Parshas Matos-Masei (5769)
Rabbi Moshe Isserles, a 16th century Torah sage and leader of Polish Jewry, relates a most fascinating ancient tradition:
When King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to destroy the First Temple in Jerusalem, the Greek philosopher Plato accompanied him. After the Destruction, Plato met the prophet Jeremiah near the Temple Mount, weeping and wailing bitterly over the Temple ruins. Plato asked him two questions: 1) ‘Behold, you are the preeminent sage in Israel, is it befitting a man of your intellectual stature to cry over a building, which is really no more than a pile of sticks and stones?’ 2) ‘This building is already in ruins; what good will your tears do now? Why cry over the past?’
Jeremiah responded, ‘Plato, as a world-renowned philosopher, you surely have many perplexing questions.’ The Greek recited his long list of complicated questions. Humbly and quietly, Jeremiah solved them all in a few brief sentences. Plato was dumbfounded. “I can’t believe that any mortal man can be so wise!” Jeremiah pointed sadly to the Temple ruins and said, ‘All of this profound wisdom I derived from those “sticks and stones”, and that is why I am crying. As for your second question, “Why do I cry over the past”, this I cannot tell you because, as a rational, non-believing philosopher, you will not be able to understand it.
The truth is that it is difficult – even for believing Jews - to understand how we can still cry and mourn over the destruction of the Temple, especially considering that today it is already almost 2000 years (!) since the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and exiled our ancestors, and yet here we are, in the period leading up to Tishah B’Av generally known as “The Three Weeks”, crying, mourning, fasting, and lamenting an event that took place in ancient history!
I always like to shock people during this time of year when they see me with my unshaven face. [During this three-week period, it is customary to observe a state of mourning in which, among other things, we don’t shave or take haircuts. Click on http://www.aish.com/h/9av/ for an overview and laws of the Three Weeks]. They’ll ask me, “Hey, Rabbi! What’s with the beard?” And I respond, “Oh, you didn’t hear? I am in mourning.” That really freaks them out - until I add, “I am in mourning over the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans and the exile of the Jewish People in the year 70 CE.”
Come to think of it, though, it is pretty strange that we walk around every summer for three weeks with stubble-filled faces, just because some Roman army burned down a Jewish Temple 1939 years ago! The fact is that many nations have suffered destruction and loss of nationhood at the hands of their conquerors, yet all this becomes forgotten with the passage of time. Only the Jewish people are still weeping after so many years. Why?
The Chasam Sofer answers this strange enigma with yet another question: We know that Tishah B’Av (which falls out this year on July 30th) is considered the saddest day of the Jewish year, as it commemorates the destruction of both the First and Second Temples, among other catastrophes that befell the Jewish People on that date. And yet, we find a verse in the Book of Eichah (Lamentations) 1:15 – “He proclaimed a meeting against me to crush my young men” – in which this tragic day is referred to as mo’ed, a Hebrew word that generally means festival. In what sense can Tishah B’Av be viewed as a festival?
Our Sages state that the fact that, with the passage of time, the memory of the deceased becomes forgotten from his loved ones to the point that they can be consoled and “move on” in life, is a Divine decree. Because this is a decree, one who mourns a loved one whom he believes to be dead - but is actually alive – will never be consoled (see Rashi to Genesis 37:35). Similarly, says the Chasam Sofer, other nations can overcome their loss of country and nationhood, because when this occurs, it is final. They have no hope of ever regaining their lost empires, of being restored to their former glory. Their once glorious status is truly “dead” and therefore, becomes forgotten over time.
Israel, however, can never be consoled, for its collective soul knows that its former glory will yet return, and that, although we are in exile for the time being, L’shanah Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim – Next Year in Jerusalem.
The fact that – as irrational and incomprehensible as it might be to the Plato’s of the world – we still mourn and cry over the past, that we still yearn for the Jerusalem of old with its Temple service and the dwelling of G-d’s Divine Presence within its walls, that we still walk around for three weeks each summer in a state of mourning with unshaven beards – that we just can’t seem to “move on” even after almost 2000 years – is of itself the greatest course of consolation. And it is this aspect of Tishah B’Av that confers a degree of “festivity” upon this day of profound mourning.
May G-d put an end to this long and difficult exile (and beard!), and turn this three-week period of sadness and mourning into a time of true mo’ed and festivity, with the coming of the Moshiach, Amen.