The first step in solving a problem may be defining it.
They sat there, a cluster of yeshiva students gathered around a dignified older man, and drank in every word. Reb Chayim was speaking about the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and the subsequent exile. They were discussing The Three Weeks, the days of mourning, when we recall our anguish over what was once ours, and is no longer. They spoke of Jerusalem and its destruction at the hands of its enemies, the hundreds of thousands who were slain, and even greater numbers who were sent into an exile that has stretched out over nearly two millennia.
“Ever since then, the rabbi told them, "we Jews continue to mourn over our loss; we refuse to be consoled.”
They tried to internalize what they were hearing, to relate to it on a personalize basis, and make it a part of themselves, something they could feel in their hearts, not just hear about. But it didn’t work.
One of them spoke up, expressing what they all felt:
“But look, Rebbe, today we do have Jerusalem. It’s ours, not theirs. Hundreds of thousands of people live there! It’s full of life, almost like it was back in those days, before it fell to the Romans. How can we cry over the churban, when right here before our eyes, we see a major metropolis that is thriving and throbbing with life? What is there to cry about?”
Another young man spoke up:
“There’s even more to it than that; when I hear about the way the battles were fought during the War of Liberation in 1948, and the Six Day War in 1967, my heart is full of joy, not tears. Look what we gained! The Old City was wrested out the hands of the Arabs by its loving sons. I’m thrilled! What is there to mourn about?”
Rather than answering directly, the teacher started telling a story:
Nearly two thousand years ago, there were once two brothers living in Israel, Yochanan and Isaac. Yochanan, lived in Jerusalem, in a small house, somewhat cramped, but he was always happy and good-hearted. From the windows of his home, he could see the Temple rising high above the city. He was close enough to see the priests at their various tasks, hurrying from place to place.
Yochanan also watched the Levites, some of them with their musical instruments, scurrying about, or stopping to fill their assignments. And always, there was a stream of outsiders, Jews who came to the Temple from near and far. They came to bring their sacrifices and to pray at this holiest spot on the face of the earth.
Yochanan’s house had a small yard around it, with a few fruit trees. He also had a grape vine climbing a trellis, and a few hens that laid eggs for them. He was fond of his home, and would not have exchanged it for the finest palace, for any price.
Then the Roman authorities invaded. He and his family had fled, but the legion burst into his home and spent their anger on whatever they could lay their hands upon. They uprooted his vines and his fruit trees, confiscated his hens, burnt his house. He and his family were caught and sent into exile in a foreign land.
There, on foreign soil, Yochanan wept and wept; he refused to be consoled.
The younger brother, Isaac, lived in the village of Peki'in, in the Galilee. There he had a spacious house built of solid stone. From his windows he had a magnificent view of the majestic mountains of the Galilee, the verdant slopes, and fertile valleys.
His home was surrounded by the large fields, orchards, and vineyards that he cultivated. The olives his trees produced were known for their rich oil, his fruit trees bore heavily, and his livestock made him a wealthy man. Isaac was happy with his lot, and often thanked his Maker that He allowed him to live in comfort, here in the Holy Land.
Then the Roman army attacked, destroyed his home and burnt his fields. Nothing remained of his vineyard, his orchards, his fields of wheat. They confiscated his livestock and exiled him from the land he loved.
Like his older brother, Isaac longed for his native soil. He wept day and night, and refused to be comforted.
Years passed. Both men continued to mourn for their lost homeland. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, each one made his way back to the Land of Israel. Isaac returned to Peki’in, built himself a new house on his land, and set to work preparing the fields for cultivation again. It took him some time, but eventually he was able to sow his fields with crops. He planted trees, and waited for them to mature. With his first profits, he bought new livestock. Slowly but surely, he began to build his life again as it had been before the Romans laid waste to the land.
Each morning, when he rose and looked out the window at the expansive panorama of mountains and valleys, his heart was filled with joy. He thanked his Creator for bringing him back home to the land he loved so dearly, the land he had not dared to hope he would see once more. With the time, the scars in his heart were healed, and he again became content and happy with his lot.
His brother, Yochanan, returned to Jerusalem, and reclaimed his homestead. Like Isaac, he was forced to build his house once again, from the foundations upward. The scorched yard around his home had to be plowed before he could begin to plant anything, but with determination, he succeeded in making the land arable once again. He planted vines and fruit trees, bought hens and made a coop for them. Gradually, he returned to the daily pattern of life that he had known before the destruction, just as his brother, Isaac, had done on his homestead in the Galilee.
But there was one striking difference between the two brothers. Both had reclaimed their property, both had rebuilt their homes and sown their land anew. On the whole, they had much for which to give thanks. So many had died, so many more had gone into exile and not returned, and here they both were, back in their homeland, and living on their own land.
Isaac went about with a smile on his face, but Yochanan was still depressed. Just as it had been when he was in foreign lands, he could not make peace with the Romans’ conquest of the land.
What was wrong? Why was Yochanan inconsolable? He was no longer homeless and hungry; what was he lacking?
As long as he could remember, Yochanan had spent a part of each day gazing out the window toward the Temple Mount and the city below. Even now, in his newly-constructed home, he had purposely built a wide window that looked out over the holiest site known to man. But now, when he gazed at the scene before him, he wept. The tears refused to stay inside; they welled up, unbidden from some inner, hidden fountainhead. As his glance scanned the city he loved so deeply, the salty drops silently rolled down his cheeks.
True, he had his own home once again. True, his hens laid eggs just as they always had, and the vines would soon bear heavy clusters of grapes. The trees he had planted were doing well, and he could look forward to enjoying their fruits, G-d willing.
Why, then, was his heart so heavy within him? Why did the tears well up each time he stopped to gaze out the window?
The Temple was no longer there; the sublime scent of the incense no longer perfumed the air of the entire city; his gaze fell on the charred summit of the Temple Mount, and his heart was crushed within him. Where were the Levites, with their harps and their trumpets? Where were the priests, so dedicated to performing every detail of the service just as it had been done for hundreds of years? Where were the Jews from all walks of life, coming from near and from far, to present their offerings to G-d, to pray to Him, and to thank Him? Where was the Holy City, where Jew and gentile alike came in joyful anticipation to give thanks to their Creator?
The Temple Mount was scorched and desolate, the streets quiet and empty, as though they, too, mourned with him.
Nothing was the same. Jerusalem was still there, in a physical sense. But now, it was a city without a soul. How could he be happy? How could he rejoice?
The Shechinah, the Presence of G-d, which had made this city like none other on earth, was gone.
Who knew when it would return?
Yochanan knew what he was lacking; he knew, and he wept.
All he could do was to weep, and let his tears mingle with the words of his fervent prayer that G-d return to His city and His Sanctuary, speedily, in his lifetime.
Reb Chayim scanned the young, eager faces around him, and paused. He took a deep breath, nodded slowly to himself, and continued: “If we want to reach the level of being able to cry,” he continued, “we must know what we are lacking. We must feel that it is missing in our lives.
"It won't help if it's just as an intellectual fact in our minds; we must experience that lack, feel it in our hearts. We must become a part of Jerusalem, full of light and soul, and then experience the darkness which fell upon her.
“If we know what to hope for, what our aspirations for the future should be, we have already taken a major step forward toward bringing the redemption, to Jerusalem, and to all Israel, and to the entire world.”