I know this time of year is a mourning period for the Temple and that there is a tradition to not marry, have celebrations or eat meat. I find this very hard to relate to and a real stretch emotionally. What does it mean to mourn for the destruction of the Temple? Do you have any ideas on how to connect to this in some real way?
First, let’s get the practices straight. Then we’ll search for meaning. There are different customs in regard to the time period between the 17th of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av, known as the Three Weeks. The Ashkenazic practice involves two stages of mourning: The first begins on the 17th of Tammuz and goes until Rosh Chodesh Av, with the second stage starting from Rosh Chodesh Av and lasting until the Ninth of Av. During the first stage it is customary to not hold large festivities such as weddings or concerts, to refrain from listening to live music, and to not purchase new clothing. The second period is more intense, with people abstaining from eating meat and drinking wine (except for Shabbat), recreational bathing and wearing freshly laundered clothing. The Sephardic custom is to observe these stringencies during the week in which the ninth of Av itself falls.
This is all a part of the mourning our people observes in connection with the destruction of the two Temples; the first in 586 BCE and the second in 70 CE. Both are memorialized on the ninth of Av, along with additional tragic events in Jewish history. The rabbis preferred clustering the commemoration of catastrophic events onto an already preexisting sad observance so as to lessen the painful days on our calendar.
I appreciate your desire to connect to the destruction of the Temples — it’s understandable how challenging that might be. It is not easy to imagine the ancient Temple or the role it played in our national life. Though we can read about those days, it is hard to know what it must have felt like to be part of a pulsating pilgrimage festival, or to jubilantly bring those much-sweated-over first fruits to Jerusalem or what it must have been like to pray on Yom Kippur with throngs of fellow devotees bowing in awe of the Divine Presence. You are not alone. Many of us have a problem connecting to this time period or to the glory of the Temple era. This year, let’s narrow the focus to one specific event related to the destruction of Jerusalem — one that moves us forward rather than backward.
The story of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai is one of the most celebrated in Jewish history. As the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE advanced, it became clear that the inevitable conquest of Jerusalem was going to occur and with it the sacking of the Temple by the Romans. The sage conceived of and carried out a daring plot. Feigning death, he arranged for his body to be carried out of the besieged city in a coffin — this being the only way to get past the guards of the city. Once outside the walls, he found the encampment of Vespasian, the military commander in charge of the attack.
Though he was but a general, the rabbi predicatively called him “Caesar.” Vespasian was disbelievingly flattered. But within minutes came the word from Rome of the demise of the actual Caesar along with the news of Vespasian’s appointment as the new ruler.
In recognition of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s promising prediction, the new leader offered to grant the sage any wish or desire. Here is where the story became edgy. What would you ask for at such a precarious moment, with national existence on the brink of coming to an untimely end? What wish would have a chance of being granted? What would be asking too much and thereby squandering this opportunity?
Rabbi Yochanan asked for three things: That the study house, the yeshiva of Yavneh and its students, be spared; that the dynasty of Rabban Gamliel be allowed to live; and for medical care to heal Rabbi Zaddok. Vespasian granted all three. Though sharply criticized by Rabbi Akiva for not asking for the sparing of the Temple itself, history judges the sage’s request as the shrewd salvation of Judaism and his daring deliverance as unparalleled audaciousness.
Searching for connecting to this time of year? Take some time to think alone or with others about what audacious actions we need to take for the sake of Judaism. Though we are not standing at the precipice of an untimely elimination, perhaps we need to think out loud about what we would be willing to do if the continuity of the Jewish people depended on us. Could it be that every generation needs to ask itself the question? Let us wonder about what bold action we might take, even on a personal level. That boldness might be as simple as reaching out to a Jew whose practice is not exactly identical to yours. That courage might be to enroll in an adult education class, even you never have done so before. That dramatic move might be a trip to Israel this year. Devote an hour a week to studying alone or with a friend.
My father was wont to tell a story about a young man he remembered from his youth named Tzvi Brown. At the time, during the 1930s, my father was a young Russian immigrant studying at New York’s Yeshiva University. A fellow student who grew up with little or no Jewish education had decided to embark in his college years on a path of Jewish study. He was desperate to catch up. Grabbing fellow classmates for help; first with learning the Aleph Bet, then reading, and finally with tackling a page of Talmud. My father would, on occasion, accommodate Tzvi’s pleas for help. Once, my father tells, he joined the young man in his dorm room. There on the wall above this ambitious student’s bed was a poster with pictures of several rows of famous rabbis. Plunk in the center was an empty square, bare of any photograph. In its place was pasted the question, “Why not Tzvi Brown?” At first taken aback, my father came to appreciate and then understand that daring challenge.
It might not hurt our people if we each plunked a poster on our walls with a similar challenge. Why not see yourself or your children as future custodians of our destiny? As central actors on the Jewish stage? At this time of year, even as we mourn past tragedies, let us think of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and of the bold question crying out from that dormitory wall: “Why not Tzvi Brown?”