Judea Capta – A Eulogy (Ideas #48)

Personal mourning is often defined by the hesped (eulogy), an explanation of why we miss a departed individual. Similarly, during the three weeks, we should speak in terms of national hesped. National, because the destruction of the Temple, the Beit haMikdash, is, first and foremost, a national tragedy. Thus, we need to explain what the Jewish nation has lost.

The Jewish nation impacted most strongly on the world, exactly at the time before the Temple was destroyed. Beyond the very high number of actual converts to it, Judaism changed the way people thought throughout the Roman Empire and beyond, planting the seeds for Christianity and Islam. These two religions continue to be the greatest influence on a large percentage of the world?s inhabitants, and compared to the ancient pagan world, this is clearly for the good. From this point of view, we were not far from the messianic goal of bringing the world to "Malkhut Shekai", to being a Divine kingdom. The Jewish nation almost succeeded in bringing a rather barbarian, cynical world to a state of noble morality. This was an incredible feat. It was the culmination of a long road that led from Mount Sinai over many centuries. It was a road of protest against pagan values, of insisting on the need to elevate mankind to emulate G-d.

While the world has made some spiritual advances since the destruction of the Beit haMikdash, the source of these advances is not so much the living Jewish nation, but its ancient texts. This is in contradistinction to the dynamic influence that the Jewish nation was able to exert on the ancient world. True, R. Yochanan ben Zakai and others were able to prolong this period of tremendous spiritual effort and accomplishment for another few hundred years. But, with the collapse of national autonomy and without the spiritual presence of the Beit haMikdash, the days of Jewish national influence were numbered. The exile eventually resulted in the retreat of active Jewish influence on the world.

During these three weeks, we recall that we have lost the power and drive to change and inspire the world.  And, most important, the power and drive to bring mankind to communion with G-d. The source of this drive was likely the intense spiritual experience provided by the Temple service, which was at the center of our national culture. Today, it is difficult to understand what made this service so awe-inspiring. Nonetheless, we can see that there must have been something that made the Jews? world truly G-d-centered. And this is really what made the Jew Jewish. Without intense interaction with G-d, it is difficult to truly speak of a Jewish national culture. This is a great tragedy for the Jews but, even more so, it is a great tragedy for the world.

With the destruction of the Beit haMikdash, then, we have lost much more than a central facility to enhance our Divine service. We have lost our national identity as a major living spiritual force.

In these weeks, we need to mourn. Kohelet (7:2) reminds us that it is better, meaning more productive, to go to the house of mourning than to a celebration. Focusing on what we lack is one of the greatest ways to know what is still possible.  When the rabbis tell us that only one who mourns the destruction of Yerushalayim will merit seeing the joy of its rebuilding (Taanit 30b), they remind us of a paradox in another sphere. The paradox of which I am speaking is that a person who repents has the opportunity to turn his sins into actual merits (Yoma 86b). This is because the truly penitent is able to learn from the mistakes of the past. By studying his actions, he can reach a level unattainable for someone who does not have these experiences from which to learn.

Likewise, it is only the person who properly mourns Jerusalem who understands what defines her rebuilding. It is that person who understands that Jerusalem has not been rebuilt, in spite of its large Jewish population and its beautiful buildings. If you do not know what you are missing, you will never seek it. We are not supposed to make mistakes but, once made, the mistakes, when properly integrated, have within them the potential to move us to where we need to be.

That being said, mistakes can also handicap us. If we choose to jump off a building, we will likely be crippled for life. On an immediate level, we have to accept the limits presented by our handicaps. Mistakes we made in the past, and are still making, prevent us from the inspiration of a Beit haMikdash. That is the inescapable situation at present. It does not, however, preclude seeking ways to accomplish what is possible. It must not prevent seeking inspiration from proper mourning, from proper hesped.

Not all is lost. The State of Israel can still be a great moral force. Granted, we are without the important influence of the Beit haMikdash. Nonetheless, the large concentration of Jews living as a nation in our holy land is something that carries an undeniable power. There is a potential to rekindle the fire that moved world history in a way that nothing else has, before or since. It will not likely happen overnight, but it can happen.

It is only with a renewed sense of national consciousness, however, that we can start to change the world once again, to begin where we left off so long ago. Without this consciousness, we will sink into the depravity that is a natural consequence of focusing only on self.

Let us then resolve as individuals to recommit ourselves to our great national destiny to focus on what our nation accomplished in the past and what it can still accomplish in the future. If we do this, we will actually be able to reap sweet fruits from our mourning.