By: Rabbi Eli J. Mansour

A Babylonian rabbi was once arrested by the Jewish authorities for wearing black shoes. Strange as it may seem, this bizarre incident gives us a glimpse at what Tisha B’Av is – or, more accurately, what it should be…

Rav Yisrael Salanter remarked that it is possible for a person to achieve the same spiritual heights on Tisha B’Av as he can on Yom Kippur. Incredible as it sounds, the potential for closeness with Gd afforded by this national day of mourning resembles that of the sacred, awesome day of Yom Kippur.

What is the source of this tremendous power of Tisha B’Av? How does this day of fasting, weeping and mourning over the Temple’s destruction serve to inspire and motivate us to higher levels of religious devotion?

An Arrest is Made in Nehardea

The likely answer to this question emerges from a remarkable story told in the Talmud, in Masechet Bava Kama (59), about a pious rabbi named Eliezer Ze’ira. The Aramaic word “ze’ira” means “small,” and it was appended to Eliezer’s name to signify his exemplary humility. Eliezer was once walking in the marketplace in the Babylonian city of Nehardea wearing black shoes. Black shoes were unusual among the Babylonian Jews in those days, who normally wore white shoes. Jewish community officials working for the Resh Galuta(Exilarch) saw a man wearing black shoes, and approached him.

“Why are you wearing these shoes?” they asked.

“I am mourning for the Temple,” Eliezer Ze’ira explained. It was (and, to a lesser extent, still is) customary for mourners to wear black as an expression of grief. Eliezer Ze’ira thus always wore black shoes to express his sorrow over the loss of the Bet Hamikdash.

The authorities, however, were not impressed. “Are you important enough to mourn for the Bet Hamikdash?” they asked. They considered it arrogant for an ordinary person to dress in an unusual fashion to express grief over the Temple’s destruction, while everybody else wore regular white shoes.

The Talmud proceeds to relate that the officials arrested Eliezer Ze’ira. (Remarkably, acting in a boastful fashion was considered a punishable crime that warranted arrest!) They did not free him from his cell until he persuaded them that he was, indeed, a distinguished scholar, worthy of outwardly mourning for the Mikdash. After an in-depth discussion of an intricate halachic topic, the officials recognized Eliezer’s high stature, and thus determined that he was allowed to walk through the marketplace with black shoes.

If the Nehardean officials, who mistook Eliezer for an ordinary layman, “charged” him with unwarranted outward mourning for the Temple, then the underlying assumption, of course, is that such a display of mourning is reserved for distinguished rabbis, for the nation’s spiritual elite. Of course, for most of us, this assumption is rather startling. Since when did halacha establish an exclusive, “members only” policy for mourning theBet Hamikdash? Aren’t we all required to mourn? Didn’t the tragedy of the Temple’s destruction affect all Jews, whoever they are, regardless of their current spiritual stature? Why would it be deemed inappropriate for ordinary Jews to wear black as an expression of grief over the loss of the Mikdash?

Losing an Energy Source

Before we attempt to answer this question, we must first take a step back and ask a more basic question: why do we mourn for the Temple?

Most people, unfortunately, rarely think about this question, or give superficial, inadequate answers. For example, many would probably say something along the lines of, “A holy building was burned,” or “We lost a holy place.” But what does “holy” really mean? And how exactly are we affected by the loss of this “holy” building?

Broadly speaking, there are two reasons why we mourn for the Bet Hamikdash. The first is that the Temple served as a powerful source of spiritual energy, a vital tool in our quest for inspiration. Tosafot in Masechet Bava Batra comment that the sight of the kohanimserving in the Mikdash would lead a person to yirat Shamayim (fear of Gd) and a renewed commitment to study Torah. Similarly, the Zohar in Parashat Shemot writes that viewing the siss, the plate worn on the kohen gadol’s forehead, would cause a person to feel a sense of submission and subjugation to the Almighty. All a person had to do was look upon the kohen gadol’s forehead, and his “spiritual batteries” were recharged, he received a “jumpstart” and felt inspired to grow in his religious observance.

