Friday, August 5, 2011

Tish'ah Be'Av 5771 - Loss and Transition

Tish'ah Be'Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, represents the most fundamental loss that the Jewish people have suffered – the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem - not once, but twice. It is a reminder of our national incompleteness, of the missing piece of ourselves that was taken away, first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and then by the Romans in 70 CE. With both destructions, we suffered not only the denial of the religious practice mandated by the Torah, the ability to sacrifice to God, but also the land of Israel, our national homeland. And we continue to mourn to this day, even though the latter has been restored.

There is in this tale a hint of irony. The system of religious and cultural traditions that we call Judaism was hatched only after the Second Temple was destroyed. Leaving aside the sacrificial cult (which is by far the most extensive part of the Torah's vision of religious practice), what we do today is derived from the Torah, but is not really described therein. It is only through the rabbinic lens, through centuries of interpretation and re-interpretation, that we arrive at today's Judaism.

Tish'ah Be'Av therefore marks a transition – the stimulus for the most comprehensive religious retrofit ever undertaken by a people. We moved from a centralized, hierarchical, religious tradition headed by the Kohanim, the priests, to a democratic, personal, and portable tradition based on learning and maintained by rabbis, who are scholars, not priests.

Frankly, the system we have had for the last 1,900-odd years seems to me superior. Even if I were not a rabbi, the idea that I can communicate with the Divine directly through prayer rather than through a priestly mediator seems far more sophisticated, far more civilized than the ancient practice of sacrificing animals.

The Temple is a symbol, a powerful reminder of our history and the glory days of our ancient sovereignty over the land. (It is for this very reason that when you visit the Temple Mount, the Islamic Waqf gives you a pamphlet that claims that the Jewish Temple was never located on that site.) In recalling its destruction on the ninth day of the month of Av, we are not only invoking our historical roots and our incompleteness, but we are also reminding ourselves that this is, ultimately, a transition for the better.

(Originally published in the Temple Israel Voice, 8/5/2011.)

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