The Temple is still burning (and that’s why we should be mourning it)

Teach people about the Holocaust and one video or moving testimony from a survivor can easily bring them to tears.

Teach them the story of the destruction of the two Temples that stood collectively for over 800 years in Jerusalem and served as the spiritual center of Judaism and the Jewish people, and no matter how much you try to make it seem significant and catastrophic, you might put them to sleep.

I’ve seen it in my own work as a teacher of Jewish history in Israel.

Even when I go with my students to the actual site of the 2nd Temple’s destruction…

And literally sit next to a pile of massive boulders of stone that once were a part of the Western Wall that the Romans partially ripped down 2000 years ago…

Stones that stand as a silent memorial to the devastation that our people suffered in that generation…

Even with all the powerful props in place, I STILL have to muster all of my theatrical skills and infuse my telling of the story with enhanced passion and emotion to get even a twitch of a response out of them.

And I totally understand why.

The Temple stood so long ago as to belong to the history of a different people, maybe even a different planet.

The Temple, with its daily animal sacrifices performed only by a small priestly class of Jews, represents a form of Judaism that no longer exists and feels completely foreign to post-Temple Jews, the details of which remain practically locked away in books that most Jews never open.

Simply speaking, it is not easy to feel pain or sadness over the destruction of a building people have never seen. It doesn’t make sense to them to long for the return of a structure and an institution that with it brings a form of Judaism they’ve never experienced and can’t personally relate with.

But I believe this would all change if we understood what the Temple really meant, not only to the Jewish people, but to the entire world as well.

That it was much more than just a physical structure, some kind of mega-synagogue. That it was more than just a place to practice an ancient form of Judaism in ancient times.

If we understood what was lost when the Temple was taken from us, I think we would have an easier time shedding tears over its destruction, even so many centuries later.

From Judaism’s mystical sources, we learn that the Temple was a place where heaven and earth touched, where the spiritual and the physical dimensions of reality combined and intertwined. Where the ultimate message of monotheism was on display, could be felt by all who visited and was broadcast to all of humanity—that there is One God, that all is connected to the Oneness of that One God, that there is a purpose to this world, that our actions mean something, that each one of us means something and that we are all here to do our part in the process of tikkun olam (fixing the world). The Temple was a physical representation of the spiritual message of Judaism. It was the capstone of the entire reason Judaism came into the world.

And while these spiritual ideas continued to exist even after its destruction and throughout the physical and spiritual exile of the Jewish people, they did so only as a shadow of their original strength when the once awe-inspiring Temple was reduced to rubble. Making it more difficult, on a subtle spiritual level, for all of humanity to feel, to understand and to internalize its ancient messages.

And that opened up the doors to a world with more brokenness. A world with more spiritual confusion, more disconnection, more separation—between God and humans, between heaven and earth, between the physical and the spiritual—since the presence of the Temple was not only a sign that these connections were in place; its existence helped to strengthen these connections as well.

And now, for the past 2000 years, we have lived in a world without a Temple. We have become accustomed to its absence. We know no other reality and have grown used to the brokenness its destruction brought. So much so that we barely, if at all, can imagine a world with a Temple and all that it symbolized and embodied. We can barely understand anymore why we would even want a Temple to stand once again in Jerusalem. Why we should want it.

And yet Judaism hasn’t forgotten about the Temple. And it won’t allow us to forget about it either.

Our tradition is filled with rituals and methods of remembering Jerusalem and the Temple. We face Jerusalem when we pray. We have countless passages in our most important texts dedicated to the details of the Temple. We have fast days throughout the year that serve to help us to remember and to mourn and to not forget the Temple. Our daily prayers and blessings over food are replete with references to Jerusalem and the Temple and a longing for its eventual rebuilding, so much so that even if I eat a simple little sandwich or a few crackers, the blessing I say afterwards contains an expression of the desire to rebuild the Temple. Let me reiterate that: I eat a few crackers and immediately after I say a blessing in which I express my longing for the rebuilding of Jerusalem.

But why?

Why can’t we just say once upon a time we had a Temple and now we don’t? Why can’t we just accept that it was a different time back then but the world has changed, we have changed, we’ve moved on and we don’t need another Temple anymore?

Because the Jewish tradition knows that one of its essential tenets, the ultimate fixing of the world, is inseparable from the idea and existence of the Temple.

And when we realize that the brokenness we see around us in our world today is somehow related to the brokenness that still exists in Jerusalem, to those massive boulders that continue to sit in the shadow of the Temple Mount, we understand that, even in our generation, the Temple is still burning.

When people are oppressed or discriminated against based on the color of the skin, their religion or their beliefs…the Temple is still burning.

When genocide or ethnic cleansing is carried out against a nation or people…the Temple is still burning.

When companies intentionally pollute our world’s oceans, rivers and lakes…the Temple is still burning.

When the welfare, health and happiness of the many become secondary to the drive for power and money of the few…the Temple is still burning.

When a person walks into a public space and blows himself up or begins shooting randomly at innocent people…the Temple is still burning.

When leaders make decisions based on immoral self-interests instead of what is right for their people and the world…the Temple is still burning.

When our political and community leaders are found guilty of corruption, bribery, and immorality…the Temple is still burning.

When Israel is targeted disproportionally in the international community and anti-Semitism rises around the world…the Temple is still burning.

When terror organizations kill to further their radical, extremist ideas…the Temple is still burning.

And on…and on…and on.

When viewed in this way, we see that ultimately we are not mourning over the actual destruction of the physical Temple that stood in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. We are not crying over a past event that we cannot change. Rather, we are mourning over the present, the here and the now in which the Temple is still burning, and the fact that we still have not done the necessary work to put that fire out.

May ours be the generation that finally puts that fire out.

About the Author
Akiva Gersh is the editor of the book "Becoming Israeli" (www.becomingisraeli.com), a compilation of blogs and essays that speak of the inspiring and the sometimes wacky and crazy experience of making aliyah. Akiva himself made aliyah in 2004 with his wife Tamar and they live in Pardes Hanna with their four kids. He teaches Jewish history at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel in Hod HaSharon. He is also a musician and in 2010 formed Holy Land Spirit, an uplifting and spiritual musical experience for Christian groups visiting Israel.
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