I imagine myself, 2000 years ago. Somehow I managed to escape the Roman pillage of Jerusalem, somehow I managed to escape the deadly rivalry between the Jews. I look back for a moment. My whole world is up in flames. My eyes are watering from the smoke. The smell is of death. I see the ashes, our Holy Temple smoldering. All is destroyed. There has been so much death. I think of all the materials that were used; cedars from Lebanon, the
gold, silver, copper and brass expertly crafted into the utensils needed for accepting the ritual sacrifices. I think of all the hours of careful and tedious work that went into weaving the drapes and the garments of the priests. I remember the exquisite colors of the drapes; sky blue, dark red, crimson. I remember the holy priests with their pure white robes adorned with a breastplate set with precious gems. All was gone. All destroyed. Who would lead us? How would we repent? Where would we bring our peace offerings or our offerings of gratitude? Where would we rejoice? Where would we find the Almighty?
Each summer, in the hottest part of the year many Jewish people remember the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem. This day is called Tisha B’Av (the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av). The three weeks prior to this day mourning rituals begin to change our daily life. We refrain from wedding celebrations, live music and haircuts. As the ninth of Av approaches we stop eating meat, we stop swimming and imbibing alcohol and ultimately, on the 9th of Av itself we fast for 25 hours. Sitting on the floor in our synagogues ,as mourners, we listen to the chanting of The Book of Lamentations. Megillat Eicha (as it is known in Hebrew) is a graphic description of destruction, starvation, plunder, and death. The historian Josephus estimated that 1.1 million people were killed during the siege of Jerusalem.
The ancient Rabbis believed that all this happened, all this destruction and death happened because of senseless hate. As time passed, the sages who escaped from Jerusalem helped Judaism morph from a religion dependent on sacrifices and a Holy Temple to a religion that used prayer, synagogues, mitzvot and study to feel closeness to the Almighty. No third Temple was built, but Judaism changed and survived.
The Ninth of Av did not always resonate with me. Although I observed the rituals connected with it, I often resented the observance of three weeks of mourning in the middle of the summer. I did not really mourn the destruction of the Temple, I did not want to return to a religion of animal sacrifices. I have come to an understanding of the sacrifices, as a theatrical and significant way of repenting. The ancient Jews sacrificed things in which they had invested both time and money. They practiced this ritual in order to reach a closeness to the Almighty. Today when we attempt to repent, we often give a cursory “sorry” and expect that life will just go on.
I have recontextualized this Ninth of Av commemoration. The earth itself is our universal Temple our beautifully crafted cathedral. Researchers claim that there are a staggering one trillion species on earth. Just think of trees. There are over 60,000 species of trees cooling our streets and cleaning our air. The fruit of the land sustains me, the beauty of the world restores me.
I imagine myself in Washington State right now, watching forests disappear in flames. I smell the stench of a billion mussels washed up on the shores of British Columbia, dead because of the warming ocean. I worry about droughts that have drained the Colorado River and threatened the water supply for millions of people. Elephants, orangutans, tigers, porpoises, whales, and pandas are all on the list of endangered species. All of this beautiful creation
stands in danger through extinction, drought, unpredictable weather, floods and rising temperatures. The destruction of the Almighty’s most complex and wonderful cathedral is happening right before our very eyes. I stand helpless. I stand almost hopeless.
Why is this happening? Would the ancient Rabbis claim it was due to senseless hate? We do have plenty of that. We have so much hate that we have special words for each variety; homophobia, anti-Asian hate, racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, transphobia, Islamophobia, and good old fashioned antisemitism. Is it hate or greed or carelessness or arrogance?
They never built a third Temple. Judaism changed radically. We can use this ninth of Av as a metaphor. We too can change. My hope and prayer is that we don’t have to witness the destruction of our ultimate Temple, that like the ancient Jews , we will be able to change in order to survive. Can we, will we modify our habits, live a more sustainable life, set aside our hatreds to work together with hope and love to build a better tomorrow?