When we visit the Kotel(Western Wall) in Jerusalem, we can sense the kedushaof the site, we feel moved and inspired. Few people walk away from a visit to the Kotelthe same as when they arrived; usually, we walk away rejuvenated and determined to strive for a greater connection with our Creator.

If this is the effect of a visit to the Kotel, then we can only imagine – or perhaps we can’t even begin to imagine – the kind of impact the sight of the actual Mikdash would leave upon a person. The Kotel – contrary to popular misconception – was not even a wall of the Temple. It surrounded the Temple Mount, upon which the Bet Hamikdash stood. If this wall is capable of giving us a spiritual “boost” – can we imagine the effects of visiting the Temple itself?

Many of us follow the admirable practice of hanging pictures of great rabbis in our homes and offices. The sight of the Ben Ish Hai’s picture undoubtedly has a profound effect upon a person, it reminds him of his religious obligations and responsibilities, of his priorities in life. This is the effect of a picture! The effect of the sight of the Temple was, without doubt, many times greater. When the Temple stood, a Jew had regular access to an instant source of boundless spiritual energy and inspiration.

And it wasn’t just the inherent quality of the sacred ground of the Temple, or the sight of the kohanim performing the rituals, that provided this “boost.” The Mishna teaches that ten overt miracles occurred each and every day in the Bet Hamikdash. For example, the fire on the outdoor altar continued to burn even in the pouring rain. No wind gusts ever displaced the vertical pillar of smoke that rose from the altar to the heavens. The sacrificial meat never spoiled, even after two days without refrigeration. These are just some of the miracles that a visitor to the Temple witnessed. Is it possible for him to leave unaffected and uninspired? Could a person behold the Shechina (Divine Presence) so directly without recommitting himself to greater heights of Torah observance?

During the times of the Temple, everyone was required to make a pilgrimage to the Mikdash three times a year – every Pesah, Shavuot and Sukkot. Religious inspiration was thus “built in” to the Hebrew calendar. A person had no choice but to expose himself to the Divine Presence on a regular basis. And this is besides the other occasions that required frequenting the Temple, such as when a person had to offer a sacrifice. Several times a year, a Jew was driven and motivated to grow and enhance his religious commitment.

We know how difficult it is to inspire people nowadays. Rabbis deliver numerous sermons and classes every week, preparing for several hours before each address, searching for the right material – the stories, the insights, the words – to reach the audiences’ hearts. And, as we know, even with all these efforts, success is not guaranteed. Already millennia ago, we were described as a “stiff-necked people”; it takes a lot to change our hearts. And this is what makes the loss of the Temple so devastating. We didn’t just lose a building – we lost a key to religious inspiration; we lost access to the “energy source” that propelled us to greater heights of spiritual devotion.

Gd’s Hidden Kingship

The Temple’s destruction also meant the loss of the world’s recognition of Gd’s kingship. When the Temple stood, it was clear to all nations on earth that there is an incorporeal, omnipotent Gd who has chosen the Jewish people as His special nation. The Bet Hamikdash was the greatest kiddush Hashem – glorification of Gd’s Name. It facilitated worldwide recognition of Gd; it demonstrated His existence to all people on earth.

In the absence of the Mikdash, we have to struggle to see Gd and feel His presence. His kingship is hidden; it is no longer clear and evident that the earth is governed by a Supreme Being. When tragedies such as the Holocaust occur, people invariably raise the question of “Where is Gd?” Of course, we believe with firm conviction that Gd was as present during the Holocaust as He was at any other time in history. While the question of why it happened largely remains a mystery to us, we have no doubt that it was not due to any conceived absence of Gd’s control. Among the less faithful, however, events like this evoke skepticism, if not outright denial of Gd’s existence. In the time of the Mikdash, these questions could not be asked. Gd’s presence was evident; it could not be denied.

The concealment of divine kingship is also what has allowed for the alarming moral decline that we witness today. Once people consider Gd “out of the picture,” all constraints disappear. Deviant behavior becomes acceptable and even embraced and championed. In periods of hester panim, when people don’t feel Gd “looking over their shoulder,” there are no standards of behavior. People act brashly, in pursuit of  their most base desires, and nobody objects.

