The Mourning Game

It is much easier to mourn than it is to change the situation, and far less threatening.

Rabbi Chaim Richman,

Rabbi Chaim Richman
Rabbi Chaim Richman

The period on the Hebrew calendar beginning with the 17th of Tammuz and ending with Tisha B’Av is known as ‘the Three Weeks.’ In Jewish tradition it is also referred to as bein Ha-Mitzar’im, literally ‘between the straits.’ The expression invokes the image of a vessel passing through a narrow place, a path fraught with danger, which must be navigated with extreme caution.

The destruction of the Holy Temple and other calamities that have befallen Israel during these days (and indeed, the sages teach that all our national and personal disasters, great and small, stem from the loss of the Temple) have seared this period into our collective Jewish consciousness as a time of portent. Jewish tradition states that “when the month of Av arrives, we decrease our joy.”

But in the quintessential, indefatigable spirit of the Jewish people, on the deepest level, it is also reckoned as a time full of wonderful possibility. Indeed, this month of Av – the very mention of which causes the Jewish soul to cringe as from the sound of chalk scratching against the proverbial blackboard of our history – is actually known as Menachem Av, the consoling father. From the very heart of darkness springs redemption; according to tradition, the messiah is born on Tisha B’Av. Ultimately, the prophet Zechariah informs us, all our days of mourning will be transformed into days of gladness (Zech. 8:19).

After nearly two thousand years of mourning the Temple’s destruction, perhaps we might be forgiven for asking frankly: How exactly is that going to happen? Is this just another Jewish pipe dream, born out of the pain and despair of the exile experience, which we nurse along in order to keep on keeping on?

All over the world, Jews conclude the Passover seder with the words “Next Year in Jerusalem.” But what’s wrong with this year? Tickets too expensive? No hotel rooms left? What are we waiting for?

So too, on the eve of Tisha B’Av, the final meal concluded, we make are way to the synagogue and can be heard wishing our friends and neighbors “G-d willing, we won’t have to fast this year…Moshiach will come and the Temple will be rebuilt before the fast starts.”

How many times have I heard these sincere, yet empty words. What is going to happen to change the current reality? Is the Temple, a building of millions of tons, going to fall from the sky? Whatever source one can contort to try and lend this scenario authenticity, in truth it is simply not a Jewish concept. The essence of Torah is about doing: G-d commands, and we fulfill.

Since when do we wait for G-d to fulfill the commandments on our behalf? And the commandment of “And you shall make for Me a sanctuary” (Ex. 25:8) is no different. Maimonides counts this as one of the positive commandments that are binding upon all of Israel for all time. Buildings don’t fall from the sky…when is the last time you waited for your sukkah to fall from Heaven on Erev Sukkot? What a time-saver that would be.

And what a life-saver, what an excuse it is for us to believe that the building of the Temple is completely out of our hands. We are off the hook. We have so totally mythologized the whole concept of the Holy Temple and what it means, that in the religious world today, whoever has the most “faith” does absolutely nothing about it, while those who are motivated to some sort of action against the national inertia are labeled as having little “faith” in G-d’s promises to bring the Messiah.

Jews conclude the Passover seder with the words “Next Year in Jerusalem.” But what’s wrong with this year? Tickets too expensive? No hotel rooms left? What are we waiting for?
In his important missive, Igeret HaShmad (Letter on Persecution), the illustrious Maimonides teaches that not one of any of the Torah’s commandments are in any way dependent on the arrival of the messiah. The task of the messiah, he states, is not to fulfill this or that commandment, or to authorize Israel that the time has come to do so. Rather, the performance of the mitzvoth is for Israel to fulfill all the commandments that were given at Mount Sinai regardless of when the Messiah arrives. And in his seminal Mishneh Torah, Rambam explains that if a messiah figure arises and succeeds in rebuilding the Temple, this is one of the ways of knowing that this individual is indeed the anointed one. If it has not yet been built the messiah will see to it that it is constructed. However, that is the default: As the sages of the Jerusalem Talmud conclude, the building of the Holy Temple precedes the arrival of the messiah.

The real question is: what are these days of mourning really all about? Are we truly reflecting on what our lives are missing without the Holy Temple, or simply mourning l’mehadrin, expunging our guilt because we really don’t give the matter a moment’s thought all year round? We put on a disguise, a false mustache of piety and descend to the storm cellar – avoiding the major thoroughfares – while the storm of G-d’s indignation passes, hoping we will be spared calamity. Then, after the ninth of Av, the body of Israel heaves an audible sigh of relief, and we head for concerts, vacation villages and singles weekends, satisfied that we have expressed our allegiance to the Temple’s memory.

Our sages teach that from the day the Holy Temple was destroyed, “fruit lost its taste,” and all sensory experience became muted. The colors of the rainbow were dulled; the soul of creation departed, and the world became a shell of its former self. This is all because the Shechina, the Divine Presence that shines forth from the Holy Temple and illuminates the whole world with the knowledge of G-d, became hidden.

How do we really regard the loss of the Holy Temple? The period of the Three Weeks is marked by ascending levels of mourning, until the crescendo of the day of Tisha B’Av, when a unique and unparalleled halakhic reality is experienced, and every individual Jew becomes like one who is mourning, G-d forbid, for the loss of a close family relative during shiva. In order for us to be totally focused on the loss of the Temple, we all become mourners for one day.

But when the seven-day mourning period for a relative draws to a close, the mourner must rise up from the ground and begin to resume his life and get his act together again, though that is sometimes a formidable and nearly-impossible task for one whose world has been drastically and irrevocably changed.

If we really don’t want to have to go through this cycle of mourning every year, we should see to it that our mourning is focused and purposeful, and serves as motivation to stop the cycle of pain. Don't just say next year in Jerusalem, live it! If we are commanded to begin preparing for the building then surely we should be learning and reflecting upon what that means. The rites of mourning are an important and constructive vehicle for aiding in the psychological rehabilitation of one who has suffered an irreparable loss. However, if unaccompanied by a proper resolve, these rites can be nothing more than self-deception, a ruse…the mourning game.

How will Zechariah’s prophecy come to pass? This month can be turned from a month of desolation to a time of blessing. But it is much easier to mourn than it is to change the situation, and far less threatening. The mystical, dream-like, never-never land aspect of the Temple miraculously appearing one day out of nowhere has supplanted the Torah’s call for the Jewish people to be a light to the nations, a charge that requires courage, conviction, and vitality, but most of all, a charge that requires the people of Israel to believe in themselves and in the righteousness of their cause. G-d brings about miracles, alright.

The greatest miracles are brought about through the determination of the Jewish people. It is Israel that will cause the Shechina, the Divine Presence, the source of all blessing, to return to the world, and all the nations will stream to the Temple in Jerusalem, saying “Let us go with you, because G-d is with you” (Zech. 8:23).