Come In, Take Your Shoes Off: A New Look at Tisha B'Av

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July 14, 2010

Though I’ve been gone for a long, long time, each year you remember my presence, mourn my absence, and commemorate my destruction by fasting and abstaining from joyful activities. But at times, I wonder who it is you’re collectively remembering and mourning. Is it me, or your version of me? And if I’m not truly known, can I be truly mourned?

Let me tell you who I was, or who I believed myself to be, when I came to be built among you. You saw me as a bridge between the earth and heaven, but come closer. Do you see the ten emanations of creation within the outline of my edifice? What about the tree of life? No? Too mystical? Do you see my human form? It’s not easily recognizable, but it’s there, hidden in plain sight within the stones and the gold and silver and bronze that I’m comprised of. Superimpose a human body atop me, and you’ll find a torso in the sanctuary, eyes in the oil that lights the candelabrum to see in the dark, and a nose and mouth in the spices that are burned on the altar. Each gate, each courtyard, each room, each vessel brings you closer and closer to the final room, the inner sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, which only the High Priest who, shoes removed, enters on Yom Kippur. Here, the ark rests under the outspread wings of two cherubs, and within the ark are the tablets from Mt. Sinai, where you made your eternal covenant. “I will put my teaching into their inmost being, and inscribe it upon their hearts.” In the Holy of Holies, you will find the heart.

I was also a physical outline of your soul. And I don’t mean that metaphorically, though I know you are more comfortable these days with metaphors than you are with miracles. In my external courtyard was your public self; but when you were inside me, your soul was truly known.

I was more than a building, a temple, or a “place.” I was The Place, The Space, HaMakom, just like the Place Jacob recognizes as being filled with God when he wakes up from his dream of the ladder and the stairway to heaven; like the Place where Moses saw the burning bush and took his shoes off for he was on holy ground. In this Place, portable no longer, HaMakom’s presence could dwell among you as in Eden.

Then I was destroyed, rebuilt, defiled, and destroyed. Each destruction fell on the same day of the month, the 9th of Av, which you, my kingdom of priests scattered throughout the world, will remember next week by observing a fast on Tisha b’Av. In Jerusalem on Tisha b’Av there have been 100,000 of my people gathered at the Wall, not far from where I once stood, to recite Lamentations, Jeremiah’s sad dirge to the captives in Babylon. I’ve come to share this day with other terrible world events that occurred on the 9th of Av - my people were expelled from England in 1290, from Spain in 1492, and liquidated in the Warsaw Ghetto on the same day that I was destroyed.

Now, these thousands of years later, I can’t help but be happy that I still matter, you still recall me and you still mourn, from Brazil to Alaska. I’m gone now, but shards of me are lodged within you (not metaphorically, either, but miraculously). Each of you is a template of the temple, and it’s your body, your head and torso, your arms and legs, that can be draped over the floor plan of the temple. When you pray, the sweet smell drifts toward the Place; when you love, you light up everything around you. When you, bare-footed (metaphorically this time) just like the High Priest and Moses, build a space inside your heart, your own Holy of Holies for HaMakom’s presence to dwell, you are giving it wings so that the finite can be infinite. You are bridging the spiritual and the physical and, in my absence, it’s your presence that is creating a small miracle on earth. For you still remember the other words, “I will be their God, and they shall be My people.”

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