A Day of Mourning for the Temple
Today in the Jewish calendar is Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month Av.
And what is so special about that? Well, a number of the greatest tragedies in Jewish history happened on this day – at least according to tradition. The destruction of both the first and the second Temple happened on this day, as well as the Jewish city of Betar being conquered with the death of tens of thousands Jews, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and the beginning of WWI are among several tragic things happening on this day.
Therefore the day has been made a day of mourning, where we fast, repent our sins and ask G-D for forgiveness. It is forbidden to participate in any joyful happenings, since it is considered inappropriate.
And though there are many things we can relate to today, I will only relate to the Temple for now.
I woke up quite early this morning. Slept terrible, which I was supposed to do. We have a tradition to sleep on the floor, or at least lay less comfortable than usually, as well as sitting directly on the floor or very low chairs.
I had been kept awake both from the heat and neighbors, who did not take this day too serious. A fast and a day or mourning is not that easy to relate to, even if being in Israel, when it is unbearable warm and humid and it isn’t all who think that it is a particular sad day, besides the bleak faces of the religious. And if one already has a hard time with them, then the bleak faces doesn’t help much.
I probably should being with yesterday evening, since the day begins with nightfall according to Jewish tradition. And yesterday was the beginning of the day witnessing the Temple being sat ablaze, after the Romans had laid siege to Jerusalem for three weeks.
“THE TEMPLE IS ON FIRE!” Ya’aqov stumbled through the door and disturbed the praying. “The Temple is on fire! They have put the Temple on fire!”.. Turmoil began, people couldn’t believe it. Shmuel Aryeh ben Avraham stood in the back of the room and couldn’t comprehend it. The Temple on fire? How? The Temple can’t be on fire, Beyt HaMiqdash, the Holiest of Holies? The men poured out on the street. Even though he saw the flames from the Temple, Shmuel Aryeh still couldn’t believe it. Shim’on pulled his shirt: “What should we do?”, as if Shmuel Aryeh knew it. They ran towards the Temple, but shortly before the stairs to the Temple Mount they were stopped by some Roman soldiers. “Turn around Jews, we’ve already seen enough of your blood, do you also want to die for your invisible god?”
He was starring at them listlessly, then at the Temple. On the dead bodies laying shattered at the top of the stairs, the fire rising from the roof of the Temple, laughing Romans dragging spoils from the Temple. Then he realized it, the Temple is burning! He cried loudly and tore his clothes. “Lamah? Lamah Sabaqtanu?”
I don’t know how I would have reacted, had I been in Jerusalem back then. Had I gone amok and attacked the Roman soldiers? Had I broken down and become inactive? Or had I thought about what was said by Yohanan bar Zakkai, Z”L, sometime before this, and had reminded myself that he had seen this coming? Would I have run back to my home in order to get my wife and kids, to pack some few things so we could flee to Yavneh, which would become the Jewish religious capital the coming many years? Or would I have done something completely else?
We met in the synagogue quarter past seven and began the evening prayer. It was pretty captivating and I had to experience myself sitting and crying by the thoughts of the catastrophe. Especially the Temple was in focus in my thoughts, and I thought about the first time I saw the Western Wall, the Kotel. I was almost disappointed, a wall being so huge in the Jewish conscience wasn’t even half as big as I had expected. Not that is isn’t big – and actually much bigger than I first thought, when I saw it the first time – twenty meters tall, and twenty meters more underground, which can be seen by a visit in a tunnel going parallel with the wall, where it is possible to see a gate leading into what once was part of the Temple.
Back to the service. It lasted for around forty five minutes, after which people went to their own places. I returned to my apartment to get some sleep. As said, it wasn’t much sleep I got.
I woke early, already a few minutes after seven. Said Modeh Ani, where I give thanks to G-D for letting my soul return. Washed my hands, said the preliminary prayers, and then went to the synagogue.
“Shmuel.. Shmuel..” Shmuel Aryeh looked up. His head was covered with ashes, which only emphasized the frightening look of his face, after having sat all night without sleep, being praying and crying for answers. Ya’el got a chock when she looked into his eyes. Without any expressions in them, completely empty. The same eyes which always were smiling when they looked into hers. The same eyes, which made her feel like a young girl, when he hold her into him smiling. Now without live in them after a night without answers. Shim’on and another man, which she didn’t know, had brought him back the evening before. She was in despair from all that she had heard, but also relieved when she saw that he still was alive. Gershom didn’t understand anything of what was happening, but he was also only three years old. He had begun to cry when he saw his father, and Ya’el had to sit with him till late night, before he finally fell asleep. Fortunately Miryam had left to stay with her uncle and aunt before the siege.
