The bleakest fast of the Hebrew calendar is on the ninth of Av, Tisha B’Av, commemorating the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem (in 586 BCE, and 70 CE). We begin preparing ourselves to feel the enormity of the loss three weeks before, from the 17th of Tammuz, with a sunrise-to-sunset fast on the date the Roman armies breached the wall around Jerusalem. Then, from the 17th of Tamuz until Tisha B’Av, Jewish law ordains a moratorium on all group festivities, with no haircuts, no shaving (although some may continue to shave until the beginning of Av) or listening to music.
A world without compassionate righteousness and just morality is a world that cannot endure.
What is it about the loss of the Temple that engenders such national mourning? I would submit that the Holy Temple was inextricably intertwined with our national mission: to be God’s witnesses, and thereby serve as a light unto the nations, bringing humanity to the God of justice, morality and peace. Our prophets saw the Temple 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 and just morality is a world that cannot endure.
When Jacob leaves his ancestral home, fleeing Esau’s wrath, and dreams his dream at Beth El, he envisions a ladder rooted in the earth and reaching up to the heavens — a veritable Holy Temple. Jacob identifies the ladder as “the house of God, at the gates of the heavens,” and Rashi, citing the Talmudic sages, insists that the ladder extended to the Temple Mount.
In the Book of Exodus, at the Song of the Sea, the Israelites sing of being brought to and planted within the Temple Mount, when the Temple of the Lord will be prepared by divine hands, and the Lord will reign throughout the world. And when King Solomon dedicates the Temple in Jerusalem, he beseeches G-d 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).
The second chapter of Isaiah 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 G-d of love, morality, compassion and peace.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chief rabbi of Efrat.