Rabbi YY Jacobson
Rabbi YY JacobsonIsrael National News

There is a moving hassidic story concerning two of the great spiritual masters, Rabbi Yitzchak Kalish, popularly known as the Vorker Rebbe, and his friend, the Kotzker Rebbe, Rabbi Menahem Mendel Morgenstern of Kotzk, Poland. Though their paths were vastly different, they were nonetheless the closest of friends. So much so that even death would not keep them apart.

So, when Reb Yitzchak Vorker passed away, and a full month went by without his appearance in a vision or a dream, the Kotzker Rebbe decided to ascend to heaven in order to search for his friend in all the celestial palaces. At every place he stopped, they told him that his beloved friend, the Vorker, had been there but he had gone away.

In growing despair, the Kotzker Rebbe asked the angels, "Where is my dear friend Reb Yitzchak?" And the angels sent him in the direction of a dark, dark forest. It was the most fearsome and foreboding forest he had ever been to, but he pushed on, anxious to discover the whereabouts of his beloved friend. As he traveled deeper into the forest, he began to hear gentle waves lapping upon the shore. He reached the edge of the forest and before him lay a great and endless sea, stretching in every direction. But then the Kotzker Rebbe noticed a strange sound. Every wave as it swelled high would cry out a soft, but heart-breaking sob. The sound was terrifying, and he turned to run away, but just then he saw, standing at the edge of this wailing sea, staring at its melancholy waters, his holy friend Reb Yitzchak.

"I've been looking for you,” said the Kotzker, “why have you not come back to visit me?" Instead of answering his friend, Reb Yitzchak asked him a question, "Do you know what sea this is?"

The Kotzker replied that he did not, and so Reb Yitzchak explained, "It is the sea of tears. It is the sea which collects all the tears of G-d's holy people," he said, "and when I saw it, I swore that I would not leave its side until G-d dried up all these tears."

An Enigmatic Statement

It is a strange statement in the Jerusalem Talmud:

ירושלמי יומא פרק א הלכה א: אמרו כל דור שאינו נבנה בימיו מעלין עליו כאילו הוא החריבו.

The Sages said: Every generation in which the Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple, is not rebuilt in its days, is considered as if it was destroyed in its days.

What is the meaning of this? Is this fair to say, that a generation which did not see the rebuilding of the Holy Temple is virtually responsible for its destruction?[1]

There have been many generations with extraordinary Tzaddikim (righteous Jews) who were dedicated to G-d and man in exemplary ways. It seems unjust to declare that each of them merited to have the Beit HaMikdash destroyed during their days, just because it was not built in their days.

What is more, if this statement is taken literally, then the generation in which the Beit HaMikdash will finally be rebuilt will somehow have to manage to be greater than any of its predecessors. For all the previous generations were considered destroyers of the Temple; yet that final generation manages to trump all other generations of Jews preceding it. That seems unfair.

Moreover, it seems discouraging to tell us, that all the previous generations, filled with so much spiritual richness, and so many great souls—they all did not merit redemption, and were considered responsible for its destruction. Is it our generation, far weaker and lower, which will merit the rebuilding? If they could not do it, how can we?

An Accumulative Story

Let me share an insight by the Sefas Emes, Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Altar of Ger, Poland. A similar insight I heard numerous times from the Lubavitcher Rebbe.[2]

שפת אמת שבת דברים תרל"ד: כל דור שאינו נבנה בימיו כאילו נחרב בימיו. קשה להבין שהיו הרבה דורות צדיקי עליון שנאמר שהי' ראוי להיות נחרב בימיהם? ונראה לפרש כי כל ימי הדורות מצטרפין ומתכנסין כל ההארות של עבודת בנ"י להיות ראוין לגאולה, כי היעלה על הדעת שדור הגאולה יהיו כ"כ ראוין בזכותם בלבד לגאולה?! רק שזכות כל דור ודור עוזר ומביא מעט בנין בהמ"ק. והבנין נמשך כל ימי הגלות כמאמר בונה ירושלים [=לשון הווה בכל דור]. וז"ש שכל דור שאינו מסייע לבנינו. וז"ש שאינו נבנה בימיו שאין ימיו בכלל הבנין כנ"ל. וכל אדם בפרט ג"כ צריך לידע שכל מעשיו הם סיוע לבנין בהמ"ק. וכפי מה שמקבלין ע"ע עול מלכות שמים מסייעין לבנינו כמ"ש הכל מסייעין לבנינו של מלך כו':

