Devarim-Hazon (Individual & Community)
Tisha b’Av: “Shall I Weep as I Have Done?”
This Shabbat is the saddest Shabbat of the Jewish year—indeed, virtually the only Shabbat when a certain degree of melancholy is permitted. Known as Shabbat Hazon, “vision”—the first word of the haftarah of rebuke from Isaiah 1 read this Shabbat—it is devoted to the theme of the Destruction of the Temple, commemorated on the fast of Tisha b’Av, to be observed on Tuesday of this coming week. But perhaps the title hazon may also be read, homiletically, as an allusion to the vision of rebuilding, of consolation, and of restoration which has enabled Jews throughout the millennia to somehow survive through harsh and difficult times.
In our days, more than in the past, there are many people who ask the question asked by the delegation of elders to the prophet Zechariah: “Shall we weep and fast during the fifth month, as we have done these many years?” (Zech 7:3). Or, in simple language: is mourning and weeping for the Temple still relevant? This question is asked by different people on at least two levels. On the Zionist level: now that we have a State of Israel, that our age has witnessed the miracle of national renascence and the restoration of political sovereignty, the settlement of our ancient homeland and the creation of a flourishing society, culture and economy, the renewal of the Hebrew language, the rebuilding of Jerusalem as a modern city—all this notwithstanding the problems and difficulties facing Israel, including the sense of social and economic injustice underlying the widespread demonstrations of the past three weeks—what point is there to bewailing our putative Galut? On another, modernist–religious level: in a world where religious worship is overwhelmingly performed through verbal prayer, where whatever modest revival of religion and “spirituality” that has occurred in recent years is focused on the individual and his inwardness, how can people identify with the loss of a centralized Temple, focused upon slaughtering animals, sprinkling their blood, and burning their flesh on the altar? Indeed, those troubled by this question may cite Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, III.33; cf. 45-46, where he speaks of the Temple and the numerous commandments concerning sacrifices as a kind of interim or transitional stage, using the language of that type of ritual familiar to the Israelites when they left Egypt, but leading towards a more “advanced” experience of verbal prayer. In much the same way, indeed, he hints that humankind may eventually move past verbal prayer to pure mental contemplation of the greatness and transcendence of God.
In years past, I have emphasized the role of Tisha b’Av as a kind of national day of mourning for a; those things that have befallen the Jewish people throughout its history, beginning with the Destruction of the First and Second Temple and its aftermath of exile, enslavement, and the Hadrianic persecution of Jewish practice and Torah study, through the murderous anti-Jewish rampages of the Crusaders, the Inquisition and Expulsion in Spain and Portugal, the pogroms in the Ukraine, Poland and Russia, and culminating in the demonic horrors of the Holocaust within the memory of some people living today.
But this year, I prefer to address the question of the Temple per se, which I shall formulate around the terms to which I have repeatedly returned this year: How does Tisha b’Av address the individual, and how so the community? Or: in what sense does the individual miss and yearn for the Temple, and in what sense does the community?
The connection of the Temple to community is obvious. The most basic of all sacrifices offered therein, first mentioned at the conclusion of the chapters in Exodus 25-29 describing its construction, is the Korban Tamid—the fixed daily offering, offered morning and evening—which was offered on behalf of the people as whole, as the living embodiment of the House of Israel’s constant worship of the Divine. The great festivals celebrated in the Temple—Passover, with its paschal offerings eaten by family units to mark the beginnings of the people; and Yom Kippur, with its atonement ritual performed by the High Priest on behalf of the entire people—are all focused, in one way or another, upon themes in the collective life of the people. Likewise, on the last day of the festival of Sukkot the people would march around the altar, adorning it with willow branches, and crying out: “Beauty unto you, O altar; beauty unto you, O altar”—as if the altar itself somehow shared in the praises due to God. When we learned this passage with the Rav in Boston, he explained it in terms of the special of love and even adoration that Jews of olden times felt for the altar, as the physical locus of the miracle of kaparah—atonement. (more on this below)
But the Psalms are also filled with expressions of the longing of individuals for the Temple and the powerful sense of Divine Presence felt there. Thus, for example, Psalm 42 expresses the longing of an individual living in the distant northern province of the Jordan headwaters and the Hermon for God’s presence, and his wish to visit the “house of God” and for the “sound of joyous song and celebrant throng” which mark his experience there. So, too, in Psalm 63, while in “a dry and weary land,” his soul thirsts and his flesh long for God, and “to see You in the holy place.” Similar sentiments may be seen in Pss 27, 87, 135, and many others.
These feelings are expressed yet again in the series of shorter psalms bearing the heading “a song of degrees” or “song of steps” (Pss 120-134), which may have been originally written to be recited during the festal pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Following such familiar hymns celebrating the Holy City as Pss 122 and 126, they build up to Ps 132, King David’s song of longing to build the Temple, which only his son would live to accomplish; the fellowship of “brethren sitting together” in Ps 133; reaching a crescendo with the brief but eloquent song of praise and blessing of those “standing in the house of God at night” in Ps 134. In all these psalms, the experience of individual longing for and joy in the Temple is combined with the public or collective experience felt there.
