Unless things change a whole lot in the next few weeks, we will once again be going through the days leading up to and including Tisha B'Av, the Ninth Day of the Month of Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. Year after year, we reflect on our condition in the Diaspora, and what this long, seemingly endless exile is supposed to teach us, while awaiting the long sought for Redemption.
There is an interesting anecdote recorded regarding a meeting between the prophet Jeremiah and the famous Greek philosopher, Plato. Jeremiah was mourning the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem, and Plato engaged him in conversation. Impressed with Jeremiah's great wisdom, Plato asked him, "I do not understand how a sage of your stature can weep so bitterly over something that is over and done with. Surely, what is past is finished with, and your concern now ought to be solely with the future, and how you can influence it. What possible use can there be in all of this weeping?"
Jeremiah answered, "I cannot give you a proper answer to your logical question, for you will not understand it."
After all this time, how can we spend three weeks of every year going into greater and greater mourning, culminating in a day of fasting and sadness?
Was Plato not right? And surely now, 2500 years later, is it not time to focus on the present and the future, and to let bygones be bygones? Can we never forget? Can we never forgive? After all this time, how can we spend three weeks of every year going into greater and greater mourning, culminating in a day of fast and sadness?
In fact, one of the great blessings that God grants us is the ability to forget painful memories. "God has decreed about a deceased person that they should be forgotten from the heart" (Sofrim 21). If it was not possible to forget, if the pain of losing a close relative or friend remained always as immediate as when the loss first occurs, we would be immobilized, unable to cope with life. It is a blessing that while we always carry a memory of a departed loved one, we are able to remove the pain of the loss from the forefront of our consciousness.
Nevertheless, this general rule does not hold here, as expressed by the famous verse in Psalms, "If I forget thee O Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten!" We are bidden never to forget! The sages, by instituting all of the laws surrounding these three weeks, made sure that at least during one long period of the year, and several other fast days year-round, not to mention the requests in our thrice-daily prayers, that we would constantly remember and never forget to mourn for Jerusalem.
The Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Noah Barzovsky, zt"l, wrote a fascinating essay on this subject, in which he noted that central to Tisha B'Av is the idea that we are not to make our peace, ever, with the fact that the Holy Temple, the Beit Hamikdash, was destroyed. To never allow ourselves the thought that we accept the post-Temple world as the new, normal, permanent reality for us as Jews. The Temple is Jerusalem was destroyed for many reasons, some more well known than others. But that was never meant to be its final disposition. The day that we stop hoping that the Beit Hamikdash will be rebuilt is the day that its destruction will really be irreversible.
This is such a basic thought that it ought to permeate all of our concerns in life. We struggle with our problems, with our kid's education, with our personal growth, with financial problems, existential problems; we look at the communal scene and the national scene both here in Israel. We listen to the pundits and "wise men" who have this solution to intractable problems or who point to that occurrence to explain the crux of our quandaries, and we forget that the main problem is Exile -- our distance from God and his Holy Temple in Jerusalem. That no matter how many problems we solve here in America and Israel, and regardless of how much we grow in our spiritual lives as Jews, we will have a huge gaping hole in our spiritual lives as long as "we have been exiled from our land, and we cannot fulfill our obligations in your great and holy House..."
Why are so many Jews distant from their spiritual roots? Why are there so many terrible, endless problems between groups of Jews? How are we ever going to be able to resolve the great issues that divide us, when those matters are based on such fundamentally different outlooks on what the Torah is, what it means to be Jewish, the nature of our Jewish obligations, and how flexible can we be about adapting them for modern times? What will it take to allow myriads of Jews who have no idea of the beauty of Shabbat, keeping kosher, learning Torah, and Jewish living to even have a real glimmer of what they are missing? How will the great problems surrounding the Land of Israel ever be resolved?
When we will be able to always feel the indescribable joy of being close to God without the inner contradictions and pain and difficulty, and existential loneliness that we so often feel in our spiritual quest?
Our aching longings to reunite with God and rebuild the Temple are the building blocks of the eventual edifice.
Our aching longings to reunite with God and rebuild the Temple are the building blocks of the eventual edifice. Although in many ways Judaism teaches that what one does is more important than what one thinks or believes, it is nevertheless true that "The longing to perform a mitzvah, or to engage in a spiritual pleasure, is even greater than the pleasure itself." The active awaiting of its rebuilding, the tears shed over its absence -- the effort to not assimilate into the surrounding culture and its alien values, but rather to strive to retain our uniquely Jewish selves -- these are what will eventually bring it back. Every tear shed and every sigh over its absence is another element in the building.
Thus, says the Slonimer Rebbe, the period of the three weeks between the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B'Av are a period of crying, but a positive period: a crying that is part of the rebuilding process. A cry of hope, of longing for a better future -- an expression from the depths of the soul that we will never be satisfied and complacent in our spiritual quest until we have achieved total Teshuva (repentance), back to the closeness with God that once was and is still potentially possible.
We must certainly face life with a happy, confident attitude. We must take time to enjoy our growth, to celebrate our Jewishness, and to sing with the joy of being fortunate to be engaged in building our spiritual lives inwardly, as well as in our families and communities. But we must also take the time to mourn a little inwardly; about all the potential that is there, that is not yet being fulfilled. Only thus will we continue to grow, and look forward to the day that our inner sanctuary will be fully built, heralding the time of Mashiach, speedily in our days.