The Exile of Tisha B'Av: What Are We Mourning?

Since the Fast of Tisha B'Av cannot fall on Shabbat, it begins this year
on Saturday evening, July 21. 

Exile is one of the preeminent themes of the Torah. From the outset of Genesis, Adam and Eve are exiled from the Garden of Eden. Abraham is called by God to “the land I will show you” but famine forces him to seek refuge in Egypt. Joseph is sold off to Egypt, where, at the end of his life, he makes his family promise, “When God has taken notice of you, carry up my bones from here” (Gen. 50:25). The remainder of the Torah – all of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – charts Israel’s pursuit of a path back home.

Jewish history works in similar cycles of dispersion and return. David and Solomon established a kingdom and a Temple in Jerusalem, but these were demolished in 586 B.C.E. and the survivors of Judah were deported eastward. They longed for Zion by the rivers of Babylon. A generation later, a remnant returned and rebuilt the kingdom and its Temple in Jerusalem. The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E., and again the Jews became a people in exile. For centuries, Jews built Diaspora communities even as stragglers returned to the Land, to pray or to die there. The advent of Zionism in the 19th century marked our most dramatic effort since the days of the Bible to return home. 

We have known different kinds of exile. There is political exile – distance from our physical home – and there is spiritual exile – distance from our spiritual Source. Zionism sought to put an end to the political state of exile, but spiritual exile continues to be our existential reality everywhere, including in the Land of Israel.

The fast of the 9th of Av – Tisha B'Av – is devoted to reflection on what it means to live in exile. The shorthand is that it is the date when both the First and Second Temples were destroyed.

But Tisha B’Av isn’t only about history, just as Pesach and Chanukah are not “only” about history. The genius of the rabbis who shaped Judaism is in the way they spiritualized history and filled it with religious meaning for subsequent generations.

Thus, the events of Tisha B’Av aren’t simply understood as historical calamities. After all, catastrophes have befallen the Jewish people on every day of the calendar year. But they are signposts for a religious condition:

Exile from the homeland
Exile from God
Exile from one another

This is the great secret of Tisha B’Av: The last two are really one. Because in Judaism’s religious humanism (or humanistic religion?), distance from other people necessarily results in distance from God:

Why was the First Temple destroyed?
Because of three things:
Idolatry, Sexual immorality, and Bloodshed….

But the Second Temple –
when people were occupied with Torah, Mitzvot, and gemilut chasadim
Why was it destroyed?
Because of senseless hatred (sinat chinam).
(Talmud, Yoma 9b)

Consider the theological outlook the Talmud is teaching. The First Temple stood at a time of rampant perversion and hypocrisy, so naturally (in the rabbinic mindset) it was lost. But the Second Temple stood during centuries that were recalled for Torah and adherence to mitzvot (commandments). Why would God allow it to be destroyed?

The answer, says the Talmud, is because of rampant hatred that existed among the Jews – even as they were living according to the letter of the Law. Service to God in the Temple was not meant to be performed with hate in their hearts.

The Temple was designed to be a place of intimacy – between God and the People, and between and among the people who gathered there. As people became estranged from one another – when they could no longer see the image of God in the face of the person opposite them – then their worship and the Temple itself became hollow. An institution based on lies and hypocrisies cannot stand. Made as trivial as a piece of tissue paper, it is as if God crumpled it up and tossed it aside – because, spiritually speaking, it was already destroyed. The assault of the Romans was just a final punctuation mark.

The astonishing lesson of the Torah is that only one creation is made “in the image of God” – human beings. To treat other people with contempt or disgust or hate is to treat God’s only image that way. As a result, estrangement from one another and estrangement from God are intertwined.

The Tisha B’Av fast marks a sad reality: this is the world in which we live, each in our own isolated cones with our own preoccupations and nursing our own hurts. This scenario illustrates what it means to live in exile; exile is the metaphysical sense of being alone, and it is our own doing.

If we find it hard to mourn the loss of “The Temple” on Tisha B’Av, no matter; mourn for something else.

Mourn for our distance from God.

Mourn for our distance from each other. 

This piece originally appeared on reformjudaism.org on July 19, 2018.

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.