How to connect to the destruction of the Temples so long ago, when all I see is bustling vibrant Jerusalem streets? Every year, this question comes back to bite us. Here’s this year’s thought.
A few weeks ago, I was sitting in the plaza near the stairs leading down to the Kotel, in which a golden menorah in a glass case stands guard. Behind me were young men with guitars, leading a group of people in song; facing me, the Kotel and the Temple Mount.
Singing traditional Hebrew songs of yearning for Jerusalem, I reflected that those who sing these words are generally far away from her; and yet here I was, in Jerusalem, with the very holiest place, where the Temple once stood, directly in my sight line.
Should my location have made me yearn more — in palpably seeing the absence of the Temple? It didn’t immediately; on the contrary, I felt fortunate.
But then I was suddenly struck by a parallel between my life and that of the Jewish people in their land.
My life is like the State of Israel. I’m blessed to live a life that is active, diverse and colorful (at least, much of the time), one that works as a home for the person that I am. It’s a place of profound identity discovery, of Jewish authenticity, adventure, empowerment, and miracles. (It also shares some of the negative aspects of Israel, but we won’t go into that here).
And yet the Temple is missing. As a single, I do not have in my life that relationship that is the mikdash me’at, the Temple in microcosm, that is the home for the Shechinah, God’s indwelling presence. The sages say that if a man and a woman merit it, the Shechinah resides between them — just as it did between the two cherubs on the ark in the Temple’s holy of holies.
What is the State of Israel without a Temple?
Some say: it is complete; probably better off without one central institutionalized authority. Or perhaps even that the State is the third Temple. Others insist it is sorely lacking, that even a thriving State is nothing without its beating heart, its nerve center; that we must therefore weep and mourn until such a day as it is restored. And many people take an in-between position, enjoying the present, but knowing something is yet to be desired.
Likewise in the realm of romantic partnership. There are those feel complete without a committed relationship in their lives; in fact, they don’t even want a relationship, it would interfere with their goals and compromise their independence. But for many others (I dare venture, for most), even a very rich and full life is deeply lacking, in the absence of that person with whom to make it not just a life but a partnership of meaning and of jointly building a future. You can enjoy and appreciate your life, but that does not contradict the knowledge of what is not right.
For me, there is truth to the first position, but there is a greater truth to the second. The convenience of being able to freely do what I want without having to consult with or pander to another’s agenda pales in comparison with the holiness and growth that lies in a strong committed relationship. And no matter how much I train myself to be grateful for all I have, or listen to spiritual gurus who advise acceptance of everything in life as being exactly right for us, I know that something is deeply wrong. Something is deeply deeply wrong.
And this is what I bring to this year, as I gear up for the fast of the 9th of Av. What was lost to the Jewish people was a home for the Divine, a vessel for sacredness, for a different kind of relationship with God. And even if after stumbling around in bitter exile for so many years, we have finally been privileged to a homecoming and to build something much more joyful and alive, even if it is a huge gift, the State of Israel is still “lo zeh.” It still falls far short of what we really, truly want — although that thought is not always uppermost, although we don’t actually consciously know what we are missing, although there are “Templephobes” just as there are “commitmentphobes”.
We simply cannot imagine what we now lack. We might even think we are much better off without it. But it’s clear to me that what we yearn for in messianic terms must be nothing less than a new level of consciousness and of self. It is that same step up and leap that the individual takes when s/he stands under the huppah and begins a new chapter as a life partner.
And sometimes, it’s only when things become turbulent, uncomfortable and painful that we direct our attention to what is there and what is not. The awfulness of recent events on the Temple Mount, the killings and other violent eruptions, makes it hard for us to just forget all about it and leave the status quo in place, something many might otherwise like to do: to ignore the issues surrounding a place so volatile and just get on with life, hoping things will sort themselves out.
I do not mean to cheapen the Temple Mount issue in any way, by continuing the analogy: that this is not so far off from what happens to a single person. One might spend weeks or months not thinking at all about how off-centre and far from ideal one’s life is, and even saying to oneself, “This isn’t so bad; this is quite good, it’s okay, it’s a life… who needs change, anyway?” And then, a period of turbulence, pain and inner violence erupts and threatens to completely overwhelm everything that has been built.
And it feels terrible, like the end of the world.
I recently read someone’s doctorate on Orthodox transgender Jews. Among the fascinating things I read, one that stands out for me was the interviewee who commented that even worse than being a transgender woman was the experience of being a single woman in a Jewish community. Enough said.
We singles know what it is to wait and hope for something that seems forever in the coming. We know about being endlessly patient and believing; losing belief, finding it again; falling down and getting back up; scrabbling around for scraps of faith.
We can teach the world how to wait for the Messiah, and, every 9th of Av, to believe that this time, this time it will be different, for yeshuat Hashem keheref ayin.
This 9th of Av, let us all remember what we truly lack, even if it is painful to face it. That something sacred in the center of our lives, the sense of the presence of the Shechinah. And let us believe that this can change, and allow neither realpolitik, cynicism nor bitterness to poison our faith in the future.
Yael Unterman is the author of “The Hidden of Things: Twelve Stories of Love & Longing,” fictional tales exploring the interface between life as a single person and spiritual search for meaning.