What does, or did, the Temple mean to each individual per se? A strange midrash, cited by Rambam in Hilkhot Bet ha-Behirah 2.2, states that the altar was built at the exact spot where Abraham bound Yitzhak on the altar—a familiar idea—but goes on to add that this was the same place where Noah offered sacrifice after the Flood, where Cain and Abel built the altar for their spontaneous offerings (with its tragic ending), and, most significantly, the spot from which Adam himself was created, and where he offered a sacrifice upon his creation—“to teach one, that from the place of his creation, there came his atonement” (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer; Gen. Rab. 14.8). Rav Soloveitchik connected this idea with a notion, that no doubt sounds strange to modern ears, that sacrifice, and specifically the process of atonement that comes about through certain kinds of sacrifice, is an existential need of Man; he speaks of homo sacrificius Thus, the Temple was important, not only as the locus for collective worship, but as the place where each and every individual could undergo the process of catharsis and purgation brought about through sacrifice to the Almighty, to somehow bridge the gap between finite man and the infinite, transcendent, wholly Other God.
This last point demands elaboration. What does it mean for man to need sacrifice, and to need atonement, as a basic, existential need. And how does this relate to the strange mixture of elation, holiness and joy experienced on Yom Kippur—not at all a day of guilt and self-castigation, but of renewal and forgiveness? When we speak of existential needs, we usually think either of basic physical needs, such as food, clothing, shelter, and sex, or of basic emotional needs—whether the need for love, for security, or the fulfillment of ego needs such as recognition, dignity, respect from others, or of meaning in life, a significant life-project, etc. Even such sublime areas as the aesthetic or the intellectual ultimately refer back to a sense of pleasure, however refined.
But more than that: Many of us, under the influence of modern psychology, have accepted the notion that guilt per se is somehow a bad thing, that all neuroses originate in unnecessary feelings of guilt; that the healthy individual is marked by a high degree of “self-acceptance,” and that the task of therapy is to help bring this about. In this sense, teshuvah, what some would call religious conversion, including the notions of commandment and transgression, involves a profound inner revolution, a change in mind-set involving the rejection of some of the most basic axioms of our society.
What then is meant by kaparah? It is one of the conventions of modern Jewish apologetics to say that, unlike Christianity, we do not believe in Original Sin. To be sure, on one level this is true—man is not irredeemably evil, tainted with sin and corruption. But on another level, Judaism struggles deeply with the issue of sin, and there are even certain moments in our sacred history—the eating of the fruit of the Tree by Adam an Eve, the story of the Golden Calf, the sin of the Spies—which are seen as archetypal for our experience through the generations. Sin—meaning: failure, misdirection in life, missing the mark, wrongdoing, and even acts of real evil, of overt deep selfishness and meanness and cruelty towards the Other—are all but inevitable in life. Life is in some sense a realm in which one constantly errs. The human being experiences frustration, not only over things lacking in the material realm, or unrealized desires (“No man dies with half his desire in his hand”), but even more so because of his or her own shortcomings, stupidity, or slavery to impulse. The gap between the ideal by which one would like to live (particularly if the person has a modicum of spiritual sensitivity) and the actuality of our lives.
It is at this point that the notion of kaparah comes in, whereby one somehow feels a level of intimacy with God that would not, could not, exist otherwise. And this experience of atonement, of becoming purged and cleansed of one’s spiritual impurity, is somehow linked to Mikdash, and to the rituals performed there. It is for that, ultimately, that the individual mourns on Tisha b’Av. In the words of a piyyut recited on Musaf of Yom Kippur: “All these when the Temple stood on its site; does not our soul grieve even to hear about it!”
I would like to conclude with a few comments about the Zionist adoption of Temple Mount as sela kiyumenu, “the rock of our existence”—as a national symbol, as a place, sovereignty over which is somehow essential to the Zionist enterprise of Jewish national renaissance. On this point, I fear that I will sound almost like a member of Neturei Karta: that this is a secularization, an adoption for political-sociological purposes, of something that in truth exists on an entirely different plane. Such groups as Ne’emanei Har Ha-Bayit (“Loyalists of the Temple Mount”), which sees the right to ascend the Temple Mount as an essential expression of national pride, hopelessly misunderstand what the Temple and its holiness are all about. The Shekhinah is not an Israeli citizen, nor an Israeli patriot. (Mind you, I think it would be unwise of Israel to cede total sovereignty of the mountain to the Palestinians—but this for realpolitik, psychological–political reasons relating to the nature of negotiations and our future relaions—not because of any inherent, substantive national reasons. Meanwhile, davka refraining from ascending the mountain, close as it may be, is a powerful sign that, on some existential level, we are still in Galut.)