The Talmud may be teaching us something very different—and providing us with a deeper perspective on Jewish history.

We often view history as disjointed narratives transpiring through numerous generations. Am I really connected to my great-great-grandmother who lived in Russia two centuries ago? I do not know her name, I don’t have a photo of her, nor do I know anything about her. How about my great-great grandfathers who lived 800 years ago in Spain, Germany, Italy, France, or Russia?

Judaism sees history as a single book—each page continuing the story of the past, and all the chapters together create a harmonious book. History is not a combination of many “short stories,” but rather it is like a single novel that consists of an aggregated narrative. Not only are we connected to our past. We keep them alive; they continue to live and function through us, genetically and spiritually.

Bringing redemption to the world, says the Talmud, will be the result of the accumulation of the achievements of the Jewish people from the time of the destruction to this very day. It is not one generation or another which does the job; each generation contributes to the work of mending our world and bringing Geulah-Redemptive consciousness to our planet.

The question of how we can do it if they did not do it, is missing the point. Imagine someone building for many years a super massive bonfire to cast light and warmth all around; this individual even pours the kerosene all over the logs, so the fire can catch easily. He just did not strike the match to light the fire. Now I come along and say, if he did not manage to light the fire, how can I?

But I was given the match. All I need to do is strike the match and the fire ascends.

Every Tear Remains

The sweat, blood, and tears of the Jewish people over the last two thousand years—as well as the laughter, the joy, the faith, and the love—is all present and accumulative, integrated like a sum in calculus, or like a vessel that is filled one drop after another, until it is full. We are not filling the vessel that previous generations could not fill; we are adding our drop of water to take it over the top.

Every generation of Jews builds the Beit HaMikdash in its day—every generation continues to fill our world with Divine light, love, hope, and healing. Every one of us, every day, builds a world of redemption, constructing part of the Holy Temple in his or her corner of the universe.

Each of us comes from generations of grandmothers who lit Shabbos candles every Friday before sunset, welcoming the holy day into their homes, as warm, loving tears flowed down onto the Shabbos table. Where did all those tears go? Do you think they faded into oblivion?

Their tears made their way into the soil of Jewish history, irrigating our souls, and giving us the strength to grow and blossom. Every tear of every Jewish mother over 2000 years became the water that was absorbed into our roots and seeds, providing us with the strength, resolve, and courage to continue to live and love. Every tear went into that vessel.

When your ancestor left Spain penniless on the 9th of Av 1492, rather than abandon his faith, it went into that vessel.

When your great-grandmother cut a hole in the ice of a frozen Russian river for use as a Mikvah, it went into that vessel.

When your great-grandfather came home after a hard day and opened a book of Mishnayos and began learning Torah, it went into that vessel.

When your grandmother and tens of thousands of other Holocaust survivors valiantly tried to start all over again and to continue the Jewish story, it went into that vessel.

Every dollar that you put into a charity box goes into that vessel.

Every time you wrap tefillin, study Torah, and make a blessing, it goes into the vessel.

Every time that every one of us takes an extra minute or an extra thought to go out of our way to be considerate to the feelings of another, even if that person may not look like, dress like, or always act like we do it goes into that vessel.

It all gets added together until the vessel, or the ocean, is full—and the Beit HaMikdash is rebuilt. Redemption comes to the world.

Don’t Run

So what kind of generation is the Talmud referring to when it says that if the Temple was not built in its day, it is like it was destroyed in its day?

