On the Ninth of Av, nearly two thousand years ago, we lost far more than a beautiful edifice.
The renowned composer, Chopin, was a fervently patriotic Pole. During his lifetime, he witnessed the conquest of Poland by the Russian Army, and was crushed. He could not bear the sight of the Russian flag waving in the breeze over the royal palace of the former sovereigns of his native land. The Russian soldiers who filled the streets were an anathema to his Polish soul. He could not bring himself to suffer the Russian tongue that now was now the language of all official documents.
Even greater was his loathing for those of his compatriots who did not share his loathing for the Russian conquerors. How could they remain so passive? How could they so easily make peace with the defeat of their mother-land?
He left the soil of Poland, together with the nobles and military leaders who dreamt of better times, when their native land would again be free.
However, the composer was in for a rude awakening. He soon realized that he alone continued to dream of Polish independence. The other exiles made peace with their new circumstances, and continued to indulge in the pleasures and indulgences which had filled their days in their native land. The fact that Chopin continued to harp on their national tragedy made him something of a nuisance in their eyes. Eventually he too declared, “Poland, you are lost!”
One evening, he was walking along a street in the Jewish quarter, and passed near the synagogue. The building was only dimly lit up, but he heard voices within. His curiosity was piqued, and he drew nearer. He heard mournful tones, and the sound of weeping. His heart pounding in alarm, he peered in through a window, to see who could be shedding tears and moaning so in an empty building?
A lone candle lit up the scene within. He was astounded to discover that the synagogue was full, from wall to wall. But why was everyone sitting on the floor? Why the darkness, and the air of bereavement?
In the center of the room he could see an elderly Jew, seated on the floor, like all the others. In one hand he held a candle, in the other, a scroll from which he was chanting in mournful tones. His voice captured centuries of suffering; the soulful melody of his chant was punctuated with sighs and moans from the rest of the congregation.
Of course, the Polish composer understood not a word of the reader, but the sight touched his innermost soul. The entire congregation was there, sitting in the darkness, listening to the mournful tones of the reader. He was moved to tears by the sight.
Time stood still for him as he stared, entranced, through the synagogue window. The white-haired reader fell silent, and the congregation burst out in a tearful recitation of a lamentation that shook his soul.
Chopin remained glued to the window, unable to tear himself away from this deep outpouring of emotion that bewildered him.
After some time, the men fell silent. Slowly, they rose to their feet and filed silently out of the synagogue. As they made their way down the stairs toward the street, he noticed that they had no shoes on their feet, only stockings.
He stopped a small group as they passed him by, and asked: “What was this? What were you doing together, there in the dark? What does it all mean?”
One of the men looked up at him, his eyes wide with the sorrow in his broken heart. “Our Temple was destroyed,” he said in a low voice. “We were driven out of our land, into exile.”
Chopin was shocked. He had never heard of the Jews having their own country, nor of any wars they had waged to defend it. “What?” he asked, in wonder. “When did all this take place?”
“About a thousand seven hundred years ago,” answered another Jew. “The Temple was destroyed on this very day, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av.”
Chopin was stunned. “A thousand seven hundred years ago?” He could not believe his ears. “And you still remember it, and mourn over it?”
The stocking-footed Jews merely nodded softly. They saw nothing particularly remarkable in the information they had just given the inquirer. Chopin, however, was incredulous. “If that is so – you are still commemorating your loss with such profound feelings of mourning, one thousand seven hundred years after you went into exile, then the Jewish People shall surely return to its homeland!” declared the composer. “The people of Poland should take a lesson from the Jews about how to mourn the loss of their homeland!”
This is how the Ninth of Av looks in the eyes of a Polish patriot. The truth be told, Chopin did not really grasp the significance of the fast and the mourning he observed. The Jewish people did not mourn for 1700 years (today, the correct figure is over 1900 years) only over the loss of its sovereignty as an independent nation.
