The bleakest fast of the year is Tisha b’Av, commemorating the destruction of both Temples (in 586 B.C.E. and 70 C.E.). We begin preparing ourselves to feel the enormity of the loss from the 17th of Tammuz, the day the Roman armies breached the wall around Jerusalem; the expressions of mourning intensify with the start of Av; and then on Tisha b’Av, we fast, sitting low to the ground as we read the Scroll of Lamentations and recite dirges.
What precisely are we mourning? It cannot be the loss of the mere buildings. It cannot even be the loss of our national sovereignty (which the loss of the Temples symbolized), because if so, then our fast would be on the anniversary of the removal of the Judean kings and the installation of a Roman governor which took place decades before. It certainly could not have been the loss of the sacrifices; prayers and repentance seem to be a fine substitute for sacrifices, and there are statements in the Midrash and in Rambam’s “Guide for the Perplexed” that suggest that they are even improvements over them. Rav Avraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook maintains that in the Third Temple the only sacrifice will be the “meatless” meal offering.
So why the national mourning?
The Holy Temple was inextricably intertwined with our national mission: to be God’s witnesses, a light unto the nations, bringing humanity to the God of justice, morality and peace. Our prophets saw Temple life as the living example from which all nations could learn how to perfect society. With the loss of the Temple, we ceased to be “players” on the world stage; we lost the means by which our message was to be promulgated. And a world without compassionate righteousness, justice and morality is a world that cannot endure.
At the very dawn of Jewish history, Abraham was given a Divine charge: “through you shall be blessed all the families of the earth” [Genesis 12:3]. The Lord then seals a covenant with Abraham [Gen. 15], guaranteeing that he will be the father of a great nation, even the father of a multitude of nations, all of whom will accept ethical monotheism. The Torah explains why Abraham was elected: “The reason that I have known, loved and designated [Abraham] is in order that he command… his household after him to guard the way of the Lord, to do compassionate righteousness and… morality…” [Gen. 18:18-19].
This charge is repeated to Abraham after the binding of Isaac [Gen. 22:17-18]. In effect, the Bible is saying our mission can only be accomplished if we are willing to sacrifice the lives of our children for it, and it will disseminate to the world from “the mountain where the Lord will be revealed.” When Jacob leaves his ancestral home, fleeing Esau’s wrath, dreaming his dream at Beth El, he envisions a ladder rooted in the earth and reaching up to the heavens – a veritable Holy Temple, a Beit Hamikdash: “He is blessed that his seed shall spread out westward, eastward, northward and southward, and through him shall be blessed all the families of the earth.” Jacob identifies the ladder as “the house of God, at the gates of the heavens.” Rashi, citing the Talmudic sages, insists that the ladder extended to the Temple Mount [Gen. 28:12-17].
In the Book of Exodus, at the Song of the Sea, when the text describes the awe of the nations at God’s wondrous miracles in freeing the enslaved from tyranny, the Israelites sing of being brought to, and planted within, the Temple Mount, where the Temple of the Lord will be prepared by Divine hands, and the Lord will reign throughout the world [Exodus 15:17-18]. And when King Solomon dedicates the Temple in Jerusalem, he beseeches God to answer the prayers of the gentiles who shall come from far away “for Your name’s sake,” so that “all the nations of the earth may recognize Your name, as does Your nation Israel” [I Kings 8:41-43].
And, in order to close the circle, when we read the prophetic portion of Isaiah this Shabbat, who weepingly excoriates the Israelites for forgetting their ethical calling, for their treatment of rituals as substitutes for loving-kindness and justice and thereby their having to suffer the destruction of the Temple, he promises that in the future “Zion shall be redeemed by moral justice, and those who return to Zion shall practice compassionate righteousness” [Isaiah 1:27].
The second chapter of Isaiah, a continuation of the vision we have just cited, pictures the Temple exalted above the mountains, inspiring the nations to “beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks.” Indeed, we yearn for our Temple, which will inspire the world to accept a God of love, morality, compassion and peace.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.