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Jewish World Review July 24, 2007 / 9 Menachem-Av 5767

Why Do We Still Mourn?

By Rabbi Pinchas Stolper

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A Tisha B'Av reflection on the centrality of Jerusalem in our lives

http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | A story is told that in the 1930s, the world-renowned tzaddik (saint and scholar), the Chofetz Chaim, received a letter from a Jewish soldier who had been drafted into the Polish army. The soldier related that he was assigned to a remote base where there were no Jewish soldiers, no religious services, no kosher food and where it was impossible to observe the Sabbath or fulfill any of Judaism's duties. His question to the Chofetz Chaim: "How do I survive as an observant Jew in this forsaken place?"

The reply of the Chofetz Chaim is awesome: "If it is impossible for you to observe Sabbath, kosher laws, or to pray or to fulfill religious duties [mitzvos], don't be discouraged. There is one thing you can and must do. Whenever you have a free moment, speak to G-d, and whenever you speak to G-d, face east. Why face east? Because you will be directing your thoughts to Jerusalem. In so doing, you will reunite yourself with the Jewish People and with G-d. In fact, whenever a Jew faces Jerusalem in prayer — he or she is in Jerusalem." The Jew may not be in Jerusalem — but Jerusalem is always in him.

Most Jews in some way participate in a Passover Seder and observe Yom Kippur. The most dramatic moments of the Yom Kippur service occur just as the day is about to end. At the conclusion of this most sacred day, a long shofar blast is sounded, to which the congregation responds, "Next year in Jerusalem." The very same hope is expressed at the end of the Passover Seder. This is not a coincidence.

For many Jews, the wedding ceremony concludes with the singing of the phrase, "If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget how to function." Then a glass is broken by the groom as a symbolic gesture of grief, so that even at their happiest moment, the newly married couple recalls the destruction of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple. This is in keeping with the next verse, "Let my tongue stick to my palate if I remember you not, if I set not Jerusalem above my greatest joy." Synagogues around the world are built facing Jerusalem. Why is there so much emphasis on remembering Jerusalem in our lives?

To the world at large, the history of Jerusalem opens with its conquest by King David. For the Jew, Jerusalem is the place where man was created. Jerusalem is the city of King Malkizedek, the city in which Abraham, Isaac and Jacob worshipped, the city chosen by G-d to radiate direction and spiritually to all mankind. Jerusalem is the gateway through which all of mankind's prayers rise to heaven. Jerusalem is the place where the Shechinah, the very presence of G-d, is felt more intensely than anywhere else on earth.

To the average Jew, numerous questions arise: What is the source of Jerusalem's uniqueness? Why is Jerusalem the only city mentioned in our prayers? What is the source of its holiness, the mystery of its origin? Why can G-d's Temple be located on this spot and nowhere else? Why is Jerusalem's status and destiny of such deep concern to scores of nations around the globe? Why is the Temple of such momentous importance? Why does a Jew feel that a world without the Jerusalem Temple is a world alienated and desolate?

If you visit Jerusalem today, you will be moved by its beauty, its expanse, its bursting population, its thousands of Torah scholars and its scores of yeshivas. There is once again more kedushah, holiness, to be found in Jerusalem than in any other spot on earth. Jerusalem is teeming with Jewish life and with Torah. Why, then, do we still mourn its destruction?

The answer to these questions is to be found in our three daily prayers for Jerusalem. During the past 2,000 years, Jews have prayed, "Blessed are You, eternal G-d, Who is building Jerusalem." This prayer, which is in the present tense, was recited through the past 2,000 years of exile, even as Jerusalem lay destroyed and desolate. Why?

The Jerusalem Talmud makes an astounding statement: "The generation in which the Beis Hamikdash, the Holy Temple, is not rebuilt is to be regarded as though the Holy Temple was destroyed in that generation." The explanation is simple. When we mourn for the Holy Temple, we are not mourning for a building that was destroyed 2,000 years ago. Our mourning must be directed to the realization that each generation is obligated to rebuild the Holy Temple and that our failure to do so has little to do with politics, the debate over who has control over the Temple Mount, or the threat of the Arab nations to go to war if we disturb the mosques that sit atop the Temple Mount. The Holy Temple will be rebuilt when a sufficient number of Jews make a commitment to change their lives. When will the Messiah come? As the Torah says, "Today, if you hearken to My voice."

