Tisha B’Av: Destruction and Redemption

The gloomiest day in the entire Jewish calendar is Tisha B’Av – the 9th day of the summer month of Av. A long series of national disasters, from the destruction of the first Temple to the Spanish Expulsion, is historically identified with this date. Moreover, in every generation this day has been looked upon as the essence of all national mourning, and the lamentation prayers of Tisha B’Av recall not only the events that occurred on that day, but also the story of the sufferings of our people throughout its exile. Nevertheless, the focus of mourning is the destruction of the Temple, both the beginning and the symbol of all that occurred thereafter. The destruction of the Temple is not an isolated event (important or even basic as it is) in the chronicles of our sufferings. The destruction of the Temple constitutes both a key to, and a definition of, all of the troubles of Israel. It is this destruction which lifts isolated events, persecutions, exiles, and oppressions from the plane of mere historical episodes and gives them a transcendent significance.

For the Jewish people, the Temple was the only place for complete worship. It was the recognized center for all the Children of Israel, however scattered they were. Indeed, the Temple was the only holy place recognized by Judaism. The central importance of the Temple can only be fully appreciated by studying Maimonides’ list of the mitzvot. Of the 613 listed, less than half of them are applicable (and some of the others only partly so) following the Temple’s Destruction. And the situation is similar in the Oral Law and in all the other areas which make up the life of the nation. It may be said that much of the structure of Judaism was suddenly cut out from under it with the Destruction, not only in activities directly connected with the Temple and the worship there, but also a large body of mitzvot and customs indirectly bound to it. This picture of the effect on Jewish law gives us some conception of what really occurred with the destruction of the Temple.

Aside from the direct and indirect functions that the Temple served, it was also the pinnacle of Jewish life, and its absence represents a basic flaw in the very fabric of the Jewish people. We must remember that, of all the spiritual and governmental institutions that arose in Israel throughout the generations, none achieved a comparable position of centrality in the life of the entire people. The centers of learning that became more and more important to the Jewish people throughout the generations depended on a substantial connection with the Temple. It was not only the Temple service and the force of history that gave it its centrality, but the Torah itself made the Temple the sole repository of religious authority: “the priests and judges who will serve in those days,” located in this specifically designated place, “the place which God will choose” — the house of His choice, the Temple.

Therefore, the destruction of the Temple deprived the Jewish people of the central axis about which their lives revolved and toward which all other life expression was directed. Since it was destroyed, the Jewish people lack that central axis needed to direct its religious and national life and its very existence as a national body. Thus, the destruction of the Temple was not only metaphysically, but also historically and actually “the removal of the Shekhinah” (the Divine Presence) from Israel, “the exile of the Shekhinah.” As long as the Temple exists there is direction and significance to the flow and direction of life. Whatever the number of Jews in the Diaspora, and whatever the political and material position of the Jews in Israel, as long as the Temple exists the entire nation knows that “the Lord dwells in Zion,” and for the life of the nation there is not only a center but also a direction: there is a beginning and an end in the structure of life.

The Exile really begins with the destruction of the Temple. We must remember that even with the destruction of the First Temple, and certainly with that of the Second, there was not a massive exile of our people from the land. However, if in a practical way the situation of the nation changed little with the Destruction, as long as the Temple stood, Jews outside of the land were only a “Diaspora”, a “scattering” of people who happened to live in another country. The loss of national independence made little change in the situation, as our people had complete national independence in its own land for a relatively short period anyway. But upon the destruction of the Temple there came that feeling of orphancy which is implied in the concept of exile. The far-flung communities of Israel, which had possessed a center toward which all life was directed, were suddenly no longer in a state of mere temporary absence (which would eventually be terminated), but, in a deeper sense, in exile, under the yoke of “foreign slavery” in every land, including the land of Israel. Therefore, the sufferings of Israel are unlike those recorded in the history of any other nation. The destruction of the Temple was the “expulsion of the Divine Presence” from Israel, and all the subsequent sufferings of Israel are understood as merely a repetition of that same event, a loss continually felt by a people lacking the center of its being.

All these sufferings are qualitatively the same – the nation is not unified by a single center but is, rather, broken into separated parts and subject to continual injury. Therefore, in the course of the generations, all the days of mourning commemorating particular inflictions and sufferings were cancelled and Tisha B’Av became an all-encompassing day of heightened mourning. Undoubtedly even the days which have been designated in our generation as commemorations of the Holocaust will quickly be forgotten, and the recollection of even this great tragedy joined to the accumulation of national mourning on the Ninth of Av.

The legend that the Messiah was born on Tisha B’Av, at the very time of the Destruction, is a key to understanding one aspect of the problem of the destruction and the notion of redemption. For redemption to take place, the repair of the various individual destructions alone is insufficient. Even if the entire people of Israel were to return to its land, this would be insufficient for the redemption of the Destruction. Furthermore, even the building of the Temple in and of itself could not repair that which had been damaged in the course of the generations.

Only the Messiah – who will bring redemption to the world on a higher plane and in a more complete fashion than ever before possible – can undo the Destruction. Redemption is not simply a return to the situation as it previously existed. Restoration is only a small part of the scheme of redemption. The redemption of the Jewish people must be accompanied by a qualitative change that affects the entire world. Only a redemption that rises above the sufferings of two thousand years, that brings the Jewish people – and the entire world – to a higher level of existence, this alone is full reparation for the Destruction.