Tisha B'Av, Exile, & The Laws of Physics

Astrophysicists understand principles of physics to become “laws” when they can be reliably applied not only on earth but also universally throughout… well, the universe. For instance, the Second Law of Thermodynamics presumes that objects everywhere have an inclination towards entropy and chaos. And a gravitational principle like centrifugal force, which pulls objects away from their center, is considered reliably true.

I wonder about the universality of these principles in relationships and the human soul. Is “entropy and chaos” our destination? Is there a centrifugal force that pushes us apart? Do our lives automatically incline towards distance and exile?

Stay with me, because Tisha B’Av, the most solemn fast day in the Jewish calendar, is upon us. The 9th day of the month of Av has been a magnet for disaster in Jewish history, encapsulated as the date of destruction of both the First and Second Temples of Jerusalem and the subsequent Jewish exiles from the Land of Israel.

The Sages of Jewish tradition confronted the destruction of the Temple (the Beit HaMikdash) and their exile with radical theology. They spiritualized the message of destruction. And this is a point that I think we lose sight of: what Tisha B’Av really tells us about G-d and human beings.

To understand this, we have to understand what the Beit HaMikdash meant. According to Solomon’s dedication prayer for the Temple (in I Kings 8), worship there had several goals: Someone who was wronged could go to plea for divine justice. Israel sought divine assistance there versus her adversaries. Prayers were offered for relief in times of natural disaster or epidemic. Individuals sought forgiveness for their sins. And it was a place for non-Israelites as well: Solomon asserted that God’s House would be a place for anyone who grasped God’s wonders and wanted to share in celebration of them.

There were other innovations. It was not just a place for reconciliation with God; it was also about reconciling with people. There was a “chamber of secrets”—like something out of Harry Potter—where people would give Tzedakah in secret and others would take in secret, to minimize their loss of dignity (M. Shekalim 6:6). There was also a space in the Temple where a person would return lost objects—not just objects lost in the Temple precincts, but things that belonged to others and had been discovered during the year and throughout the countryside; the Temple was a national lost-and-found (Bava Metzia 28a).

In short, “Anyone who never saw the Beit HaMikdash in its constructed state has never seen a magnificent building” (Sukkah, 51a). And I can’t help but think that by “magnificent” they don’t just mean bean beautiful architecture, but ethical beauty.

The Beit HaMikdash was a place for divine-human intimacy. But that could only be achieved in a place of human-human intimacy, a place where people treated one another with the value, respect, and honor deserving of the Image of God.

In 70 BCE, the Romans destroyed the Temple, burned Jerusalem, and exiled the Jews. The Talmud strove to understand how God could let this happen. And it came to a radical conclusion:

Why was the First Temple destroyed? Because of three things: idol worship, sexual immorality, and bloodshed.

However, the Second Temple—a time when people were engaged in Torah study, Mitzvot, and acts of kindness—why was it destroyed? Because of senseless hatred (sinnat hinam).

This teaches us that senseless hatred is worse than idol worship, sexual immorality, and bloodshed. (Yoma 9b)

The Talmud, in Gittin 55b-57a, describes various vignettes and a chain of events that led to the destruction of Jerusalem. The most famous of these scenes is the “Story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza,” where a private dispute turns into the public humiliation of a certain man named Bar Kamtza. His humiliation takes place in front of the ambivalent Rabbis, the leaders of the community, who couldn’t care less about his suffering. It culminates with the understanding that “God destroyed God’s house.”

What is the point of all this? And what is so radical about it?  The Talmud is saying that people in those final days of the Beit HaMikdash were already estranged from one another. They couldn’t talk to one another, they publicly embarrassed one another, and ultimately they failed to see the divine in one another. Once a society reaches this low state, where someone would be publicly humiliated and no one would speak in his defense, then the community is already in exile—and its foundations are rotten. 

The Beit HaMikdash is meant to be the antithesis of Exile. So if the people are already exiled from one another, then the Temple is purposeless and empty. Thus God flicks it away; its reason for being had ceased to exist. The Temple wasn’t destroyed as a punishment per se, as if to say, “Because you sinned, I exiled you.” To the contrary, its message is: I, God, was already in exile from you. So I tossed the Temple away like a used candy wrapper.

The question at the heart of Tisha B’Av is: Are we destined to pull away from one another? Is Exile—the place where each of us is ultimately, fundamentally Alone—the natural movement of our lives? 

There is a centrifugal force that moves people apart from one another; it is exacerbated by selfishness, greed, and a failure to find empathy for people whom we know are hurting. More than that: the Talmud condemns as accomplices the bystanders in the Bar Kamtza story, the ones who didn’t humiliate Bar Kamtza but who didn’t do anything to support him. Bystanders to evil are contributors to its effects. If you do nothing in the face of lies and hurt, then you are part of the forces that are pushing exile deeper.

The only way to counteract exile is to apply a countervailing force. (This was the theological premise of early Zionism: don’t passively wait for exile to end, but get to work ending it.) Where there are lies, speak truth. Where a person hurts, provide comfort. Where this is injustice, stand up. And where there is hate, apply love. 

Rav Kook called this countervailing force ahavat hinam, “senseless” or default love, the only possible response to sinat hinam, senseless hate. (Orot HaKodesh, Vol. III, p.324).

The Second Law of Thermodynamics presumes that objects have an inclination towards distance and disorder. But Stephen Hawking, musing on the nature of black holes, notes that this law is not universal: 

The second law of thermodynamics has a rather different status than that of other laws of science, such as Newton’s law of gravity, for example, because it does not hold always, just in the vast majority of cases. (A Brief History of Time, p.130)

In other words, exile isn’t inevitable. And Tisha B’Av is not a black hole of bleakness. It just reminds us that passivity and inertia will pull us further apart from one another, and from our source, unless we act—and act soon.