Jerusalem is the beating heart of Jewish life. It is literally the eye of the universe; it is the one spot on earth where the presence of G-d is most evident and most concentrated. It is from Jerusalem that human fulfillment and the ultimate Redemption will flow. In Jerusalem, the messiah will reign — and from there he will bring justice and love to a torn world.

Even though modern Jerusalem is a rebuilt and beautiful city, we still mourn because its heart and essence lies in ruins. When we speak of Jerusalem in our prayers, we are speaking of the Temple and its service, of the intensity of G-d's presence in its Holy of Holies and of G-d's anticipated rule over Jerusalem — and over the entire world.

Why Do We Need the Temple?
To what degree do today's Jews actually mourn for the destroyed Jerusalem Temple? Our lives are so rich, both physically and spiritually. We are so content with our families, our homes, our businesses, our pleasures and our prosperity as to make the destruction of the Holy Temple 2,000 years ago somewhat remote and of limited concern. Few people truly mourn for the Temple. Even fewer truly feel the absence of the Shechinah, the Divine Presence. For the rest of us, it is hard to imagine what would be added to the world were the Divine presence to be felt when the Holy Temple is rebuilt on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

In one of the sad poems [Kinos] we recite on Tishah B'Av each year, the famous liturgical poet Rabbi Eliezer Kallir bemoans the absence of the Temple and the Divine presence. He then asks the following question, "What is left for us here, here in this world?" This lament teaches us that both the Temple and the Torah rest on a principle to be found in this one word: here.

The Torah constantly reminds us, "The Torah is not in the heavens, but is very close to us, and its purposes can be accomplished here in this world." The message of Rabbi Eliezer Kallir is that it is not necessary to ascend to the heavens to find spirituality. Now that the Torah has been given, Godliness and spirituality are to be found here on this earth and are accessible to all.

In his famous book, The Kuzari, Rabbi Yehudah Halevi is asked by the king, "Why do other religions offer so many more promises and descriptions of heaven and of the world to come than are to be found in the Torah?" He replies that these religions have no alternative but to emphasize the world after death; in that way, no one can challenge anything they have to say. Also, there is so very little that they can offer in this world. The Torah, however, has no need to delay its promises to the next world. Its emphasis is on this world because it has so much to offer in this world. It can, therefore, afford to speak little about the World to Come. The Torah challenges us to raise this world to perfection, to create the Kingdom of G-d here. It clearly emphasizes G-d's mandate: "I will be your G-d and you will be My people." Here, in this world.

There could be no greater challenge or promise. In many ways, the Holy Temple made this challenge so much easier to grasp and comprehend. In the Holy Temple, it was clear to anyone who entered that the fulfillment of our spiritual yearnings is possible here in this world. In the Temple you could feel the presence of the Shechinah. As the Sages express it: "The Temple is testimony that the Shechinah rests among Israel." It is here that man's dreams, aspirations and hopes can be found and realized. It is here that a person who is troubled and vexed by failure and sin can be transformed. In the Jerusalem Temple, the awareness of G-d's presence was so intense and deep that no one could deny its power.

When the Temple was destroyed, the Shechinah was "like a bird wandering from roof to roof." As a result, we were robbed of the one place on earth where G-d's presence and miracles were obvious and could be felt and seen readily by everyone. We were denied the awesome knowledge that "all of reality is here," because G-d's presence was so apparent to all who entered the Holy Temple's gates.

As the exile progressed, we became increasingly alienated from this basic source of spirituality. The Shechinah seemed more and more remote. Today, many believe that to become intimate with G-d requires the intense study of mystical works such as the Zohar, Kabbalah and the writings of the Arizal. They believe that anyone incapable of mastering these deep studies should despair of achieving intimacy with G-d.

This is not the Jewish approach. To the contrary: A Jew who prepares a kosher meal; who is careful with the laws of hand-washing before the meal; who recites each blessing carefully; who discusses words of Torah during the meal; and who recites the Grace After Meals carefully, with intent — his table is referred to by the Mishnah as "zeh ha'shulchan asher lifnei Hashem, This is a table which is in the presence of G-d."

