The rabbis taught that when one builds a house, a small corner should be left unwhitewashed. “Leave a bit undone,” the Talmud and the law codes all remind us. At the moments of our greatest joy — such as weddings, building a new house, making jewelry or just having a festive meal — we leave something absent, an acknowledgement of loss and sadness. We remember we are not, individually or as a people, whole. There is something missing.
The Book of Psalms reminds us of the grief and despair that accompanied the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem and the Jewish people’s exile to Babylonia. “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, as we remembered Zion…How can we sing a song to G-d in this strange land?” (Psalm 137)
Growing up as a Reform Jew, I knew nothing of Tisha B’Av, the fast day commemorating the loss of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, much less the minor fast days. What need had we of mourning, when we are so free to be Jewish, to act Jewish, in these United States? Why would we want to go back to a system of sacrificing animals to G-d when we can pray instead?
These are good objections.
But then I wrote my rabbinic thesis on Tisha B’Av and the minor fast days in the Tur and Bet Yosef (an early law code and commentary). I began to see the beautiful skill with which the rabbis had created, especially, Tisha B’Av. They took pieces of the laws of Yom Kippur (fasting, not wearing leather shoes, no anointing, no sex) and wove them together with rituals of mourning. We deny ourselves certain pleasures on Tisha B’Av, just as on Yom Kippur, but the tone of the day is completely different.
On Yom Kippur, we afflict ourselves, safe in the knowledge that by the end of the day, we, if we try, will be made right with G-d, be given a chance to start again, freshly embraced by one another and the Holy One of Blessing. On Tisha B’Av, we are as mourners, weeping over that which will never be whole again. We sit on the ground to read Eicha/the Book of Lamentations. We do not great each other, just as one traditionally does not speak to a mourner first. Traditionally, one should not even study Torah (aside from the sad parts!). And on Tisha B’Av, we find room to declare our losses — historically and personally. No one is whole.
I still have no desire to resume sacrifices in a rebuilt third Temple. And yet, on Tisha B’Av and the minor fasts, I fast. I mourn.
It was genius of the rabbis to create liturgical space in which to be sad. A time to pause and note that the world is imperfect, and I, as an individual, am also lacking. There is no one who does not have loss.
Those of us with mental health struggles feel this keenly. I hate being depressed on Purim or Simchat Torah; I feel so out of step with my people. Everyone looks so happy, and I feel at a distance from that joy, from that experience of laughing and dancing and celebrating life. Some years, I find my inner exultation; some years, I dance with tears; some years, I don’t even make it to shul.
But Tisha B’Av is a time to come forward with our pain. The First Temple was destroyed, the rabbis taught, because of the sins of idolatry and sexual wrongs; the Second Temple, because of senseless hatred. And people today suffer because of other people’s ignorance, because of thoughtlessness and exclusion. We do not open our arms to those who are different, and we forget one can never know someone else’s journey, their pain. We act with judgment, not kindness.
All this we mourn on Tisha B’Av. I mourn not a system of sacrificing animals as a way to be close to G-d; I mourn the idea of the Temple. It was never true that all Israel showed up on the pilgrimage festivals (Peach, Shavuot, Sukkot), but the idea that we would is a powerful one. One of the names of the sacrifices in the Temple was a “korban.” The root of that word is Karov, “to draw near.” The animals were never the point; coming close to G-d was. I grieve for the loss of a center for the Jewish people, where we gathered together, peacefully, to celebrate. I long for communal wholeness.
Could we build a symbolic third Temple? Not necessarily of brick and stone, but one of kindness and inclusiveness. As many have noted, we need an era of “ahavat kinam/אהבת קינם” of senseless love and embrace of one another.
It is traditional to face Jerusalem when one prays; if you are in Jerusalem, the mitzvah is to face the Temple itself. In practice, this results in Jews the world over not just looking for a Temple long destroyed but, essentially, looking at one another. What would it mean if we actually saw one another, in all our differences, in all our splendor?
Jerusalem, and the Temple, are not just physical spaces; they are emotional ones as well. Psalm 137 cries out: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand lose its cunning; let my tongue speak to my palate if I cease to thing of you, if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour.”
Each person is created in the image of G-d; each of us is a unique version of the Divine, walking our own paths, seeking the good. We do not agree on so many things (and this is a good thing!!), but when we open our eyes to the tzelem Elohim/the image of G-d in every person, we create safe space for everyone. “Bring your joys,” such acceptance would say, “and bring your tears.” Together we can mourn our losses and then help one another to rise up again, finding happiness in community.
And there, in the center of this circle, in this worldwide congregation, we may indeed find another Bet HaMikdash, a House of Holiness, wherein G-d dwells. We will find the Holy One not in a building but in a community. That is worth our hope, and that can be our dream.
This Tisha B’Av (or Shabbat or festival or any day, really), remember what we lost — a center for our community, a place to be near Gd. And then, seeing the imperfect world for what it is, we can rebuild.
Rabbi Sandra Cohen works in mental health outreach in religious communities across North America, as well as teaching rabbinic texts in a variety of contexts from her home in Denver.