Now that we established that the Temple must be built in every generation; each generation of Jews contributes to the consecutive and ongoing work of healing the world, cleansing it from evil, bringing in Divine light, and rebuilding the space where the Divine presence will dwell on earth; now that we discovered that there is no one generation who build—but that every generation builds. What then does the Talmud mean? Which generation is the one who we say that the Beis Hamikdash was destroyed in its time?

It is the generation that gives up on this historic mission and chooses instead to no longer care to add whatever it can to all the good that has already been accumulated before it. It is the generation that opts out of the continuous journey from exile to redemption, from darkness to light, from violence to peace, from fragmentation to unity, and from brokenness to wholeness. It is the generation that says, “I am not part of this any longer. I am done.” It allows all the love, tears, kisses, and truth to stop in its tracks and not allow the train to reach its ultimate destination—the space of Geulah, of complete redemption.

Every generation in which the Bais Hamikdash is not built in its days—is the generation that does not see its days as contributing to the building of the Beis Hamikdash; it is detached from the march of Jewish history, from the dance of Klal Yisroel, from the parade of every single Jew toward Jerusalem—that generation must appreciate how detrimental and tragic its passivity can be.

The Sfas Emes plays with the words which change the meaning of the Talmud. The simple translation would be, that every generation in which the Beis HaMikdash is not rebuilt 'in its' days, is considered as if they destroyed it. The Sfas Emes translates it: Every generation in which the temple is not built 'with its' days, i.e. with the good deeds and devotion of every day, is as though they destroyed it.

Back Stage Cheering

Rabbi Sholom Moshe Paltiel, the Chabad Rabbi and Shliach in Port Washington, NY, shared with me the following personal story:

I was visiting Jewish patients in S. Francis Hospital, when I walked into the room of an elderly Jew named Irving, a Holocaust survivor, who was obviously quite sick, surrounded by his entire family. I spent some time with him. We talked about the horrors of his youth, and how he managed to survive and rebuild his life.

He told me it was his mother's words to him on the last night before they were separated. "She sat me down and said to me: Life is like a play (my mother loved the theater). Every one of us plays a part. Not just us, but our parents and grandparents, their parents and grandparents, all the way back to Abraham and Sarah. They're all part of this production. Each of us plays a part, and then, when your part is over, you go backstage. You're not gone, you're still there, looking, cheering, helping out in any way you can from behind the scenes."

And then Mama grabbed my hand, looked me in the eye, and said: "Yisroel, I don't know what's going to happen, how long we'll be together, whether I'll survive this. But one thing I ask of you, if you survive: Don't give up, play your part. You might feel sad and lonely, but I beg of you: Don't give up. Play your role as best you can. Live your life to the fullest. I promise you, you won't be alone. Tate un ich, Babe un Zeide, mir velen aleh zein mit dir oif eibig, Daddy and me, Grandma and Grandpa, we will be with you forever, we'll be watching you from backstage.”

“It was those words from Mama that got me out of bed on many a difficult morning.”

By the time the man finished the story, there wasn't a dry eye in the room.

A few days later, Irving passed away. At the shiva, the family kept repeating the story about the play. It was clear they took comfort from knowing their father was still there, behind the scenes. Still, there was a profound sense of pain and loss.

They asked me to say a few words. I got up, turned to the family, and I said: “There is a postscript to the story. What happens at the end of the play? All the actors come back out. Everyone comes out on the stage to give a bow. It is a basic Jewish belief that every soul will come back and be with us once again, right here in this world. I assure you,” I said, “With G-d's help, you will soon be reunited with your father."

This is what the Talmud is teaching us. Every soul which ever lived contributed to the Third Temple. Then they moved backstage to allow the next generation to continue the work. But they never really left; they are just backstage.

Now it is our job to strike the match, and fill the world with light, to complete the play. When each of them will emerge from backstage and take the bow.

We're ready for the time when, as we say in the Aleinu prayer, “lecho tichra kol berech,” all creations will bow to You. We're ready for the final bow