By Ori Bergman
On July 20, 1969, American astronauts Neil Armstrong (1930-2012) and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin (1930-) became the first humans ever to land on the moon. Nine years before President John F. Kennedy declared:
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept…
There’s something more difficult than reaching the moon and this is the theme of this time period in the Jewish calendar, referred to as: The Three Weeks. Let’s explain:
The scroll of Eichah, written by the prophet Jeremiah, states (1:3):
Judah has gone into exile because of misery and harsh oppression;
When she settled among the nations, She found no rest;
All her pursuers overtook her between the narrow places (בין המצרים/Bein Hametzarim)
The Midrash explains that “between the narrow places” refers to “between two dates” in the Jewish calendar that embody narrowness and constriction: the seventeenth of Tammuz (this past Sunday, July 17, 2022) and Tisha B’Av (Sunday, August 7, 2022.)
The 17th of Tammuz was the day when the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Romans, in 69 CE, after a lengthy siege. With the walls breached, the Roman forces overtook the Jews and the Temple, the center of Jewish life. Three weeks later, the Temple was destroyed on the 9th of Av. (see here for more on Tisha B’Av and a list of other calamities that have happened on this day).
These three weeks are marked by an escalating emphasis on mourning for the loss of the Holy Temple and all the various tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people since. Our thoughts on Jerusalem, though, go much beyond these weeks. Our prayer book and the 24 books of the Written Torah are full of hundreds of references to Jerusalem; we pray towards Jerusalem, we break a glass at a wedding to remember the loss of the Temple, we place an egg on our Seder plate as a sign of mourning for Jerusalem and many people leave a portion of their home unfinished to represent our sense of incompleteness without a Temple.
We must ask though: why so much emphasis for a building that once stood and how can we realistically feel any loss for something so distant in time? How can we better relate to a distant memory we can’t recall?
Our sages unequivocally declare that the loss of our temple is NOT just about the loss of a building but a reflection of a deeper spiritual void that needs to be filled. In their words:
[Though] the people during the Second Temple period (516 bce-70 ce) were engaged in Torah study, observance of mitzvot, and acts of kindness, and that they did not perform the sinful acts that were performed in the First Temple, why was the Second Temple destroyed? It was destroyed due to the fact that there was baseless hatred [sinat chinam] during that period (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 9b.)
The Jerusalem Talmud (Yoma 1:1) states that during the second temple, the destruction came upon them because they “loved money but hated each other with baseless hatred.”
The Midrash (Eikha Rabba 1:21) adds that during the Second Temple era, “People rejoiced over the downfall of others.”
So, what caused the destruction of the Temple? People valued possessions more than each other. They sought out the fault in others and rejoiced in their failings. They assumed the worse in each other and allowed division to take hold of our people.
To better appreciate what happened then, consider this beautiful imagery of our sages:
Abba Hanan said in the name of Samuel the Small: This world is like a person’s eyeball. The white of the eye is the ocean surrounding the world; the iris is the inhabited world; the pupil of the eye is Jerusalem and the face in the pupil (the reflection of the observer) is the Holy Temple. May it be rebuilt speedily in our days.
So what does the loss of the Holy Temple represent? The inability to “see” one another. The inability to see myself through you and you through me. The inability to relate to each other and truly see a person in the other. Perhaps the inability to look certain other people “in the eye”.
In a powerful idea, our sages express that “any generation in which the Temple is not built, it is as if it had been destroyed in their times” (Jerusalem Talmud, Yoma 1a.) If you’re reading this, you are surely socially conscious of the world we live in. The wars, the hate, the fear, the insecurity, the shootings, the hurt, the hatred- some near and some far. Clearly, the ailment of baseless hatred still exists today and upon reflection, is that not a cause to mourn?
In our time, we know how to reach the moon, but are yet able reach across the aisle to another person to see past the barriers that divide us.
But, our tradition says: Do not despair (Rebbe Nachman)! We set aside this time, the Three Weeks, to mourn and then reflect and mobilize our efforts towards a more unified existence. Imagine, an entire people, taking three weeks to reflect on how we can repair the world to be more unified and whole.
These fast days (17th of Tammuz & Tisha B’Av) and intermediate days are not meant to be sad days, but opportune ones. They are days when we are empowered to fix the cause of that initial destruction. For until we fix the cause, we won’t be able to see Jerusalem, the city of peace, rebuilt in all its splendor and glory. We won’t be able to see the Temple, called a house of prayer for ALL people (Isaiah 56:7), rebuilt
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, first Chief Rabbi of Israel, famously wrote that if the Second Temple was destroyed and the Jewish people scattered through baseless hatred, then the Temple will be rebuilt and the people gathered together again though ahavat chinam, causeless love.
This teaching is not speaking about loving our inner circle, the people like us or the people we like. It’s specifically referring to the people we dislike. The people we believe practice wrong; the people who vote differently; the people who, in an incomprehensible way, hold different opinions precisely on the issues we hold most dear. The people that get under our skin.
It is them that we are to find value, virtue and cause to respect;
It is in them that we are to look straight in the eye and see the human reflection;
It is them we are to honor for they are also in Image of God.
So the three weeks therefore declare: never make peace with a world in pieces. Never settle for fragmentation and division.
“That is the only way to save ourselves from violence and self-destruction,” says Rabbi Sacks, for “… the greatest religious challenge is: Can I see God’s image in one who is not in my image – whose colour, class, culture or creed is different from mine?”” (Rabbi Sacks, Judaism’s Life-Changing Ideas, p. 11.)
We are yet to fully hit the mark, but we’ve never lost sight of this goal.
With blessings to those we consider near, and to those we consider far!
Ori Bergman is Rabbi at Kehillat Ohr Tzion and Educator with LiNK Jewish Buffalo. You can reach him with thoughts, questions and feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org