On Tisha B’Av, a day fraught with tragedy throughout Jewish history, we have many reasons to cry. On the surface, we cry over the destruction of the Temple, which was destroyed twice on this day.
For most people it is difficult to really feel the pain over the destruction of the Temple, because when we hear the word “Temple,” we think of some synagogue down the street. Our modern image is a far cry from what the Holy Temple of Jerusalem was like. Physically, it was considered one of the wonders of the ancient world, but its true value was spiritual. Because the Temple was a source of tremendous spiritual light which radiated out to the world, its window shafts were symbolically inverted. The Temple did not need the natural light of the outside world, the world needed the supernatural light of the Temple.
Speaking about natural light, King Solomon declared in the Book of Ecclesiastes, “All is futile! What real profit is there for man from the gains he makes beneath the sun?” In other words, when you look at daily life in the light of nature, it often looks futile, mundane, sometimes, even silly or absurd. But there is a higher light—a transcendental spiritual light. And in that light nothing we do could ever be futile, because it reveals the godliness within each of us and within everything we do. When the Temple was destroyed, this spiritual light and the precious clarity of godliness it revealed were destroyed along with it.
On Tisha B’Av, we are not mourning over a building. We did not simply lose a great work of architecture. The Temple reminded us that we are the living sanctuary for the presence of God on earth—God as manifest within us and within the world. God Himself made this clear to Moses, when He directed the Israelites to build for him a portable Tabernacle—which eventually became a permanent Temple—“Build for Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them.” When the nation of Israel lost touch with this fundamental reason for the Temple’s existence, the Temple was destroyed.
The Jewish oral tradition teaches that when the invaders destroyed the Temple, God said that they only destroyed a building which was already in ruins. The Temple was really the externalization of our inner awareness—our spiritual orientation toward each other and toward God. When we spiritually denied the presence of God within ourselves and within each other, the external manifestation of this truth—the Temple—had no meaning. Therefore, the Temple could not remain standing once the meaning of what it stood for was lost.
Jewish oral tradition also teaches that when the Temple was destroyed the Shechina (the Divine Presence on earth) “departed to heaven,” and now an “iron wall separates the children of Israel from God.” And because of this, there is no laughter before God, the sky is no longer seen in its purity, the taste, fragrance and nourishing quality of fruit has been lost, the enjoyment of sex has been taken away, and God only dwells within the “four cubits of Jewish Law.”
How can we understand this?
The Kabbalah teaches that God is paradoxically both beyond and yet within us and the physical world. He is simultaneously transcendent and immanent. Therefore, although heaven and earth—the spiritual and the physical—are opposites, they are not in opposition. They are one. In addition, the Kabbalah explains that our true inner self, the soul, is godly and therefore we are only attracted to, and derive ultimate pleasure from, the godliness within the physical world and within each other. Therefore, the more we are in touch with ourselves as souls, the more we are attuned to the godliness within the physical, the more sensual we become and the more pleasure we experience.
The presence of the Temple and the message it conveyed expressed this mystical truth about God and ourselves. However, when the nation of Israel—the very caretakers of the Temple—negated this truth, the Temple lost its true meaning and then, inevitably, it was destroyed.
Therefore, we are taught that when the Temple was destroyed the Shechina “departed to heaven.” In other words, the destruction of the Temple means that we perceive God as transcendent and removed from us and the physical world. We now feel an “iron wall” separating us from godliness. And because we have disconnected ourselves and the physical world from God, everything seems so trivial; we have lost the ability to truly laugh and enjoy life. The sky has lost its heavenly luster and can no longer be seen in its purity. We have numbed our taste buds and lost our true sensuality, which only derived from the soul’s awareness of the presence of God within the physical. Therefore the taste, fragrance and nourishing quality of fruit is lost. Even sexual pleasure is gone. Now, unfortunately, we can only find God within the confines of matters addressed by Torah law—which is why Torah study is so important to many—when in truth, His splendorous presence also fills the entire world.
In other words, with the destruction of the Temple our sensitivity to the Divine presence within this world and within each other was almost totally lost, and with it, the ultimate vitality and true pleasures of life and love.
Therefore, on Tisha B’Av, we do not cry over real estate but over our real and sad state as a people. The physical Temple can exist only when we are the living sanctuary for the presence of God and acknowledge that presence within each other and within the world.
Practically, if I really felt that you were a sanctuary—that within you dwells a spirit of godliness—then I would treat you like I should treat God. Not only would I say “hello” to you, I would say it with such joy, such excitement and love that you would be reminded of the godly soul that you are.
When we forget the godliness in ourselves, in others and in the world—when we do not make ourselves and our daily lives into a sanctuary to receive God’s presence—then buildings do not make any difference. How many synagogues can we enter today and feel the presence of God? In how many synagogues can we truly feel we are learning Torah, really praying, sincerely welcoming and inviting each other and God into our lives?
The Talmud says that every generation that does not witness the rebuilding of the Temple is considered as if it had destroyed the Temple. Simply, if we do not merit having the Temple, then it is an indication that we continue to shut out the presence of God from ourselves and from the world. We must transform ourselves into a living sanctuary for God before the Temple in Jerusalem can be rebuilt.