving past the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem for 47 years—there is no way to drive by without looking at them.
The walls are more than two thousand years old. That in itself is enough to draw the attention of someone like me who grew up in the US, a country where anything more than a hundred years old is an “antique.”
But the walls of the Old City are so much more than just ancient.
They represent the glory of the era of the holy Temples in Jerusalem, and the agony of their destruction.
King Solomon directed the building of the first Temple, and it was completed in 957 BCE. It stood until 586 BCE—371 years. Construction of the second Temple began just 48 years later, and it took King Herod’s builders 23 years to complete it. The second Temple stood 585 years, until 70 CE, when the Romans destroyed it.
Until the Holocaust, the destruction of the Temples was the worst tragedy ever to befall the Jewish people. Some descriptions survive, and some poetic renditions made their way into the writings of the Prophets.
On Yom Kippur, the prayerbook that is most commonly used in Israel includes a section of the Mussaf service about the destruction of the Temple. It’s many pages of heart-rending descriptions of the murder of leading rabbis, the burning of the Temple, and looting of its vessels. It’s so agonizing that many congregations, even those that read every other word of all the services, skip over the section about the destruction of the Temple.
There is no questioning the scope of the tragedy that befell the Jewish people over the destruction of the Temples. Thousands were murdered, many thousands led into exile. Even today, you can’t visit Rome and see the Arch of Titus, commemorating the great Roman victory in the Holy Land, without shivers going down your spine.
But there are clear signs that even today, we don’t get it. We don’t understand why the Temples were destroyed. Of course we learn that the first Temple was destroyed because of our idol worship, murder, and incest; and the second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred. That’s where we usually stop.
Let’s proceed forward a bit.
Starting next Shabbat, we will begin reading the seven haftarot of consolation over the destruction of the Temples. Yet in all seven, there is only one reference to the Temples, and there is no mention of an obligation to rebuild the Temple after it is destroyed. King Herod replaced a small, simple structure with an ornate, luxurious piece of architecture. Almost all the artifacts from the Temple that have survived are from Herod’s second Temple.
A couple of things here don’t compute. We all know that God forbade King David from building the Temple because of his bloodshed, so it was his son Solomon who built it. But what about Herod? A great builder, to be sure, but one of the cruelest kings ever to reign in the Holy Land. Today he would be subject to sanctions over human rights abuses. He would have made Syria’s Bashar Assad look like a guy who cheats at cards.
So how is it that this tyrant was allowed to build the second Temple? And what, in fact, was in the Temple? The Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum with the Holy Ark, where only the High Priest was allowed to enter, and only on Yom Kippur—it was empty. The tablets were gone. The Temple fulfilled its main function without them—constant animal sacrifices for ritual, for forgiveness, for thanksgiving. It all came to an end in 70 CE.
But 70 CE was also a beginning. Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai got himself smuggled out of Jerusalem in a casket. He escaped to Yavne, just down the road from where I live today, and he set up the very first yeshiva rabbinical academy. His students became the first generation of rabbinical scholars. They transformed Judaism from a Temple-centric, sacrifice-centric religion into an ethics-centered, Halacha-centered, wisdom-centered religion.
Now let’s say that the Romans had decided to conquer Cairo instead of Jerusalem, and they left the second Temple standing in full operation. Is there anyone who believes that Judaism would still exist? Is there a major religion today that is centered on animal sacrifices? Would Judaism have survived?
I’m not saying that we should cancel Tisha B’Av and stop mourning the destruction of the Temples. It remains a central tragedy in the history of the Jewish people.
But consider, for a moment, what God’s will might have been. Some believe that God controls the universe like a puppeteer with strings on us all. I’m not one of them. I believe He give us a conscience, and the ability to choose between good and evil.
But He does send signals. I believe that. And could it be that His signal two thousand years ago was, that it was time to move on to a different kind of Judaism, that it was time to move beyond the era of the Temples? That ethics, teachings and Halacha were more important?
Could His message have been that it was time for the Temples to be destroyed? Could that have been His message?
After all—He sent it twice.