“Let us search and examine our ways, and turn back to Adonai…(Lamentations 3:40)”
What gives life its real meaning, its real value? What fills the moments we most treasure? Summer provides a time for many of us to think about that question.
The great 20th century philosopher and teacher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in his book Between God and Man: “Life passes on in proximity to the sacred, and it is this proximity that endows existence with ultimate significance.”
Life demands that we invest great effort in taking care of everyday needs, but we hunger for holiness. We crave meaning and purpose. We have an insatiable need not simply to fill ourselves with food and drink but also with something larger and more lasting. Instinctively, we seek the sacred: love and life, knowledge and wisdom, justice and compassion, beauty, accomplishment, and awe.
Today is Tisha B’Av – a day that commemorates the destruction of holiness. It was on this day centuries ago that the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed. It is a day of mourning and sadness – a day when Jews traditionally fast and express grief for the awful memory of the destruction.
But to me, the Temple itself is not worthy of such mourning. Buildings are built and destroyed all the time. Judaism teaches that God’s presence was never fixed in place in the Temple, but joined us in all our wanderings. When asked to build the Tabernacle, God said, “Make for me a sanctuary and I will dwell in you. (Exodus 25:8)” In you, it states, not in it. We turn our hearts and heads in prayer toward Jerusalem not because God is there but because of the teachings that went forth from that place.
It was not just the Temple the Babylonians and the Romans sought to destroy, but the moral teachings and traditions that make Judaism holy itself. They sought to destroy the idea that each and every human life is created in God’s image. They sought to destroy the idea that none of us is an island, but that we must live in a state of communal trust and interdependence. They sought to destroy the idea of a society which cherishes justice and fairness, compassion and kindness – a society that commits itself to protecting the vulnerable and the weak, that calls us love our neighbors as ourselves, and that demands we seek peace and pursue it.
It was not a city or a building that was assaulted. It was an idea – the idea of a holy society. But what we have taught the world through the generations of our wanderings is this. You can destroy our cities, and you can destroy our Temples. You can exile us from our homeland and make us wander the continents of the earth. You can lock us in ghettos and expel us from countries, you can attack us with pogroms and with holocaust. You may shake our faith to the core. But we will be destroyed only when we let go of our ideals and relinquish our values. That is up to us.
What I mourn today on Tisha B’Av is the sense that while we are safe and secure and Jerusalem itself is vibrant and rebuilt, nonetheless we are giving up on the sacred. In response to the natural fears that come with insecurity for our livelihoods and our future, I worry that we no longer hold fast to the essential values that make life holy. I look around at the two lands that I call home, America and Israel, and I ask: is this a society that is championing the sacred values of life? Are we becoming so obsessed with power and privilege that we have lost the humility to ask if the Other has wisdom or truth we might need? Can we honestly say that what animates our society is a commitment to elevating life, love, wisdom, understanding, justice, compassion, beauty and peace?
The Talmud teaches that the Temple was destroyed because we turned away from the moral teachings God lent to our people, and turned instead to senseless hatred. Ultimately the Temple is not destroyed from the outside but the inside.
The book of Lamentations, which we read today ends with this admonition – “Hashivenu Adonai Elecha V’Nashuva, Chadesh Yameinu K’Kedem – Bring us back to You, Adonai, and we shall return. Renew our days as of old. (Lamentations 5:22)” Let us recommit ourselves not to rebuilding ancient Temples of stone, but to societies of humanity, humility, holiness, and peace.