As a general rule, Jews are very good at naming things. We have a seven-day period of mourning; we call it shiva – seven. After that there is a 30-day period of mourning; we call that shloshim – 30. We have a holiday when we sit in huts and we call that…Sukkot – huts. We have a fast day on the 9th day of Av and we call that Tisha B’Av – the 9th of Av. And we have a period of mourning for the temple each year and it last three weeks and we call it…wait for it… the Three Weeks. Because Jews are Good at Naming Things. (And of course, we have nine days of more intense mourning and you’ll never guess what we call that.)
The whole idea of being in mourning for the destruction of Jerusalem and the Beit Hamikdash 1,952 years ago is a complicated topic for many contemporary Jews. First of all, there is so much hardship and pain and frustration and evil and fear and anxiety right now, it’s hard to imagine a lot of emotional bandwidth to actually mourn for something so long ago. And more than that, we were born into this world: a world without the Beit Hamikdash; with the promise of a Jewish homeland in Israel tantalizingly unfulfilled; where Jews are marginalized as being all powerful and beaten because they are powerless; where the left hates us for being privileged and white and the right hates us for not really being white; and where we are very much still in galus (exile). So, it’s hard for many of us to feel real emotion and instead we fall back on an intellectual approach to the Three Weeks.
And that is certainly my situation. My experience of this time of year is in my head and not my heart. I know that’s not ideal; I know we don’t mourn in our mind, but that’s where I am. I’m attracted to scholars who have interesting insights into the Talmudic/Aggadic material for this time of the year, and scholars that synthesize the Rabbinic writings with the historical sources, and scholars who discuss the minutiae of relevant halacha, such as, if one may take slow-release caffeine/acetaminophen pills on Shabbos to make Sunday’s Tisha B’Av fast easier or if that’s a problem of either preparing for the weekday on Shabbos or maybe taking medicine on Shabbos. That’s WAY more interesting and engaging to me than feelings of mourning. (I don’t mean to turn this into a public therapy session, but feelings really aren’t my strong suit. I’m not really “feelings” guy; I’m more of “figure out what to do about it” kinda guy.)
So that’s the context in which I stumbled across a relevant and inspiring commentary by the Malbim (Reb Meïr Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Weisser, 1809-1879, Ukraine). For the last few months part of my regular learning schedule has included Sefer Tehillim (Psalms) and when I can I try to make use of the Malbim’s commentary. This past Shabbos I came to Psalm 122.
שִׁ֥יר הַֽמַּעֲל֗וֹת לְדָ֫וִ֥ד שָׂ֭מַחְתִּי בְּאֹמְרִ֣ים לִ֑י בֵּ֖ית יְהֹוָ֣ה נֵלֵֽךְ׃
עֹ֭מְדוֹת הָי֣וּ רַגְלֵ֑ינוּ בִּ֝שְׁעָרַ֗יִךְ יְרוּשָׁלָֽ͏ִם׃
יְרוּשָׁלַ֥͏ִם הַבְּנוּיָ֑ה כְּ֝עִ֗יר שֶׁחֻבְּרָה־לָּ֥הּ יַחְדָּֽו׃
שֶׁשָּׁ֨ם עָל֪וּ שְׁבָטִ֡ים שִׁבְטֵי־יָ֭הּ עֵד֣וּת לְיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל לְ֝הֹד֗וֹת לְשֵׁ֣ם יְהֹוָֽה׃
כִּ֤י שָׁ֨מָּה יָשְׁב֣וּ כִסְא֣וֹת לְמִשְׁפָּ֑ט כִּ֝סְא֗וֹת לְבֵ֣ית דָּוִֽד׃
שַׁ֭אֲלוּ שְׁל֣וֹם יְרוּשָׁלָ֑͏ִם יִ֝שְׁלָ֗יוּ אֹהֲבָֽיִךְ׃
יְהִי־שָׁל֥וֹם בְּחֵילֵ֑ךְ שַׁ֝לְוָ֗ה בְּאַרְמְנוֹתָֽיִךְ׃
לְ֭מַעַן אַחַ֣י וְרֵעָ֑י אֲדַבְּרָה־נָּ֖א שָׁל֣וֹם בָּֽךְ׃
לְ֭מַעַן בֵּית־יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֵ֑ינוּ אֲבַקְשָׁ֖ה ט֣וֹב לָֽךְ׃
A song of ascents. Of David. I rejoiced when they said to me,
“We are going to the House of the LORD.”
Our feet stood inside your gates, O Jerusalem,
Jerusalem built up, a city knit together,
to which tribes would make pilgrimage,
the tribes of the LORD,
—as was enjoined upon Israel—
to praise the name of the LORD.
There the thrones of judgment stood,
thrones of the house of David.
Pray for the well-being of Jerusalem;
“May those who love you be at peace.
May there be well-being within your ramparts,
peace in your citadels.”
