The Three Weeks between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av are a time of special mourning for the Jewish people, but it’s not always possible to conjure up in your heart this real feeling of sorrow when you’re privileged to live in modern, thriving Jerusalem of 2008 (let alone if you are far away from Jerusalem) where the learning of Torah resonates from every corner and the Kotel, the Western Wall, is accessible to all who want to pray there. Although the Kotel is but a tiny remnant of what was the glory of the Beit Hamikdash praying there is a comfort to so many of us. Sometimes it takes a special incident or sight to jog that deeply hidden memory that all Jews have of our past suffering.
On one of my first trips to Jerusalem many years ago, I visited The Burnt House in the Jewish Quarter, the remains of a house which was burnt to the ground in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple. Archaeological excavations have shown that it probably belonged to a family of Kohanim, the Katros family, who served in the Temple and I saw the skeleton of a woman’s hand seemingly reaching out to a spear (the arm has since been removed for burial but you can still see the film of the hand’s discovery) She was probably attempting to save herself from the Roman soldiers who were murdering the Jews and setting their homes alight.. Here, in what was once a beautiful home overlooking the Temple Mount, the home of the Beit HaMikdash I wondered how this poor woman must have felt watching helplessly as God’s house went up in flames knowing also that her cruel fate was sealed with that of the Temple’s.
The theoretical significance of the loss of the Temple is never far from the minds of the Jewish people but it doesn’t always penetrate the heart. At every Jewish wedding the chatan (groom) smashes a glass beneath his foot and also recites “Im Eskechesh Yerushalayim.” If I forget you Jerusalem may my right hand lose its cunning…
There is also another custom of putting ash on the Chatan’s head to symbolize the destruction and burning of the Temple. Usually a cigarette is lit and the ash from this is used or someone burns a piece of paper and sprinkles the ash on the chatan’s head. But I was recently at a wedding overlooking the Temple Mount, where the Rav performing the wedding ceremony told us that this chatan was especially privileged because with some ‘protektzia’ (well placed connections) he had been given a sprinkling of ash that was taken from the ancient remains of a home in the Jewish Quarter which had been burnt down during the time of the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash. I felt a tingling down my spine. Here was a chatan in 2008 getting married within sight of the original home of the Beit HaMikdash and he was privileged to a real tangible remembrance of the destruction of the Temple almost 2000 years ago.
The Tisha B’Av that sticks out in my memory above all others for bringing home the feeling of loss of the Temple, on a more childish but gut wrenching level, occurred many years ago.
We usually avoid taking our vacations during the Nine Days, both because of its sad connotations and dangerous foreboding and also because of the limitations of what we can do. But sometimes it happened that during our youth in England the school vacations didn’t mesh well with the Jewish calendar and we ended up at camp during this week.
I remember one camp that we spent in tents in the English countryside during a typical cool British summer. We spent the week leading up to Tisha Be Av, the Nine Days enjoying ourselves as much as we were allowed to with no swimming, almost no trips and a meatless menu. The shiurim were all connected to this period of mourning and the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash. But one thing we all enjoyed doing was building a model of the Temple itself. The intricate details have long gone from my memory but the fun we had, the time we took over it and the attention we paid to the details I well remember. The Sunday after Tisha B’Av was to be parents visiting day and we were all looking forward to showing the model to our families.
The night of Tisha B’Av we sat around on the floor in the main tent, candles balanced precariously on the floor and slowly intoned Eicha and the Kinot with their well-known sad tune. Afterwards as we started to get up and disperse for bed someone yelled “FIRE. Look outside, there’s a fire”. We all rushed outside, no one noticing that the madrichim (counselors) did not seem at all bothered or panicked.
Outside everyone stopped as their eyes took in the sight – the beautiful model of the Beit HaMikdash was alight, the red flames licking up into the black sky. A group of madrichim stood around it to stop any of the younger children getting hurt or the older ones trying to put it out. Some of the younger ones started crying – “But I wanted to show it to my Dad!” “It was so beautiful. Why did you do that?” “All that hard work for nothing”.
The irony of the sting and pain we felt watching our work go up in flames was not lost on the older kids. However much we talked and learned about the destruction of the real Beit HaMikdash, did any of us feel even the small pang of distress we felt over the loss of this model one?
May we all be privileged to see the rebuilding of the Temple very soon.
Ann Goldberg is a freelance writer in Israel
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.