When we cry on Tisha B’av, what kind of Temple will our tears build?

Tisha B’av is a traditional day of mourning and fasting in the Jewish calendar. Starting this Monday night, Jews all over the world mark this full 24 hour period with the reading of the scroll of Lamentations and acts of mourning like sitting on the ground and abstaining from food, drink and normal pleasures of daily life. Some of my most powerful memories of Tisha B’av are from summer camp: a path of candles leading the entire camp to sit cross-legged and crowded on the floor of the main hall, the lights dim, the slow, dirge-like melodies wafting over the crowd, like the play of shadows on the walls. The atmosphere lent itself to visceral emotion and experience, but a nagging question in the back of my brain surfaced much later in my adult life: what are we crying for?

We mourn the destruction of the Temple. Oh that elusive Temple. Not just once, but twice you were taken from us and still we hope and pray for a third one. What’s that old quote about insanity, repeating the same action over and over again, hoping for a different response? Few would argue that the messianic hope to rebuild a third Temple is nothing short of religious insanity, but not necessarily the bad kind. After all, Tisha B’av marks other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people in its diaspora. A return to the strength and symbolism of sovereignty that the Temple would mean to Jews all over the world is still desperately needed today. The only thing disturbing me about a third Temple is what we ought to do with it once we have it.

Will it be the kind of Temple like its only remaining wall currently in Jerusalem? A flashpoint of sinat chinam – hatred of our fellow Jews? A place that denies ritual and religious access to a large spectrum of identifying Jews, while inspiring hatred and disdain for those who do fit into the establishment? What kind of Temple can be built on the remains of a ruined mosque? Even with the mystical arrival of our long awaited messiah, what kind of Temple could turn back the clocks and pretend that another religion hasn’t laid equally rooted and valid claims to the little bit of earth between us? What will this third Temple look like?

Our tradition teaches us in the Babylonian Talmud Gittin 56a that we ourselves are responsible for the destruction of the Temple, that our hatred, our lack of respect, our inability to appreciate and celebrate a diversity of practice and opinion brought down our central religious structure brick by brick. The Romans and the Babylonians sought to destroy us, but we weakened our immune system with an internal virus. Confronting our role in our own destruction is not as much an exercise of “blaming the victim” as it is in recognizing the dangers of narrative and history. In order to blame the victim, we have to be the victims, helpless and at the mercy of our aggressors and the whims of destiny. And I don’t want to be a victim anymore.

So what do I tell the camper who looks around a room full of crying Americans? What are we crying for? We ARE crying for what’s lost, we ARE crying for a third Temple yet to come. Today is a day to sit on the ground and cry. Sometimes, you just need a day to cry. We mourn everything that has befallen us, the ways in which we, the Jewish people, have been victims of history and victims of our own failings. But we cry for only one day. The day after will be a day for building. The day after will be a day for bridges and friendships, for coalition and consensus building, for grass roots organizing, for peace making. We will build a new third Temple, with room for everyone to worship the way they choose, with room for a wide spectrum of opinions and affiliations. We will be active partners in building a new dwelling place for God’s presence on earth. We will not be victims anymore.

About the Author
Erin Beser has served in a leadership role in several diverse American Jewish institutions, her favorite posts being the Jewish communities of Bombay, India and Izmir, Turkey through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. She received a masters in Hebrew Culture from Tel Aviv University, a teaching certificate from the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and continues her education annually through Bank Street College of Education. She loves lattes, traveling, and playing the ukulele.
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