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Rabbi's Blog

rabbi 05 smallsf badge lgRabbi Joel Landau  (rabbi@adathisraelsf.org) has been the Rabbi of Adath Israel since May 2013. He was ordained by the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem and has served previously as a congregational Rabbi in Charleston, South Carolina and Irvine, California. A full biography of Rabbi Landau is available here.


Throughout Jewish history, our people have suffered through tragedies that are too unbearable to comprehend. It is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to understand the void that exists in our day to day lives without the Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple. In the following article, Rebbitzen Tziporah Heller begins to define what it is exactly that we are mourning and offers her modest proposal to redemption - baseless love. 

Mourning is never easy, nor is it meant to be.

Recognizing the empty space that can't be filled with distraction or replacement is one of life's most profound experiences. There are losses so devastating that words, no matter how carefully selected, are cheap and banal at best and patronizing at worst. When there is nothing to say, nothing is more eloquent than silence.

There are losses that not only defy any lexicon, but they are so enormous that even our minds cannot grasp them, and we find ourselves in emotional denial. When we realize that the life of any Holocaust survivor has chapters that can never be digested, let alone expressed, we can begin to understand the awesome silence of loss.

When we have no words, there is no way to transmit information. A tragic result is that often the most profound losses are also the least understood, and most often forgotten. To our great-grandchildren, the horror of the Holocaust may become a dusty relic of antique memory, much as the Spanish Inquisition is to us.

No one today can begin to understand the enormity of the loss of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the Beit HaMikdash. When it stood, the Temple let us experience spirituality directly. God's presence could be felt in every stone, in every corner -- no external catalyst needed.

We have been mourning the loss of this connection for thousands of years, and we no longer have the words to convey its meaning. We go through the motions of mourning, but we need words to make it real.

Let us focus on what the loss of the Temple 2,000 years ago means to us in the new millennia.

The words Beit HaMikdash literally means "Holy House." A house is by definition a place to find shelter, comfort and express our identity.

Without a house to call our own, Jews experience discomfort in the world. Physically, we are not comfortable in the face of ceaseless persecution. Nor are we psychologically comfortable unless we have spiritual means of being ourselves. Without it, our collective life is painful and gray.

The need to express our most genuine selves manifests at times in pursuit of justice. This is reflected in social activism. Our collective need to give has been reflected in our caring and generosity. We are an extraordinarily interactive people, but we are still restless. The inner serenity that we seek eludes us; we are not quite at home.

The material world that fulfills us also distracts us from searching for our deepest sense of identity, and at time corrupts us. In recognition, other religions have idealized "rising above" worldly desire. Jews recognize the power and beauty of the world as a catalyst for our capacity to live meaningfully, and we embrace it. But our two worlds, the outer one and the inner one, sometimes remain separate realms.

In the Beit Hamikdash, the spiritual world was not obscured by the physical. The two worlds existed perfectly together through the grace of God's presence.

God Himself is referred to as HaMakom, "The Place." He is the place in which the world exists. The engaging nature of the world conceals God from us, and we drown in the endless pursuit of what the world cannot give us. The exception to this was intense realization of God in the Temple, where the physical stones revealed more holiness than they concealed. It was a place of intense joy. There, we were truly home. We were ourselves, at our best.

The Beit Hamikdash was the glue that held us together as a people. Not only were we "at home," but we also developed a collective identity -- one family with common goals, while retaining our individual roles. In such a setting, the external differences between individuals fades, leaving only our yearning for goodness.

Yet when our ability to see the common bond of goodness fades, our focal point changes. Inexorably we focus on the limitations that separate us. Our sense of justice is degraded into ceaseless negativism and biting criticism. This eventually leads to senseless hatred.

Hatred is senseless when there is no desire to improve the relationship between oneself and another person. The fact that "they" are not you, is enough of a threat to fear them at first, and then hate them. The more different they are, the greater the threat.

The Temple's destruction was caused by senseless hatred. The factionalism and xenophobic fear of others catapulted a 2,000-year journey toward rectification. Now, the physical return to Israel has given us, for the first time in centuries, a physical means of redefining our nationhood. And though there are signs in the right direction, we are not yet at home.

THE KEY TO REDEMPTION

Will we ever be truly home? Is there a way out?

Maimonides offers a formula that has often been referred to as "senseless love." We must reach out to each other without agendas that corrupt into another form of acquisition. The process is transformative in the way that it changes our focus:

  • We are obligated to speak well of other people, sharing our joy at having glimpsed his/her inner beauty. The act of speaking positively allies us to each other. It makes us aware that we are on one team. 
  • We are obligated to care for each other's material needs. By being aware of how frail and needy our bodies make us, we become more forgiving and tolerant.
  • We are obligated to seek out situations that bring honor to others. By doing so, we give them the precious gift of self-esteem and simultaneously remove ourselves from the egotistical traps of center stage.

This three-step process is deceptively simple. Yet it can change us dramatically. It can change not only our relationship to others, but can lead us to rediscover ourselves. In doing so, the endless mourning for our lost selves, and for our national tragedies, will cease.

Tisha B'Av, the day we lost the First and Second Temple, is also the day in which the Inquisition edicts were signed over 500 years ago. It is also the fateful day in 1914 that started the World War One, which inevitably led to the worst atrocity mankind has ever experienced, the Holocaust.

For two millennia, the Jewish people have been targeted again and again by hatred and persecution. It seems that we are held together by the world's hatred rather than by love for each other. Yet things can change. We only need to take the steps from hatred to love, from criticism to appreciation.

God Himself has promised that once we achieve this transformation, we will merit to truly come home.