The historical fact is that it had lost its sovereignty to Rome more than a hundred years before the destruction of the Second Temple, when Pompeii moved his armies into the Land of Israel, and set up a puppet government under a nominal ruler, Hyrcanus. The country became the Roman province of Judea, ruled by the Roman government based in Caesarea, who enforced their rule with the help of a strong military force whose presence was constantly felt throughout the country.
In Jerusalem itself, the Romans had a stronghold, named Antiochia, located right next to the Temple. From this vantage point, the Romans exercised military control over all the proceedings on the Temple Mount.
The rebellion against the Roman’s despotic rule of the land was repressed brutally by the iron hand of the Roman government. The only Jewish stronghold, Jerusalem, was protected by three walls surrounding the city. The Roman legions laid siege to the city for two and a half years.
On the 10th of Teves, in the winter, the Romans first succeeded in opening a breach in the outermost wall. The defenders of Jerusalem withdrew and set up their defenses within the second wall, where they managed to stand off the most powerful army in the world for another half a year. On the 17th of Tammuz, the second wall was breached. The enemy burst into the city and butchered every living soul they could lay a hand and a sword upon. The rebellion had failed, and the price the defeated Jews paid was prodigious. Hundreds of thousands were slaughtered, and even more sold as slaves.
The few remaining fighters barricaded themselves on the Temple Mount, which fell three weeks later, on the Ninth of Av. It was on the 17th of Tammuz that the revolt was for all intents and purposes finally defeated, marking the loss of the last chance for political independence.
However, it is the Ninth of Av which is the height of our mourning — the day when we fast around the clock, when we spend the better part of the morning reading the Book of Lamentations, (Eicha) and reciting kinos, liturgical stanzas recounting the tragedies that befell us and pleading with G-d to take mercy on us and to renew our former spiritual greatness. On this day, we humble ourselves before our Maker by sitting on the ground, and not wearing leather footwear, as we seek His forgiveness for our sins, which caused His Sanctuary to be razed to the ground.
The Holy Temple was the soul of the Jewish People. Our national consciousness never forgets the fact that we have lost it, that it is no longer there. Every prayer we utter, three times a day in the synagogue, or when reciting grace after meals, we renew our pleas that it be restored: “… and deal mercifully with the great House which was called by Your Name.”
What was the Sanctuary? Words cannot fully describe the role it played in the life of the Jewish nation.
To what can it be likened? If we were to be asked, “What is a human being?” we might come up with something of an answer. Yet, no matter how many words we might use, no matter what poetic or powerful prose we might pen in reply, all of them truthful accurate and correct, our description would surely not succeed in doing justice to the amazing creation that is Man.
For all our efforts, we will do justice to a waxen figure from Madame Tussaud’s famous collection, or to a well-sculpted image of a famous painter, but not more than that.
Why is that so?
Because what is special and unique about man is his soul, a spiritual quality which words cannot capture. His talents, his emotions, his visions and his hopes, cannot be conveyed by mere words or descriptions.
Similarly, the Temple was an architectural masterpiece, but its walls, with all their gold and marble, were only the outer shell of its essence, for G-d’s presence dwelt within it.
Because of our spiritual shortcomings, the Temple was taken from us. It was destroyed, because of our sins, and ever since, we have known no peace. Every fresh calamity that befalls us is a reminder that our Temple is no more. In the past, the sanctity of the Temple radiated on the entire nation, and we were protected. A visit to the Sanctuary in Jerusalem helped us to get in touch again with our souls rather than experience life merely on the physical plane. It was like a taste of Eden, renewable from time to time by visiting the holiest place in this physical world, the spot where Heaven and earth come together, meet, and mingle.
Each and every erosion of our souls constitutes another prompting: “You need the Temple, to atone for your sins, to rebuild the sanctity of your soul and cleanse it thoroughly.”
When the day comes that we are found worthy, G-d will restore the Temple to us as of old, and Israel will again be a “a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation,” as G-d wills that we be. For, at that time, He will rebuild not only its walls and all that was within it, but He will also cause His Presence to dwell amongst us once more, and all the universe will know that we are His people, and He is our G-d.