Another year has gone by, that the redemption and the mashiach (messiah), for which we long and pray, are not yet here. The Temple Mount is still in ruins, and again, we sit and mourn during the Three Weeks, from the 17th of Tammuz through the 9th of Av.
As we progress through the three weeks of mourning, our outer expressions of our sorrow gain momentum. From the seventeenth of Tammuz up to the beginning of the month of Av, we observe only partial mourning. With the onset of Av, our mourning is intensified somewhat. Again, during the week of the ninth of Av, we restrain ourselves even more. Our mourning culminates in the full-day fast observed on the Ninth of Av.
Actually, our expressions of bereavement are not restricted to these three weeks alone. All year long, the entrance to our homes bears a Zecher Lechurban, a reminder of the destruction of the Temple, in the form of an area of one wall which we leave unpainted. When celebrating a couple’s engagement, we break a plate to recall our loss, so long ago. At the wedding, we place ashes on the head of the groom, and break a small glass to recall our momentous loss, even as we wish the young couple “Mazel Tov!” All these customs share a common purpose: to perpetuate in our hearts the memory of the Temple we so tragically lost, long ago.
Obviously, had we lived at the time of the actual destruction of the Temple, our whole attitude would have been different. No one questions the fact that the contemporaries of the Temple in its destruction experience far more pain that do we, who mark its loss only from the 17th of Tammuz until the fast of the Ninth of Av. As each year passes and increases the time gap between us and the events of the ninth of Av, so, too, does it become more and more difficult to truly mourn.
Rabbi Moshe Iserles, also known by the acronym, the Remoh, recounts in his volume titled Toras Ha’olah, that Plato once visited Jerusalem together with Nebuchadnezzar, the ruler of Babylon, who razed the Temple to the ground.
After the Sanctuary had been completely destroyed, Plato passed by the Temple mount, and came upon the prophet Jeremiah, seated on the ground, weeping and mourning. Plato was astonished. “How can you, the great and wise prophet, shed tears over the loss of a structure of wood and stone? What benefit is there in weeping? The Temple has already been destroyed! It is not fitting for a man of wisdom to cry over the past.”
The prophet replied, “Do you never have philosophical quandaries for which you can find no solution?”
Plato answered, “indeed, I have many doubts and questions, which no one in the world can resolve.”
Jeremiah said to the Greek: “Present them to me, and I shall resolve them for you.”
And so it was. Plato put his questions to the prophet, who readily furnished answers to them all.
Plato was overwhelmed. Was this indeed a man of flesh and blood? It did not seem possible to him that so much wisdom might be contained in a mere human being. He stood there for some time, unable to speak.
“You are surprised,” the prophet said to Plato. Let me tell you that all this wisdom I have drawn forth from these stones and timbers! That is the answer to your first question, why I am weeping for something made of mere stone and wood!”
The answer to Plato’s second question, why we weep over the past, is also straightforward. We are not crying about the past, but about the future. G-d has promised us that the gates of Heaven can always be opened by tears, no matter how firmly they have been swung closed. We are confident that our tears will eventually earn us the rebuilding of the Temple and the restoration of all the benefits we reaped from it long ago.
The prophet’s tears demonstrate how his generation related to the burning of the House of G-d. So long as the Sanctuary stood, the Jewish People lived on an elevated spiritual level unlike anything they have known since. A spirit of holiness permeated the nation, so that they understood life differently, on a higher plane.
As we find it described in the Book of Lamentations, “Her king and her princes are exiled in the nations, there is no Torah.” (Malkah vesoreho bagoyim…)
From the time we went into exile, the fountains of spiritual wisdom have been partially sealed off from us. When we pray for the restoration of the Temple, asking that “the Temple be rebuilt speedily, in our days,” we continue with the request “… and grant our portion in your Torah.” When the Temple will again be standing in Jerusalem, the gates of wisdom will once again open wide.
Why, then, is our generation not overcome with a yearning for the renewal of our sublime status as a nation, just as we experienced in the time of the Sanctuary?
To understand the answer, let us consider for a moment the behavior of a wild animal that has been trapped and caged. Even after it has tested all the walls and fences that restrain it, the animal will never stop trying to escape and regain its freedom. It never makes peace with its new circumstances. No matter how long it has been in captivity, it continues to yearn for the freedom it has lost, and will take advantage of every opportunity that presents itself to attempt to escape.
Not so, a wild animal that is born into captivity. Such a deer or bear or cougar never knew the wilds, and has no longing to return to the open field or forest.
Our situation can be compared to that of the beasts born into captivity. We have known only exile, only life among the nations who serve temporarily as our willing or unwilling hosts. Had we even seen the Sanctuary with our own eyes, or at least heard of it from our parents or grandparents, firsthand, we, too, might be filled with the longing that brought the prophet to tears. Our mourning for our loss would be of an entirely different nature, for we would know what it is that we wish to experience once again.
However, such is not the case. Nearly two thousand years have gone by since our present exile began; for us, it is a difficult challenge to attain the level of those who truly lament the loss of the spiritual heights which were once the exclusive right of the Jewish nation, by merit of that Holy Temple on the mount in Jerusalem and served as the focal point of their service the One whose Presence dwelt therein.