I’m walking by the ruins of our Temple, and I know what I’m supposed to feel.
Outrage: The house of God is ruined, and the world obliviously goes on.
Grief: The house of God was also ours, and we lost it. It is gone.
Longing: Oh, to have a Temple again, that shining symbol of our covenant with God!
But all I’m feeling, all that comes to mind, is “Oh, how picturesque.”
I can’t even muster up indignation at the selfie sticks floating in the air. Somewhere in Japan or Korea or Arizona, a girl will show a friend a picture. “Ooooh, don’t I look cute in this one?” And our ruins, our tragedies, will be nothing but background for the little dramas of her life.
(One person’s ruin is another person’s tourist attraction.)
But how can I be upset with her, when these ruins are just a background for me too?
* * *
Every year, the days leading to Tisha B’Av find me pensive and at a loss. No matter how hard I try, I can’t really miss the Temple. I rather like the Judaism that we honed while away, the Judaism of a covenant-sans-Temple, the Judaism of individual piety, scholarly interpretation, and reflective self-improvement.
I know who I am within this Judaism: An observant Jewish woman, using ancient sources to shape her modern life. I know what I want within this Judaism: to find inspiration in the mix of experience and text. And I know that I am free, because my Judaism is an internal journey, walking with me wherever I go.
Who would I be in a Temple-centered Judaism? What would my life be like? Will Jerusalem replace our inner journeys, binding us to one tiny plot of rocky land?
I can’t crave that which frightens me.
I can’t pray for the rebuilding of that which I don’t crave.
What will I pray for in nine days, when I’ll be fasting?
* * *
Last night, I looked for answers in the streets of Jerusalem, searching my heart for a prayer. But my thoughts were an ocean away, and Boston was on my mind.
The City upon a Hill was first an idea upon a ship. Ships are a risky foundation for cities; they can drown. But this particular ship made it into harbor, and this particular city made it onto the hill. The idea became flesh — well, more like bricks and cobblestones and a sewage system — and made its dwelling among us.
Most cities are not created by design. No one plucks them from the heavens with the intention to entwine spirit with matter, dreams with reality, purpose with earth. No one blows them into bricks and cobblestones like a soul into a corpse.
No. They just, well, happen.
And perhaps, I thought somewhat bitterly, they are better off for it.
A city that just happens has no blueprint to live up to — and fail. It has no divine holy purpose to outgrow and make stale. It sometimes does poorly, and sometimes does well, and it’s all alright. They exist. That’s enough. Nothing more was ever expected.
But the cities that were first ideas on a boat, sailing the cerebral seas and waiting to promote redemption here, in the material world — they can know the true devastation of falling short, impaled on the thwarted intentions that they failed.
Imagine a Puritan visiting Boston today, where the non-sanctified can vote and be elected for office (gasp!), where the mayor of Boston is a Roman Catholic (the horror!) — and the mayor of Cambridge is… gay!
What would that Puritan feel? His city, the one from the ship, from the hill, from his mind — his city is ruined.
Is it better, then, to be the kind of city that just happens? Is it better to be the kind of person that just happens?
It’s definitely a safer bet. There is so much less to lose. We can be hurt, but we can’t betray that which we never committed to.
Committing to an ideal makes it possible for that ideal to be ruined.
* * *
I stopped in one of the many staircases of the Old City, and looked down upon the ruins of our city of design.
The Romans didn’t ruin the Temple. They merely broke apart walls and set fire to empty rooms. We ruined the Temple when we betrayed what it stood for.
The Temple was the house of the God that created all people in His image. Every person is an entire world, taught our sages, and one who saves a single person, it is as if he or she saved a whole world.
When we hate other people, we ignore everything that they are, and reduce them in our mind to whatever it is that we hate about them (Their opinions? Their religion? Their ethnicity?). We betray the God whose image shines within them, who gave them the depth and worth of an entire world.
When we succumbed to hatred, we ruined Jerusalem. The stones remained until the Romans reached them, but the ideas that gave them meaning — that made them A City upon a Hill — were gone.
We say we crave a Temple. A Temple makes us vulnerable. A Temple is a commitment to ideals, with the risk of failure looming over our heads. A Temple means we have a covenant to uphold — or crush down.
Do we have the courage to be ruinable again?
I sat down on the stairs, and found the prayer I was looking for.
* * *
God, I can’t profess that which I don’t feel. I can’t pray for a Temple.
But I can pray to always lament the right tragedies. Help me, God, to lament more than bricks and stones. Help me to lament the meaning behind them, the one we betrayed, the one we squandered with the hatred in our hearts.
Help me to recommit to this meaning. Help me to build my life around it. Give me the courage to commit to it, when all commitments bear the specter of potential failure.
I pray for the courage to live a life of design, like the people who built your Temples in the past.
I pray for the courage to entwine my earthly life with purpose.
I pray for the courage to commit to baseless love.
I pray, God, for the courage to be ruinable again.