“Shmuel, we have to do something.. We can’t just stay here..” He looked at her without emotions. Did he even hear her? “Shmuel..” his eyes blinked, he knotted and rose up. He hadn’t slept, so he skipped the first prayers. “Ya’el, I have to see it again.. I can’t believe it..” Ya’el looked at him, eyes beseeching him; “Shmuel, what about Gershom? We have to get out of the city, while we still can..” He looked down at the ground and nod. Life comes first. But to where? Yavneh? He thought about Rav ben Zakkai. No, first to Ya’el’s family in Beyt Lehem. Ya’el was packing some things, and Shmuel Aryeh began to help her. Apparently he had put his Tallit away some time during the night, and he wasn’t sure when so he said the blessing over it. “Praised are You, G-D, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us and commanded us to cover us with the prayer shawl.” Ya’el looked at him, while he covered himself in Tallit. She couldn’t help but feel compassion for him, having left all he had, to become a part of her people and create a life among them. And now he had lost all that.
When they had packed the most necessary things they left the house. Ya’el carrying Gershom, who fortunately was too tired to make any troubles, and Shmuel Aryeh carrying the few belongings they brought with them. They followed the stream of people, who like themselves had decided to leave the city. At the city gate Shmuel Aryeh stopped and looked back towards the Temple, or to be more precise, the ruins of the Temple. He almost start crying when looking at the Temple, and thought on whether he would ever see the Temple and Jerusalem again..
What would one think in this situation? I can’t stop wondering whether my faith in G-D would have been intact at this time. Would I have blamed Him and renounced Him in despair? Would I have blamed ourselves and believed that this was the punishment for something yet not clear? Would I have been able to praise G-D in such a situation? I don’t know. It is too easy to say that I – in this situation – would have acted heroic or stayed loyal.
The beginning of the service went as most other services went, though with the difference that we don’t wear Tallit and Tefillin until later this day. We started with the introductory prayers, got to the Shma’ – our creed of faith recited twice daily, and which Shmuel Aryeh had to recite on his way to Beyt Lehem – after the Shma’, the ‘Amidah and after that the reading of the Torah, for then to finish with the concluding prayers. Then we reached the special moment, the Prayers of Mourning and the reading of Iyov, which lasted around half the service, which lasted two hours in total. Two hours feeling rather long, when sitting on the floor and being way too tired. But they are beautiful hymns, though sad, which captivates.
I have to admit that I allowed my thoughts wander to Jerusalem. I’m going there as often as possible to pray at the Kotel. Most often I descent from the right side, from the Jewish quarter, having a wonderful view over the plaza in front of the Wall, and both the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque.
I have to admit that I hate the fact that the Dome is there. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate the Dome in itself, on the contrary, I find it beautiful, but it is situated exactly where the Temple stood – at least according to Jewish tradition – and it reminds me of what we have lost, and what we are lacking, every time I see it. A Muslim construction on the most holy Jewish place in the world. It might be part of why the Kotel also is known as the Wailing Wall, though it mostly are non-Jews using this term, influenced by Jews who stood crying by the Wall and prayed for forgiveness, no wonder the Wall got that name; the Wailing Wall of the Jews.
It is a weird wall. Besides being as old as it is, it is amazingly well maintained and impressive. But that’s that, “just” an antique wall from the time of the Romans. Or that how it seems until you touch it. Until I touch it. I don’t know if I’m just rather sensitive or if there indeed is something about the wall, but I am always VERY touched by standing beside it and pray. It is the heart, the center of the world. Zion, the focus of Jewish prayer through so many thousands of years.
I’m looking forward to the day we will be rebuilding the Temple. I’m praying to see the day every day. But I realize and understand that it isn’t in our hands, it is solely up to G-D to send Moshiah, so he can begin the restoration of the Temple. And until that day I have to live with seeing the Dome of the Rock being there, when I go to Jerusalem to pray.
May G-D let us see complete peace soon.