Why do we Mourn for the Holy Temple?

At some time in the future, we know, the Jews will return from exile to the land of Israel, the Holy Temple will be restored, and the city of Jerusalem will be rebuilt, not necessarily in that order. The Prophet Isaiah tells us, “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her, all you who love her! Rejoice with a rejoicing, all you who mourn for her. . . . Like a man whose mother consoles him, so will I console you, and in Jerusalem, you shall be consoled” (Isaiah 66:10,13). The Rabbis of the Talmud (BT Taanis 30b) expound: Those who mourn for Jerusalem today, will merit to see the rebuilding of Jerusalem and to rejoice with it.

While it is part of our thoughts throughout the year, mourning for Jerusalem and the Holy Temple comes to a sharp focus during the time we call “the Three Weeks,” and particularly on the fast of Tisha B’Av. But simply saying “mourning for Jerusalem and the Holy Temple” doesn’t say it all, and doesn’t explain it very well. Why do we mourn? What’s the big deal? And how can we possibly mourn over an event that took place almost two thousand years ago?

Perhaps we can learn to understand what it is we have lost, and what we still hope and pray to regain. The loss is greater than most people know, and it is very relevant to us today. To understand this, I have (loosely) translated the words of a great Rabbi, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev (b. 1740, d. 1810), who discusses what some people mourn for, and what we should be mourning.

The primary reasons to mourn are:

  • the destruction of the Holy Temple
  • the destruction of Jerusalem
  • the Jewish People being sent into exile.

These are deeper than they first seem, and each person can mourn them at his or her own level of spiritual development.

The Holy Temple

At a simple, unsophisticated level, when we mourn the destruction of the Holy Temple, we mourn the desolation of our holiest site, our glory, the place we all loved to see and visit, the source of the greatness of our power and might. From that Holy Temple came a multitude of outpourings of unsurpassed good. It provided us with great strength and encouragement, and it allowed us to be victorious over our enemies. Because of the Holy Temple, we were able to withstand all enemies. We were always in complete and perfect peace, well-being, and security. We were great among the nations, a princess among the provinces. As long as we were bringing the holy Sacrificial Offerings at the Holy Temple, Hashem garnered us many good things. Isn’t having lost this a good reason to mourn?

But the truth is that this sort of mourning is for the small-minded and those not fully aware of the full value of the Holy Temple.

There is a better, more respectable level of mourning, for the more intelligent thinker; better reasons for grieving and mourning the destruction of the Holy Temple. One should consider deeply the reason we exist in this world at all, and that is to work to attain the great levels of eternal truth, the perfection that the Torah offers us. Yet in this world, as we know, we are constantly in grave danger of sinning and doing wrong. This world is full of pitfalls that can cause us to sin, and thus prevent us from attaining that perfection. The physical part of human beings is made out of the same elements as the material world, and this draws a person towards all sorts of material desires and
temptations. This makes it easy to give in to a desire, which can lead to the worst of sins.

But when Hashem’s great “palace” was on its mountain, with the cohanim (priests) performing the Service, no one could remain overnight in Jerusalem and still be sinful. The Talmud says that the two Daily Sacrificial Offerings, the one in the morning and the one before the evening, atoned for all our sins, so that no one ever stayed overnight with a sin on his slate. While not all the Sacrificial Offerings are related to sin, some are, and when someone repented of as sin while there was a Holy Temple, we were cleansed to a much higher level than we are cleansed of sin by repentance today. We are still cleansed, but it is not perfect.

This means that as long as there was a Holy Temple people were clean of sin, and therefore it was easy to attain spiritual perfection and completion. It was still necessary to study Torah and fulfill the Commandments, of course, but the Sacrifical Offerings made it possible to attain complete perfection. The Prophets said that the Sacrificial Offerings “erased our sins like clouds, and our transgressions like smoke.” But now that this glory has been taken from our lives, and the Sacrificial Offerings have ceased, we can’t reach that level of purity from sin that we had then.

Today, our only option is repentance. Yes, repentance atones for our sins, and it helps to cleanse us from them, but repentance cannot cleanse us as thoroughly and as completely as the Offerings can, and repentance does not remove all the obstacles to perfection like the Offerings do.

Besides which, today, without the Holy Temple, if we sin, we are still obligated to bring a
Sacrifice for those sins that the Torah commands us to bring sacrifices for, even after we repent. We cannot do that today, because the Torah forbids us to offer Sacrifices outside of the Holy Temple. But when the Holy Temple is rebuilt we will have to bring Offerings for all the sns we committed in exile. This alone is enough to cause mourning and grief—that one’s soul cannot reach personal perfection. How much more so must we mourn and feel great sadness over the fact that none of us can reach that perfection!

That is the higher level of mourning for the Destruction of the Holy Temple.

The City of Jerusalem

We must also mourn the fact that the holy city of Jerusalem and the cities of Judea have been destroyed.

Jerusalem, our holy city, the city of our joy, once the most beautiful of cities, the joy of the entire planet! Jerusalem, built with the greatest possible beauty and perfection. city that housed a large population and granted its inhabitants great benefits. No snake or scorpion ever hurt anyone in the city of Jerusalem while the Holy Temple stood. We cannot imagine the incredible honor it gave us when people from all over the world, leaders, princes, and governors, would visit just to delight in the splendor of the elegance of Jerusalem, and to feast their eyes on its beauty. The wisdom of Jerusalem was so exceedingly great that even the children of Jerusalem would win contests of wisdom against the oldest and wisest sages of any peoples who visited there.

But now, its beauty has passed, its splendor has departed, it has become the lowest of ruins, burnt in fire; its joy has ceased. We no longer hear in it the sound of joy and the sound of gladness described by the Prophet Jeremiah. Its gates are tumbled, it has become a joke in the eyes of the world.

