Joseph Stalin reputedly visited a Jewish inmate in prison who was rumored to foresee the future. Can you tell me, asked Stalin, when I will die? Well, replied the Jew, I can’t tell you the exact date, but I can tell you that it will be on a Jewish holiday. Really, replied the murderous dictator, can you tell me which holiday? No matter when you die, replied the inmate, the Jews will make a holiday.
We Jews are very good at seeing the silver lining in every cloud and transforming tragedies into holidays. One of the greatest tragedies in our history was the destruction of our holy Temple. Yet even this tragedy is considered a holiday. The question is why. But to answer that question, we must first pose another.
When G-d laid waste to the Temple, He destroyed the entire building and nearly everything in it. This raises an important question. The Torah teaches us that G-d abides by the rules that He wrote for us. G-d is not like the manager, who forces others to abide by rules that he flouts to their face. Rather, G-d is like the manager, who adheres strictly to company policy even when others are not present.
If this is the case, we must ask why G-d destroyed the Temple? Torah law is clear on the prohibition against waste. We are forbidden to destroy things that are productive especially when the waste is wanton and complete. Why did G-d destroy the Temple?
A quick scan of the laws against waste yields the answer. While it is forbidden to chop down a fruit tree, it is permitted if one wants to build a house where the fruit tree stood. While indiscriminate tearing of branches from a tree is forbidden, it is perfectly permissible and even laudable to chop down a tree for lumber of firewood. Although we lament the destruction, we cheer the constructive purpose.
When G-d destroyed the Temple, the Jews lamented the terrible destruction. In fact, we still lament the horrific tragedy nearly two-thousand years later. Each year on the ninth of Av, the anniversary of the Temple’s destruction, we fast and lament the terrible fact that G-d laid waste to the Temple. But despite our lamentations, there is one comforting thought, a thought delivered by the priestly singer, Asaf.
Asaf reminded the nation that rather than pouring His wrath unto the people, G-d expended his wrath on the stones and wood of the Temple. This kind of waste is not destructive, it is redeeming. The purpose of destroying the Temple was not to destroy the Temple, but to save the people. This is not a waste. While the destruction itself is lamentable, the outcome is laudable and constructive.
A Holy House
This answer provides for the question we posed, however it does not suffice to answer the next question. In addition to the general proscription against wanton destruction, there is a specific prohibition against destroying a holy house such as a house of prayer or Torah study. And this restriction is not lifted even when others might benefit from it. One may not destroy a synagogue to make space for a home for example.
In that case, the question returns. Why did G-d, Who abides by the laws that He prescribed for the people, lay waste to the Holy House on the Temple Mount? While the Jews benefited from G-d’s targeting of the Temple rather than themselves, the law still prohibits this kind of destruction.
Pushing the Reset Button
When one breaks an arm, the doctor resets the bone into proper alignment and holds it in place with a cast or brace to allow the bone to grow back. What happens if the bone grew back incorrectly? The doctor must crack the bone in the right place to reset it properly.
On the surface the two kinds of factures, the original fracture and the one implemented by the doctor as part of the healing, seem similar. However, when you know the purpose of this procedure, you realize that they could not be more different. The first is destructive, the second is constructive. The break is the first step toward healing.
The Torah teaches us that when G-d laid waste to the Temple, He set the stage for its eventual rebuilding. The first two Temples were built by man and as such could not be eternal. Nor would their sacred aura inure Jews to sin. Hence; the history of Jews in the Temple was a constant cycle of sin and repentance.
To set the stage for a Temple built by G-d, which would be eternal and in which Jews would always be inspired, the first two temples, the man-made ones, had to be destroyed. This cleared the path for the third Temple to be built by G-d. This was not a case of another benefitting from the Temple’s destruction. This was a case of the Temple benefitting from its own destruction.
Jewish law states that a synagogue may be destroyed if a new one will be built in its place. So long as the end-result is an improvement to the synagogue, the initial act of destruction is viewed as part of the growth process. This is precisely what G-d did to His own Temple. He did not just destroy it. He pushed the reset button and made space for a new and improved version.
A Two-Pronged Approach
The question should still be asked. If a G-d-made Temple is better than a man-made Temple, why didn’t G-d make the first Temple and preclude the need for destruction and rebuilding altogether?
The answer is that the only way for G-d to build a Temple is for humanity to be worthy of it. And the way to achieve our worthiness is by demonstrating our commitment to G-d even in the darkest and most trying experiences of exile. You can’t have a redemption unless it is preceded by exile. And it is only through remaining steadfast in the face of adversity that redemption has a chance to arrive.
G-d did not build the first Temple because at that point, we were not yet worthy. He instructed us to built the first Temple and allowed us to absorb whatever inspiration it offered for several hundred years. Fortified by our experience in the Temple, we could embark on our exile with the fortitude and tenacity to hold firm to our values and faith in the face of the harshest trials.
Because we experienced a Temple in the past and know how wonderfully spiritual and holy one felt in its presence, we can prevail over the most trying episodes of our exile. Knowing what we had and knowing that what we will have will be even better, gives us the strength to survive this exile.
Every day, we grow inexorably closer to that promised day when Mashiach will come and deliver the divinely constructed Temple. Our wasteland will turn into an oasis and our tragedy will turn to joy. We will look back to the Temples of old and say, behold, the new Temple is greater and more glorious than either of the Temples that we enjoyed in the past. May that day come very soon.