“You, Lord, reign forever; your throne endures from generation to generation. Why have You forgotten us entirely, forsaken us for so long? Restore us to yourself, Lord, that we may return; renew our days as of old unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure” (Megillat Eikha 5:19-22).
At the end of Megillat Eikha, The Book of Lamentations, God is not asked to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. It’s important to pause and understand the powerful implications of this omission, as we read this text each year on Tisha B’Av, the day on the Jewish calendar that, among other things, commemorates the destruction of the Temple.
While Megillat Eikha, opens with scenes of the Temple’s destruction, the end of the book asks that God return to a direct relationship with the Jewish people, and makes no direct reference to rebuilding the temple itself.
While we should not ignore the later view of the prophets and the rabbis that the Temple should be rebuilt, it is important to ask what we might learn from the author’s choice to place primary emphasis on rebuilding a divine relationship, rather than a human structure.
A Temple stood in Jerusalem for only a fraction of Jewish history, whereas our covenantal relationship with God is eternal. As a result, we can learn a great deal during the season of Tisha B’Av about the experience of failed institutions, and how that might sit with us when we are faced with radical change and creative destruction in the Jewish world today. Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl writes in the Meor Einayim that we remember the Temple not only by hoping to rebuild it one day, but by understanding why God allowed the Temple to be destroyed in the first place. The Meor Einayim states:
“…even when you fall from your rung, you must be strong and keep striving for God where you are right now, just as you did when you were on a higher level. This is the meaning of “a way of remembering the Temple”- having faith that God is present on this lower rung as well, since there is no place devoid of God” (Meor Einayim from Parashat Haazinu, in Speaking Torah, Vol. 2, ed. Arthur Green, 225-226).
We need God at all points in our lives, especially when tragedy strikes. Yet unless we are willing to pause and see how we ended up on the bottom, we may never fully understand how to be stronger because of that tragedy. More importantly, when we realize that something failed, we must first understand what must be learned from being at the bottom, rather than rushing to get back on top again.
Leaders in the Jewish community do not agree on many things, but there is a general consensus that ‘something’ is not working in how we do Judaism today. In this context, exercising transformative leadership requires that we have the courage to name and sit with failure and take the time to ask how failure might help us better serve God’s mission, rather assuming that God wants us to save or rebuild the same institutions that did not endure. More importantly, Jeffrey Jones of Andover Newton Theological Seminary points out that if God allowed for the Temple to be destroyed, it follows that God wanted us to imagine what kind of new institution should emerge. Jones writes:
“…our experience of exile today is, at least in part, a result of God’s work to dismantle the old institutions of religion. It may be that, like the Temple, they have become self-serving rather than God serving and therefore need to give way to something new, something better able to participate in God’s mission in the world” (Jeffrey D. Jones, Traveling Together: A Guide for Disciple Forming Congregations, 165).
In Judaism, no institution is inherently holy. Instead, fulfilling God’s mission requires that we create institutions to ensure that God, Torah and the Jewish people endure as vessels of eternal holiness. Tisha B’Av challenges us to think about how we react to moments when we realize something failed. By extension, when an institution fails, rather than rush to rebuild a new institution identical to the one that passed away, our first task must be to ask how we missed the mark of achieving our sanctified mission, and how we can ensure that God’s mission endures, even if an institution does not.
When the Jewish Community grapples with pressing issues, there is a temptation to blame our leaders and our institutions for our failures. Yet what if our first instinct was to ask how failure provides us the opportunity to renew our alignment with God’s mission, and ask what we are really meant to accomplish, rather than who or what is responsible for something not working quite right? If we succeed in doing that, we may do something greater than create new institutions; we will author a new chapter in our covenantal relationship with God.