It is Tisha B'av today. I just came back from the Kotel, the Western Wall, where I recited the afternoon prayer, Mincha, with thousands of other Jews. Over the course of the entire day, hundreds of thousands of Jews must have come to visit the site of our destroyed Holy Temple, expressing their fervent prayers for its reconstruction. They cannot attend the Holy Temple itself at present, but they are unable to stay away from its ruins.
We sit here a mere two generations away from the greatest destruction our people ever experienced. Besides the systematic annihilation of six million of our people, all our institutions were totally destroyed. Not a single Yeshiva, not a single congregation survived. Never in our people's long history has there been anything to equal it. At the same time, considering the size of the crowd I witnessed, it is difficult to imagine how broken we were such a short time ago. One cannot associate the vibrant people I witnessed today with the pathetically forlorn holocaust images with which we are all so familiar. In fact looking at my own mother, a holocaust survivor, and glancing at the same time at my children, her own grandchildren, is an incredible experience. There is just no rational continuity to these generations. It is incredible that such self confidence and pride could have emerged from such unbelievable persecution and loss.
In the scant space of a mere two generations the Jewish people have recovered their numbers, have rebuilt their Yeshivas, have reestablished their congregations. They have built themselves a modern booming state on their ancient homeland, and have successfully defended it several times in major wars with the first Jewish army seen in the world for over two thousand years. They have established vibrant communities all over the world, where once again their power and influence is out of all proportion to their numbers in all areas of life. These are all scenes out of a fairy tale. Such phenomena simply do not occur in the real world.
It is in the nature of the human mind to look for reasons when confronted with such incredible events. God is well aware of this human tendency that He Himself planted in our souls. What kind of thoughts might He have wanted to inspire in Jews through the infliction of such incredible destruction and the granting of such unbelievable recovery?
When I look back on the world that the Jewish people found themselves in before the two world wars and I compare it with the world we are in now I cannot help but find some very striking contrasts. For the past two thousand years since the destruction of the second Temple, the Jewish people has lived scattered among the nations, largely in a state of persecution devoid of human rights. Except for brief periods of respite we were driven from place to place, mercilessly slaughtered periodically, living on the fickle good will of well disposed despots in between.
Look at us now in the new world. Our civil rights are enshrined in the constitutions of nearly every country in which we live, we have our own state on our ancient homeland, and face no foreseeable threat of annihilation anywhere in the world. We are not the continuation of the same people. This is quite literally true. All our public institutions were mercilessly and systematically destroyed by the Nazis. No synagogue is the continuation of an old world synagogue except in name, no yeshiva is an offshoot of a parent institution except in name, all our public institutions are brand new. As individuals we survived, as a people we were totally destroyed and rebuilt ourselves from scratch.
In this respect the destruction of European Jewry closely resembles the destruction of our Temples. The destruction of each Temple brought a period of Jewish history to an end and ushered in a new era. Thus the destruction was never totally negative. Each time, the Jewish people reinvented themselves and busily set off on a brand new mission. Perhaps it would clarify our own situation if we looked at the changes that the previous destructions wrought.
The Rabbis taught us (Yoma 9b) that the destruction of the first Temple was caused by idolatry, licentiousness, and bloodshed, whereas the destruction of the second Temple was caused by the idle hatred between fellow Jews.
But what caused these sins? To what were they a reaction?
Perhaps we can find the key in idolatry. The Torah is replete with admonitions against idolatry. To us this is incomprehensible for we feel not the slightest desire to serve idols. The Talmud (Sanhedrin, 102b) recounts a story about Rav Ashi, one of the authors of the Babylonian Talmud. He was teaching his students the book of Kings. When he came to the end of his lecture, he announced that tomorrow he would teach them about Menashe, Chizkiyahu's son, who was perhaps the most evil king in the first Temple period and a great idol worshipper. Rav Ashi referred to him as an ordinary person, as he did not want to show respect to such a great evildoer. That night, Menashe appeared to Rav Ashi in a dream and asked him a question in Torah law, which Rav Ashi was unable to answer. Menashe told him the answer and then demanded the respect due a great Torah scholar. Rav Ashi then asked him in his dream why had he been such a great worshipper of idols if he was such a great Torah scholar. Menashe answered him that if he would have been alive when Menashe lived, he, Rav Ashi, would have run to serve idols.
The first Temple period could be likened to childhood. We were at God's table then. We had prophets who taught us God's message and the presence of God was manifest among us. All normal children love their parents dearly, but all children want to rebel when they reach their adolescence. The parental home is wonderful but stifling. The child wants to gain his independence and make his own decisions. Distance from God is obtained by inserting a middle man between myself and God. This is the temptation of idol worship.
The destruction of the first Temple was the end of childhood for the Jewish people. No longer was the guiding hand of God manifest. No longer did He send messages to them through His prophets.
The second Temple was destroyed by idle hatred. The second Temple stood on the strength of a united Jewish people. When the Jews speak with one voice, they automatically find God. Jews achieved unity only at Mt. Sinai. The acceptance of the Torah is the only idea around which we can unify. This Temple represents early adulthood when one's social life is everything. We are already free of the parental home, we are away at school. Our parents still support us financially but their presence is no longer oppressive. It is with our friends that we now have our conflicts. The lessons in this stage of a person's life teach him the value of society.
But eventually, we find even this oppressive. As we grow older, we want to be all on our own. We want to try our own strength against the world. We want to establish our own home and conquer the world by our own efforts.
The second Temple was destroyed, and the Jewish people broke down into little pockets of settlement scattered across the face of a hostile world. By dint of much effort and ingenuity, we succeeded in demonstrating to the world throughout our incredibly difficult two thousand year exile the strength of our endurance. We showed our stubborn ability to overcome all hardships to hold on to what is dearest to us: our God, our Torah, our sense of selves.
This period represents our adulthood. Looking back on this part of our history, we can only tip our hats to our grandparents who managed to bring us through it so successfully against such incredible odds.
We are too old for this now. The immature rebellion of adolescence is behind us now, as is the competitive turmoil of youth. We have survived the tribulations of a difficult adulthood and arrived at our old age. We are preparing for the end of our history now, gathering the force to sum up our life and put ourselves in order before the end.
Now is the time for spiritual reckoning. What has our life been about, what have we accomplished, what are we taking with us to face our maker?
We must reach out now with our remaining strength and recover our scattered parts. We have a lot of brains out there, a lot of heart, much talent and idealism. People are not afraid of being Jewish anymore. The terrible travails of our adulthood that scared so many of our number to leave in the hope of escaping pain and suffering are no longer our lot. We are no longer such a tight knit community that anyone need fear losing their identity by rejoining.
All the negatives that drove Jews out are gone, while the positive force of being able to unite behind the idea of accepting the Torah is still very much present.
It seems to me, that in this golden autumn of our life as a people, there is a great opportunity to rebuild our strength. Abraham has many children out there in the world. Imagine the immense spiritual power they could unleash if we could rejoin them with their Jewish destiny.
This is our historic task now, this is the task that faces the Jewish People in this era. We must teach ourselves to stop being on the defensive, we must abandon our protective crouch. We must reach out to our fellow Jews with love and confidence and with a prayer to God: Do not cast us away in old age; when our strength gives out do not forsake us. (Psalms 71:9)