We Acknowledge the Past, But Don’t Live There

This Tuesday coming up is Tisha B’Av, the Ninth of Av, a day of sorrow and commemoration for the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem. There were two Temples, the first destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the second by the Romans in 70 CE. Tradition teaches that both were destroyed on the same date.

These events were seen as highly traumatic for the Jewish people. With the destruction of the Temples Jewish sovereignty came to an end and the people were exiled as the central institutions of Jewish practice were abolished. Tisha B’Av is a day set aside for mourning these events, usually marked by fasting and the reading of the biblical book of Lamentations.

destruction of the templeWe still maintain the Temple as an important place in the religious imagination of Judaism. It is seen as the place where Israel and God were closest, and we turn to face its location during our prayer services. Yet Judaism has changed and evolved away from Temple practice It was out of these ashes that the Talmud was born and Judaism as we know it—as opposed to one centered around the Temple-based sacrificial system—was developed. We therefore approach the destruction with mixed emotions: we mourn for its loss and the trauma that brought, while at the same time we don’t hope for its actual rebuilding.

We look back and acknowledge the past, while at the same time recognize how that past brought us to where we are today. There is a wonderful story from the Talmud (Baba Bathra 60b) about the aftermath of the destruction:

It was taught: when the Temple was destroyed, large numbers of Jews became ascetics, not eating meat or drinking wine. Rabbi Joshua asked them, “why do you not eat meat or drink wine?”

“They replied, ‘how can we eat meat, when we used to bring meat as an offering on the altar which is now destroyed? And how can we drink wine, which was poured out as an offering, when we no longer do that.”

Rabbi Joshua said, “in that case you shouldn’t eat bread, since we used to offer meal offerings and don’t any more.”

“You are right,” they said. “In that case we will manage with just fruit.”

“But you shouldn’t eat fruit, because we used to offer the first fruits of the harvest at the Temple, and we don’t do that anymore.”

“Ok, well, we can manage with different fruits.”

“And,” Rabbi Joshua said, “we should not drink water, because of the ritual of water pouring that was practiced in the Temple.”

With that, the people were silent.

Joshua said, “You are right to mourn, it is necessary to mourn the destruction of the Temple. But to mourn too much is also also impossible, for it is too much to bear.”

Afterwards the rabbis made a rule: When a person builds a house, he should leave one corner unfinished, in memory of the Temple. If a person is preparing a meal, he should leave out one small ingredient, in memory of the Temple.

[This idea is also the source of the custom of breaking a glass at the end of a wedding—we take a happy event and add a bit of sadness.]

What this story teaches is that first and foremost we are survivors. When we experience destruction or loss, it is not that we must become ascetics and give up our lives as we know it. Rather we must continue to build houses and hold feasts. We must continue to enjoy meat and wine, bread and fruit and water.

At the same time, we acknowledge the losses of the past and how they impact how are lives are lived now. They are very real, and not to be ignored.

Taken together, what the Talmud is teaching us is, while we must acknowledge our pasts, we can not live in them. Indeed, all of our experiences make us who we are today, so while we take the time and space to mourn our personal losses destructions, we also acknowledge who we have become because of those losses and destructions. Those difficult aspects of our past have some redemption in the fact that they have brought us to who we are in the present.

This Tisha B’Av, we acknowledge the past hurts and destructions in our lives. And we celebrate our ability to rise out of those ashes and begin anew.

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