Tisha B’Av

By Reb Miles,  5771

In memory of my mother, Miryam bat Mikhel ve-Leyka, who passed away on the 21st of Tammuz.

Tonight and tomorrow we observe the 9th of Av, one of the darkest days of the Jewish calendar. According to our tradition, the 9th of Av was the date of the destruction of both the first Temple in 586 BCE, and the second in 70 CE.

But the first temple and the second temple were very different entities, and according to our tradition their destruction hints at very different things.

The first temple was the temple built by David and Solomon. It was a temple that existed before Torah in the way that we understand it, the way we have it now, because at that time they only had the written Torah. They didn’t have the oral tradition. When we think of Torah today, we’re basically thinking of the oral tradition. The Talmud, the midrash, the commentators – everything that we have is the Torah of human interpretation, the whole process of the human effort to mediate and apply divine guidance.

But in the first temple they didn’t have that kind of Torah. What they had in those days was prophets. On the other hand, in the first temple they had all kinds of things that we later lost. For example by the time of the second temple they didn’t have the holy ark, which contained the tablets of the covenant. Some people think it’s in Ethiopia – you might have seen Indiana Jones, for instance. The ark was in the first temple, but it was lost after that.

In the first temple there were all sorts of incredible things, because the period of the first temple was the period of miracles. In the first temple, the Shechina was said to be actually present in the temple. The divine presence was in the temple, was literally right in the temple. The holy ark was in the temple. The tablets were in the temple. The heavenly flame was in the temple. The urim and thummim were in the temple – the High Priest had this breastplate with these stones, and they could receive prophecy by looking at these stones. All that was in the first temple. The rabbis say that ruach ha’kodesh was in the first temple: divine inspiration dwelt there.

But the first temple was destroyed. Why was it lost?

In the Gemara the rabbis tell us that the first temple was lost because of three things: because of avodah zarah, gilui arayot, andshfichat damim. These are the three absolutely cardinal sins in Judaism: the three worst things you can do.

Firstly, not worshipping God – literally avodah zarah means foreign worship, and it can be understood in all sorts of ways. Personally I like to understand it the way the Baal Shem Tov understood it: he equated it with any form of self-worship. The Baal Shem Tov connected it with the quality of gaavah, of seriously taking yourself as something that exists independently of God. That’s avodah zarah – if you’re worshipping anything but the One power itself, which is all that exists, in its myriad forms. If you think you’re something else: that’s avodah zarah. If you’re turned towards anything else besides that One: that’s avodah zarah.

Historically, it’s one of the acts that the rabbis say if someone tries to force you to do, on pain of your life, you should allow yourself to be martyred instead. You simply can’t do it.

So it’s associated, in a way, with a quality of korbanot, of sacrifice. A person who refuses to commit avodah zarah makes them self a korban. I make myself an offering to God. If I’m not a sacrifice to God, then that’s avodah zarah.

It’s as simple as that, from the Baal Shem Tov’s point of view. If I really have deep faith in the teachings of our tradition, that there’s really only One, and nothing is outside of that, and certainly there’s no way that I could be; if that’s the case, I’m not outside of it either – so really there’s nothing else for me to worship, except the totality itself. Only that One which is creating and sustaining and destroying and changing and empowering everything. You can think of it in different ways, but really the more I think about it the more awesome and amazing and inspiring it seems to me. The recognition of it is its worship.

When it comes to avodah, the service of the divine, there are different ways of doing it. But the original meaning had to do with the way they did it in the first temple, because they had the sense that the Shechina was right there with them.

That temple was constructed as a microcosm of the totality itself. They had knowledge of sacred geometry, and they knew how to make a building – and remember, the temple has very specific plans, how many boards here, how wide, how high – and people have studied it, just like they study the Egyptian temples. So they understood sacred geometry, and because of sacred geometry, the temple was built in such a way that it was a microcosm of the totality itself, and since the totality is filled with the divine presence, the scale model, as it were, is filled with it too. And because it was built that way and the Shechina was in it, it was filled with wonders.

So you could say: the first temple was a temple of seeing. Everything was visible. You could see the aron ha’kodesh, the holy ark. You could see the divine presence right there, you could see the fire – you could see all these awesome things.

The rabbis say it was destroyed because of these three things: avodah zarah, worshipping something other than the One, other than the totality. Gilui arayot means sexual behavior that is not wholesome. And shfichat damim means, basically, murder. People were murdering each other; they were not honoring sacred relationships, and they weren’t living as sacrifices to the One, the totality; they weren’t living in service to God.

According to the rabbis, the energy of this was very undermining, to such an extent that together – unwholesome sexual relationships, and people killing each other, and not surrendering to the power of the Shechina, not offering themselves to the Shechina – those three things undermined the stability of the entire community and the entire culture, and as a result the temple was destroyed.

But the second temple was completely different. The second temple didn’t have any of these wonders, and the rabbis didn’t say that the Shechina was really present in the same palpable way in the second temple.

What came in in the second temple period was Torah.