Even though the Mishnah employs this phrase, even though the Sages teach that every Jew's table can be thought of as an altar, the average person would still ask, "What does eating have to do with the G-d? Isn't He distant and removed from all things in this world?" The average Jew finds it difficult to believe that we can find the Shechinah here in our material world. This feeling of alienation and distance is the inner meaning of the destruction of the Holy Temple.

The Sefer Hayashar says that every person has "days of love and days of hate." When we have love, everything we do seems to happen without any effort at all. But when there is no love, everything is drudgery and seems so much more difficult to accomplish. In our relationship with G-d, there are also days of love, days on which we are pleased with our lives and our accomplishments; days on which our Torah study and mitzvah observance are uplifting and inspiring. On those days, we are happy and pleased with our lives. However, when we feel alienated from G-d, when He seems remote, everything is difficult and nothing seems to succeed.

The essence of our lives should be an effort to live in the presence of G-d — knowing that He is here with us, that He is present in our lives, is the true source of our joy and satisfaction. The moment we no longer feel G-d's presence, the moment we feel that He is displeased with us, everything turns black. We are experiencing the effects of the destruction of the Holy Temple. Contrary to popular thought, when we lament the destruction of the Holy Temple, we do not mourn the absence of an imposing building; the destruction of the Holy Temple is the absence of G-d's presence.

The challenge to the Jew who lives in exile, in the absence of the Holy Temple, is to create G-d's Temple within his own being. The purpose of the Holy Temple was to inspire each individual to become a miniature Holy Temple. We mourn for the Holy Temple to acknowledge that we yearn for G-d's presence to return to our midst.

Working Toward the Goal
A human being is made of body and spirit; each is dependent on the other. Our body's condition influences our thoughts. We feel instinctively that our bodies are capable of responding to spiritual thoughts, to spiritual motivations and aspirations. Our goal must be that our sensitivity to spiritual matters should become as keen as our response to physical pain and pleasure.

In the ideal person, body and soul, matter and spirit function in concert and harmony. In that person, body and soul are integrated and inseparable. In the ideal person, each is given the same attention and care. While few people achieve this, it is crucial that we recognize the goal.

How do we become a force for spirituality? We galvanize our own spiritual potential and affect others when we yearn for greater intimacy with G-d, when we place special emphasis on prayer, and on Torah study, mitzvah observance, ethical conduct, the proper upbringing of our children and the creation of an appropriate Torah environment in our homes. When we possess the vision to spend our time, our means and our creativity on uplifting the People of the Torah, it is then that we become a force for spirituality. As a result of these efforts, we can bring closer the day when the Holy Temple will be restored.

When you sit on a low bench on Tishah B'Av and cry over the destruction of the Holy Temple, pay attention to the fact that the word "eichah" [how] with which the Book of Lamentations begins, can also be read as "ayeka" [Where are you?] through a small change of the vowels. When we mourn for the Temple, the question that is being asked of us is, "Ayeka, Where are you?" Where are you regarding spirituality and commitment? Why have you abandoned the Torah studies of your youth? Why have you become so deeply involved with your career and financial goals, at the expense of your spiritual growth? What have you done to develop your inner self?

This challenge becomes much more poignant for this generation, which has experienced the re-conquest of Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount. It is as though G-d is saying to us: "You have come closer to accomplishing the ultimate goal than at any time during the past 2,000 years. Never before have I brought you so close to that place that has drawn the Jewish heart for centuries. Yet so many Jews are so distant from this holy place that they do not care if the Temple Mount finally belongs to them and they have no concept of the precious Jewish way of life the Torah holds for them. What are you doing to help them discover the wonderful, forgotten heritage that is rightfully theirs?"

We may not yet all live in Jerusalem, but Jerusalem lives in us. Our challenge is to expand the Jerusalem in us so that Jerusalem and its rebuilt Temple will become the spiritual center for all Jews and for all mankind.

Parts of this essay were inspired by Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe.

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Rabbi Pinchas Stolper is the author, most recently, of Living Beyond Time The Mystery and Meaning of the Jewish Festivals, from where this essay was adapted. (To purchase a copy, click on the link. Sales help fund JWR.) To comment, please click here.

© 2007, Mesorah Publications, Ltd.