But this is the lower level of mourning for Jerusalem, for those with less knowledge and

For the intelligent and knowledgeable thinker, there is a higher level of understanding, and an even stronger, more intense reason for mourning. The more elevated person thinks of the fact that three times a year all of the Jewish Nation would go up to Jerusalem, to see the Master of all: Hashem; all of Israel would come marching to Jerusalem in orderly fashion, with joyful and thankful voices, with mass celebrating. They think of the greatness, the glory, the splendor and honor that was seen and heard when people brought up the First Fruit Offerings. They would think of how even the
utensils used in Jerusalem were pure, and how all the people who came ate with holiness, and ate holy food, such as tithes and so forth, and the food from the Sacrificial Offerings that had to be eaten within her walls. They think of various buildings in the city and their holy functions, particularly the special courtyards in and outside of the Holy Temple, and the rooms that were added for the benefit of the High Court, the king and the Cohen Gadol (High Priest), and anyone else with special holiness. They think of how the Cohen Gadol looked on Yom Kippir, as he left the Holy of Holies with holiness, great honor and prestige.

We still study these ideas today, after these many years, and some of this is even mentioned in our Daily Prayers. It demonstrates that Jerusalem was of greater value than any other area on earth. Jerusalem was a very holy city, and there was more holiness within the walls of Jerusalem than in all the rest of the land of Israel, and of course much more than in any other land in the world. It is unquestionable that those who lived there constantly and continuously received a pure and holy spirit. It was therefore easy for them to attain perfection, because anyone who lives in a holy place
is automatically far from sin and close to purity and perfection. But now, all that is gone.

That is what the more elevated and intelligent person mourns for.

The Jewish People in Exile

We must also intensely mourn our being exiled from the land of Israel. We must mourn over the fact that the Children of Israel, the descendants of kings, believers in Hashem, have lost the land of Israel. Some people think also of the loss of superb foods that the land offered, unrivaled in any other country. They think about how the Jewish people were more powerful than all the nations, and above them. Kings would see them and stand up; princes would bow before them. Now they have been exiled to the worst of exiles. All the other nations call us “impure,” think of us as disgusting, and mistreat us terribly. They consider us the lowest of all nations, and they insult and abuse us.
They could take the greatest leader of the Jews and torment and torture him, and curse him with most horrible curses. And we do not have the ability to defend ourselves. We are the exiled; we are the ones they persecute and kill.

And consider some of the people who persecute Jews. They are often unrefined people, not worthy of elevated stations in life, people with no holiness in their hearts or bodies. How can it be that there are people who judge us, sons of the living G-d, and hand out punishments to us? They are often guilty of the worst crimes themselves! They treat us like insects, or toys for their children to play with and make fun of. Our shame and low position are more than enough reason for people to mourn and cry in great sorrow.

While this is a valid reason to be sorrowful, it is nevertheless a lower level of mourning, not the product of an advanced servant of Hashem.

The more advanced and knowledgeable thinker will contemplate and think deeply about the advantage of living in the land of Israel when there is a Holy Temple.

The Talmud tells us that the air in the land of Israel is pure and gives wisdom to help people attain knowledge of the Torah and its wisdom, which is the primary and true spiritual perfection of the human soul.

Moreover, only in the land of Israel can all the Commandments of the Torah be fulfilled. There are Commandments that can be performed only in the land of Israel, such as the Sabbatical year, the Jubilee, certain agricultural tithes and others. And therefore, only in the land of Israel can a person attain perfection, since that is the only place where all the 613 Commandments can be performed. For if even one is missing, perfection is incomplete, and now there are many that are missing. Even if a person strengthens himself like a lion to overcome all temptations, and fully commits himself to fulfill all the Commandments and attain perfection, he must fall a little short, because there are those Commandments that cannot be done today. So how can he attain full perfection?

This is a worthy reason to mourn, yet still not the most respected and valued level of mourning.

Yet Deeper

Those who delve yet deeper into wisdom and Fear of Hashem, those who cling to Hashem and love Him completely, will find yet in those three aspects of the destruction an even greater reason to mourn. For in the destruction of Holy Temple, the holy city Jerusalem, and the exile of the Jews, there was a result far worse than all three of those. It is so great, that those who truly cling to Hashem can never stop crying, and day and night they will groan broken-heartedly over it. It is the fact that as a result of the three aspects we discussed, Hashem’s glory has become hidden, and Hashem’s reputation is in low regard in this world, His great and awesome Name disrespected by the nations of the world. For they say, “We have fought with Hashem in His own House, and we have won! We have razed his House and turned it into a desolate desert, and we have destroyed His city down to its foundations. We have plowed His city and His kingdom and turned them into a massive pit, and have done whatever we wanted in that land for many years. And look at His children! The Father has lost His sons to exile, in hunger and thirst, naked and barefoot, with their hands manacled behind them, carrying heavy millstones on their backs and necks.”

Over this desecration of Hashem’s reputation we should scream and cry bitterly.

Whoever has vision to grasp this concept must consider it, and delve into the idea until he understands it, and mourn for Hashem’s sake. He must continue to do this until Hashem arouses a wind from on high, and brings the Messiah. Then he will return His expelled sons. And on that day Hashem will be known by all the world to be One, and His Name will be One in the minds of all people, and Hashem will give His people spiritual ascendancy once again. And He will bless His people with peace, and with the completion of His Name and His Throne. And he will drive the spirit of uncleanliness out of all the lands, and the idols shall completely pass away. And instead of people being ignorant of Hashem, they will all forever know Hashem with a great love, and they will know and they will teach that Hashem is Al-mighty, the Creator of all. And then His Name will be understood by all living things to be great and holy.

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