And the rabbis ask: why didn’t the second temple last? The answer they give is that the second temple was destroyed because ofsinat chinam. Because people hated each other. The second temple was destroyed because people hated each other.

You can see the tremendous difference between these temples. With the first temple, it’s very grave, heavy, overt things that brought it down. You can see very easily how with things like that it’s very difficult for a religious culture to cohere.

The implication is that with the second temple, people weren’t doing all these terrible things. They weren’t murdering, and so on. But it was brought down because there was division. Inner division. Because of looking down on others, hatred of others, not honoring others. That’s all it took.

There’s something very paradoxical about this history. On the one hand it seems that with the first temple all the wonders that they had, all the marvels – they’re very magical; they had prophets and prophets had these incredible experiences, visions of God and all kinds of powers. And all of this was openly revealed, on the level of seeing. And so were the things that people did wrong: they were very overt, you could see them.

The second temple doesn’t seem to be so fantastic, but it’s really deeper, because it’s connected to what’s inside people. And what’s inside people is powerful enough to bring down the whole temple. When it gets that deep, you don’t need such overtly terrible things to upset the equilibrium, to upset the balance. The equilibrium of the second temple was undermined just because people had bad opinions of other people. That’s sinat chinam.

Just as the first temple was connected to the quality of seeing, the second temple was connected to the quality of hearing – because the second temple wasn’t governed by prophets; it was the beginning of the period of oral Torah. It was built by Ezra and Nehemia, and what did they do? They went around and they read Torah to people. They had public readings of Torah. Before that, in the first temple, they weren’t reading Torah to people; people weren’t hearing Torah – it was all about prophets. You had some incredibly inspired people that stood out, and divine inspiration came through them, and you could see it.

But when it came to the second temple, you had somebody reading the Torah and explaining it, and people were listening. It’s not as amazing, it’s not as fantastic, but it’s really deeper. And it’s more democratic. The responsibility has come down to every person. Historically it wasn’t quite there yet – but it was moving in a democratic direction. The second temple is the beginning of collective responsibility. It’s a temple that was built on hearing Torah, and the Shechina in that period was knesset Yisrael. Knesset Yisrael is the community of Israel. It wasn’t that the Shechina was in the Temple and you would go and worship there; but there was the Shechina in every individual soul, and the collective, all the souls put together, is the place that the Shechina was, during the time of the second temple.

So what destroyed it? Sinat chinam. People were against each other.

For the second temple to exist, you had to have knesset Yisrael. You had to have a community of mutual respect. You had to have a community in which every person would see the divine presence in every other person. The fact that people were divided: that’s what destroyed it.

There were no rabbis in the first temple, and there were no rabbis in the second temple, either. Rabbis came along after the second temple was destroyed. Really they came in the wake of the destruction of the second temple, when Yochanan ben Zakkai escaped from the Romans, and he got permission to create the first yeshiva in Yavneh. That was in 70 of the common era, and after that some of the Pharisees who managed to survive the destruction of the temple, gathered in the town of Yavneh, in the Galilee, and they began to create rabbinic Judaism – which is essentially based on the fact that we don’t have the temple any more. We haven’t had a temple since then; we have what the rabbis created out of what was left when the temples were destroyed.

The rabbis said a couple of very interesting things in this regard. One is that anybody who has daat – anybody has deep knowledge of God – it’s as if the temple was rebuilt during their life. Anybody who has an enlightened mind, anybody who has direct knowledge of God: if that person is in the world, it’s as if the temple is in the world.

Another thing that the rabbis said was that when it comes to the first temple, because the problematic behavior was so obvious, you could also see when this behavior ceased. It was all on the level of seeing, on the level of the overt. But when it comes to the second temple, everything was more hidden. You couldn’t really see sinat chinam, because it was inside people. You can’t necessarily see hatred or lack of respect. Sometimes you can, but sometimes it’s hidden in people’s hearts and because you can’t see it, you can’t see the end of it.

And that hatred is in fact why we still don’t have a temple two thousand years later. Not only did it bring down the second temple, but it’s made it virtually impossible for the third temple to be rebuilt.

However, in the wake of the loss of the second temple, the rabbis brought Torah to the world in the sense that we understand it – the oral Torah. The written Torah just means the letters and the words as they are arranged in the Torah scroll; but what we really mean by Torah is everything that students of the Torah have learned and taught over the past two thousand years. That’s the oral Torah; all our rabbinic literature. That’s the way that Judaism works – you don’t even imagine that you could understand the written Torah without the oral Torah. It’s not a stand-alone. The rabbis introduced a very sophisticated, deep hermeneutic, and it’s up to us to figure out what exactly God wants from us. And that’s what the Torah really is – assuming the responsibility of interpreting and mediating what we’ve received.

That’s really the Torah of cherut, the Torah of freedom. it’s not the Torah that’s written in stone, that Moses wrote with his finger. It’s the rabbis’ effort to reclaim the original tablets that Moses broke, that were written with the finger of God. The Torah that was written by the finger of God is the Torah of cherut, of freedom, not of charut, graven-ness; it’s a Torah of infinite possibilities.

