We are in the middle of “The Nine Days,” the period from the first of the month of Av until Tisha B’Av, the date on which both the first and second Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed and the Jewish people were exiled from the land. This is the most solemn period in the Jewish calendar, a time of mourning when we minimize pleasurable activities and refrain from many endeavors that we can delay until a less historically perilous time.
What is the sadness of this time? What are we mourning? Why is the destruction of the Temple such a tragedy? Do we really feel it — do we really care? Does it really make a difference whether the building is standing or not? Does it matter if we are in exile — can’t we live happy, meaningful lives in Philadelphia, or New York, or London, Paris, or wherever we have been throughout the vast majority of our history? What is it that we are lacking here? Do we feel the pain of exile? Do we truly long with all of our hearts for the Temple to be rebuilt? What will that do for us — what will it change? Why should we care so much — and if we don’t really care, if we don’t understand what we’re mourning, then how do we connect to this time of “national tragedy”? Do we fake it, do we shed crocodile tears, pretending that we feel the loss but in reality feeling more confusion and emptiness and the sense that we don’t relate to this outdated religious stuff that shackles us with lots of rules and negativity but doesn’t truly speak to our souls?
Finally, if God is good, if He loves us, then why did He exile us? If He is omnipotent, why did He destroy His house? Why does He want us to be sad?
Clarity and Confusion
The Temple, according to Torah, is far more than a building — it’s a gateway. It is a portal that connects the world below (the reality we see) with the world above (the ultimate reality that we cannot perceive with our physical senses). It is the place where Godliness “enters” into this level of consciousness and spreads from there throughout the universe. God is one, and therefore equally to be found everywhere and at all time, but that does not mean that we perceive Him. Exile is the state in which we don’t sense His presence, when we feel that He and we are far from each other. The destruction of the Temple is the cutting of the cord, the dismantling of the portal that previously allowed the revealed flow of energy from His essence to ours. He is still here, but we can no longer see Him clearly. We believe that we have been cut off. We don’t know how to get back to where we were.
What we are mourning at this time is not the destruction of a building, but rather the loss of our vision. When the Temple stood, we had clarity. We knew why we were here. We knew Who sent us and what He wanted from us. We were given a mission and sent off into the distance to fulfill it. “Go into this place of darkness,” we were told, “and make it light. I will be with you at every moment, and you will have nothing to fear.” We went with confidence and clarity, because we were connected to our source and constantly cognizant of His presence.
But after some time, we began to flirt with the darkness. We began to take the light for granted. We lost sight of our source, and our light began to dim. Our eyes adjusted to the darkness, and we began to forget the brilliance of the light that we were leaving behind. The deepest darkness is not even knowing that one is in the dark.
We became comfortable here. We ventured further and further from the portal, we neglected the fire that was burning there, the fire that rose from below and its reciprocal fire that descended from above, and the connection between them began to wither. It eventually lapsed, and the remaining flames burned the building to the ground. It was not cruelty that destroyed the Temple, it was apathy and neglect. Fires need tending. Gateways need guarding and maintenance. Relationships require attention and care.
It was not with wrath that God destroyed His building, it was with sadness that He let us go. The Temple represented us holding hands with Him — its destruction was our fingers slipping away. “Go if you must,” He said, “it won’t be easy for you, but I won’t stop you. I’m here whenever you need me, just call ….” but we were already long gone.
The profound sadness of this long exile is that we have forgotten what our Beloved looks like. We remembered for a while, maybe the first few centuries, maybe a millennium. The pain now derives from the fact that the pain is gone. We cry because we have forgotten what to cry about.
If we were to remember what we have left behind, then we would long for it daily — not only during these nine days. If we had an inkling of a memory of what it felt like to be in our lover’s embrace, then we would stop at nothing to find our way back to those loving arms.
God is not angry with us, He is waiting for us. He is not wagging His finger, He is always extending His open hand. He does not punish us, we punish ourselves and ascribe to Him our own petty feelings and flawed characteristics.
The great tragedy of the destruction of the Temple and its ensuing exile is that we no longer know who, what, and where God is. And therefore we no longer know who, what, and where we are. God is not what we have created in our image. And we are not what we have created of ourselves in the image of the god that we have misconceived. He is so much more than what we have made of Him. And we are so much more than we have limited ourselves to be.
Remembering, Rebonding, Rebuilding
God is not far from us, either in space or in time. The destruction of the Temple thousands of years ago did not exile us from His presence. He is present now and here as much as He was then and there, but He is simply less apparent, less evident, less obvious. We must work harder now to see Him. It is our eyes we lost, and we must remember how to see.
What we will see is that He does not want us to be sad. He does not relish our pain, our guilt or our shame. He does not take pleasure in “I told you so” or “look what you’ve done.” We will see that He is standing beside us, as He always has been, whispering “how can I help you” and “I’ve always loved you.”
When we remember who He is and how He truly feels about us, then we will remember who we are — that we are worthy of His love, that He sent us here with a purpose and with the power to fulfill it. Our Temple has lay in ruins, because we have been in ruins. We have been broken, but now it is time to put ourselves back together. We rebuild ourselves, we restore our vision, we rebuild the portal that reveals Godliness openly within us and within all of the creation.
If you don’t know what to cry about during the nine days, then cry that you don’t know. Cry that you can’t see, and the tears will clear the obstructions that have made you blind. Cry that you can’t see God, and that you don’t even know what, or if, God is.
And then stop crying. Because that’s not what He wants from us. He wants us to be happy, to live rich, fulfilling lives. He doesn’t want us to worry or beat ourselves up. He wants us to build. He allowed His house to be destroyed so that we can help Him rebuild it more robust than before. The second house was greater than the first, and the third house will be infinitely greater than the second. Each time we fall, we get up stronger.
It has taken us thousands of years to recover from this last exile, and we are now ready to reconstruct the portal with such strength and permanence that our vision and connection will never fail again.