For the sake of my kin and friends,
I pray for your well-being;
for the sake of the house of the LORD our God,
I seek your good.
(Thanks to Sefaria.org)
What appears to vex the Malbim as he approaches this psalm is also what might perplex you when thinking about the three weeks. On the one hand, this is a poem evoking warm feelings for Jerusalem and prayers for this holy city. On the other hand, it also seems to be a poem or prayer for the Jewish people: “May those who love you be at peace,” “For the sake of my kin and friends I pray for your well-being.” And we have the same thing this time of year. Our sources teach that the second Temple was lost because the Jewish people were mired in hatred and enmity for each other. Our sages implore us to seek peace among ourselves in order to bring about an end to exile. Both in this psalm and in our consciousness the welfare of the Jerusalem is a barometer to measure the state of Jewish unity, and vice versa. Why is that so?
[If your level of scholarship and your free time allow you to explore this Malbim inside, I wholly suggest that you do. What follows is not a translation of the Malbim; it’s more of a freestyle explanation.]
The Malbim explains that Jerusalem came to be in Jewish hands during the time of King David. It was situated at the nexus of his tribe of Judah, Shaul’s tribe of Binyamin, and the beginning of the northern tribes of Ephraim and so forth. The capture of the city was a joint operation of all the tribes and an expression of the nation fully embracing David’s rule and the beginning of his new dynasty. Jerusalem in its earliest Jewish moment was a metaphor of national unity.
He goes on to explain that the Jewish people can be compared to a whole, integrated body. A human body is made up of limbs and organs that are interconnected to serve a unified purpose. And more than that, the physical body is also intimately connected to a spiritual essence. This spirituality (נפש, רוח, נשמה) animates the body, informs and impacts our emotional life, gives us the power of speech, and connects us to a larger spiritual universe. And in many ways, Jerusalem serves the same function for us on a national level.
Jerusalem was the seat of the Sanhedrin, the high court, and the throne of the Davidic dynasty. Those are entities that create legislation on religious matters and decrees for national needs. And the Beit Hamikdash was the place on Earth where Hashem’s presence was most powerfully experienced. The Malbim explains that just like the spiritual essence of a person is connected to the heart and mind of a human body, Jerusalem plays that role for the nation as a whole.
A human body is made of many systems and limbs that support the life of the individual. When those systems work together in harmony then the body is healthy. If a limb becomes separated from the body, the limb suffers, and so does the body. If one system tries to exert influence beyond its mission (think an immune system running amuck, or a nervous system with neurons firing for no reason) then the body, the person, suffers just as surely as when that system stops working all together. When there is harmony among the parts and systems then the individual can thrive. And that, the Malbim explains, is the meaning of שַׁ֭אֲלוּ שְׁל֣וֹם יְרוּשָׁלָ֑͏ִם יִ֝שְׁלָ֗יוּ אֹהֲבָֽיִךְ׃, which he might translate as, [Do you] inquire about the wellbeing of Jerusalem? [See if] those who love her are content. The relationship between the Jewish people and Jerusalem is reflective. If the parts of the body of the Jewish people are content and at peace, then rest assured that Jerusalem is as well. And if Jerusalem is not a place of peace, righteousness, justice, and palpable divinity, then all is not well with the Jewish people.
In the sunset years of the Second Commonwealth, and in the moments before the destruction of the Temple and Yerushalayim, there was profound breeches to Jewish unity. Not just that some Jews were “religious” in the sense of following the Pharisees, i.e. rabbinic Judaism, and that some Jews were “not religious” in the sense that they followed the Karites, or Sadducees, or Essenes, or proto-Christianity, or some other “denomination.” But even among people who agreed religiously, more or less, they had profound, violent, disagreements politically. Some argued that we would be better off to accept Roman rule if we could just keep the Temple and practice the Torah. And some people killed those people. Our sages say that it was this divisive dissonance that led to destruction and exile. Which is interesting, right? Because there are one or two pesukim in the Torah about not hating your brother and living harmoniously, but there are hundreds and hundreds of pesukim that describe ritual obligations, honesty in business, fidelity to Hashem, and so forth. It’s so hard to understand why the sin of the disunity lead to this profound a consequence.
Unless you understand that the math of sin = consequence is a total error in understanding the dynamics of the destruction of Jerusalem. The problem wasn’t that “the sin was so bad.” The problem is that the limbs of the body were no longer connected, so the soul left the body.
I started saying that it’s hard to muster up the emotions appropriate for the mourning of the Three Weeks and the mourning for the Jerusalem of old. For me that’s true still. But it’s not hard to muster up emotions about the state of Jewish unity. Perhaps the metaphor the Malbim gives us will be helpful. We need each other as much as an eye needs a kidney and a pancreas needs a left leg. If one part of us is missing we’re each deficient.
I’ll need to think about what to do about this, but first I think, I need to feel the feelings of mourning for what is.