So when we think about the third temple, we have to continue the work of the rabbis. Their third temple is the temple of daat, the temple of direct knowledge of God. The rabbis were working on the temple of the human heart, the temple that would be built through the fixing of our nature, through our evolving ourselves, through our each becoming a miniature temple. We ourselves have to become the microcosm.

The second temple necessitated the bonding together of all Israel in order to maintain it, but they couldn’t do that because they didn’t have enough Torah yet. After that temple was destroyed, the oral Torah really began to evolve, and the emphasis of the oral Torah is that every person really needs to become a temple of their own. That’s pretty deep. That means I don’t have to go anywhere else to experience the divine presence. The Shechina is right where I am, if I’m a temple. The divine presence is everywhere I go.

It seems to me that this is where we are now, except that now I would say that we have to move beyond even that.

The second temple was based on a conception of knesset Yisrael – that all the Jews have to love each other. The third temple requires that we go way beyond that. It has to be a one world temple. The prophets talk about the third temple being a house for all people. What house is big enough for all people? It has to be the world itself. Only the world itself is big enough for God to say “This is my house for all people.” The earth itself is the third temple. This is the temple that we have to dedicate ourselves to.

In the kabbalistic tradition every month is associated with a particular flaw or place which is ripe for rectification. The months of Tammuz and Av, where the three weeks fall, are associated with a flaw in hearing, and a flaw in seeing. The truth is that we’re impoverished in terms of seeing and of hearing – how we see ourselves, and how we see the world.

The correction comes through hearing words of Torah, hearing true words, the words that have the power to fix the way we hear and see. If we look historically we for sure want to fix the sinat chinam, the hatred and disrespect, that brought down the second temple.

But I think really now we’re trying to fix the entire way we see on the level of the third temple: we need to see the whole world as the temple of god. If we’re not seeing that, something’s wrong with our seeing. Hearing the “Shma,” that haShem is One, can fix the way we see. Because however it might appear, the truth is that all is really One. The whole world is nothing but the temple of God.

The rabbis said that whoever sheds tears for Jerusalem will also get to experience its joy. To be able to experience the joy of the third temple, you have to experience grief at its absence. The three weeks are the time for that – the three weeks are the time to really grieve for the brokenness of the world. We’re so jaded, so conditioned to accept the tragedies of the world that we hear about every day on the news. But now is the time to allow that in, to understand how we’re connected to it, how it’s all taking place in the temple of God. If you can’t shed tears for the brokenness, you’re not going to get to the place of the third temple.

The holy Ari, the kabbalist Yitzchak Luria, taught us that Tammuz and Av are like the eyes in the face, in part because this is the time for a correction of seeing. And there’s a verse in the book of Lamentations, that we read on Tisha b’Av:

Al eleh ani bochiya; eini, eini yordah mayim
Ki rachok mimeni menachem, meishiv nafshi

“Because of all these things I’m crying; my eye, my eye is dripping with water
Because the comforter who can restore my soul is far from me.”

I think when we say soul there what that means is the world-soul. There are various ways the individual can feel OK, and thank God we are in a time and place where we personally are more or less safe. But really, for as long as it’s all one world, we’re in delusion if we’re not feeling the suffering of others.

Currently we’re between the second and the third temples, though many sources say we’re getting close to the end, that we’re a lot closer to the end than we are to the beginning. According to the rabbis, every generation contributes to the building of the third temple; it all adds up. It’s the work of all generations. We’ve invested at least two thousand years in this third temple, and now we’re getting very close to the end of this period. Halavai – if only – we should see it in our own time, we should see the fixing of the 3rd temple, the rebuilding of the world.

There’s a practice that can help us a great deal in transforming ourselves into microcsomic temples:

You can circulate your breath around what the Taoists call the micro-cosmic orbit – inhaling from the base of your spine up to the pineal gland in the middle of your skull, and then exhaling through your third eye down to your heart. As you do this you visualize the path of the breath, and inwardly sound the letters of the divine four-letter name which is associated with the month of Av. As you inhale you sound ha – va and as you exhale sound ya – ha.

When you circulate energy like this, you may see a lot of light. Don’t do this practice for so long that you obliterate yourself; when the light has built up a bit, switch to the mantra “ozer dalim” – “[God] helps the downtrodden” – and stay with that for a while.

May the merit of this practice and of the oral Torah help us all transform into completed pieces of the third temple, speedily and in our days.

And may we all be blessed to feel what we need to feel during the three weeks, during Tisha b’Av; may the world be safe; may the fixing of hearing and seeing take place and be whole and complete, and lead us in the direction of the other side, the side of the birth of mashiach, that’s also related to Tisha b’Av; and may the mayim that runs from our eyes when we feel the pain of the downtrodden that runs through this world be transformed, through our devotion, to mayim chayim nozlim m’levanon , the life-giving waters that flow down from the transcendent source of pure compassion. Amen.