After the Temple’s destruction, we still intellectually acknowledge Gd’s existence, but we don’t always feel it, we are not always cognizant of it. We have to struggle mightily to see His hand running the world. And this additional effort is where so many fall short and why most people seem to have simply forgotten about Gd. The loss of the Temple created a barrier that blocks our view of Gd’s kingship – and this, too, is a reason to mourn the destruction of the Mikdash.

Who is Worthy of Mourning?

If these are the reasons why the Temple should be mourned – the loss of inspiration, and the concealment of Gd’s kingship – we can perhaps understand why not everyone is “entitled” to express mourning.

If a Torah scroll is publicly burned, who are the ones crying and bemoaning this terrible tragedy? Those for whom the Torah is important, those who love and cherish the Torah and view it as Gd’s word. If we would see an unaffiliated person weeping over the burning of a Torah, we would, for good reason, be more than suspicious of his motives. The Torah means nothing to him – why would he cry over its loss? It’s just a piece of parchment. There’s no reason to lament the loss of something one considers meaningless.

Unfortunately, the same can be said about many people who mourn the Bet Hamikdash. How sincere can a person’s mourning be, if drawing closer to Gd is not a priority for him? Somebody who exerts maximum effort in developing his relationship with Gd, who utilizes all the means at his disposal for spiritual elevation, is naturally distraught over the loss of the Temple, the most effective means to achieving this goal. But most of us cannot honestly claim to invest this kind of effort. Do we really feel the loss of the Bet Hamikdash, can we really lament the opportunities it offered for closeness with Gd? We don’t even take advantage of the limited opportunities we have today. Are we truly bothered by the notion of missing the spiritual opportunities provided by the Temple? How genuine can our mourning for the Temple possibly be? If we are satisfied with our current religious standing, then why does it bother us that we don’t have a Temple to inspire us toward further religious growth?

The same questions can be asked regarding the second reason to mourn. How concerned are we about the world’s recognition of Gd? Does it really bother us that most people on Earth deny His existence? Are we troubled by the perverse behavior that has become so rampant as a result of Gd’s concealment, or have we resigned ourselves to it? Does it make sense for us to mourn the Temple’s destruction if we are not bothered by the effect, if it makes no difference to us whether or not people recognize Gd?

These questions are what led the authorities in Nehardea to arrest Eliezer Ze’ira. Thinking he was an ordinary, simple layman, they saw him as a showoff. If a connection to Gd and the recognition of His kingship were not his highest priorities, then his expression of mourning was clearly artificial and disingenuous. An ordinary person is not worthy of outwardly mourning the Temple, because the Temple’s absence cannot possibly trouble him to an extent that causes him sorrow and grief.

A Time to Grow

If we would stop here, many readers would probably be elated – thinking that a rabbi has just absolved the Jewish masses from observing the Three Weeks and Tisha B’Av. After all, based on the above, most Jews should not mourn for the Temple! For the vast majority of us, who do not prioritize Torah and missvotas we should, it would be arrogant and almost dishonest to mourn. Seemingly, then, one could try to reason that we’re all “off the hook” and can enjoy ourselves during the Three Weeks and on Tisha B’Av as we like!

Of course, this is not the case at all. Hazal required us – all of us! – to mourn during this period, to spend Tisha B’Av sitting on the floor, weeping, reciting Kinnot and reading Megilat Echa. Eliezer Ze’ira was apprehended for mourning at other times of the year. During the period of the Three Weeks, however, we are all required to mourn and grieve – and implicit in this requirement is the obligation to change our priorities and outlook to ensure that our mourning is genuine.

This is perhaps what Rav Yisrael Salanter meant when he said that Tisha B’Av offers the same potential for spiritual growth as Yom Kippur. Tisha B’Av poses a unique challenge – to raise ourselves to the level at which we genuinely feel sorrow over the Temple’s destruction. If the sages required each and every one of us to mourn during this period, this can only be because they believed in the ability of each and every one of us to truly feel the loss. They believed that every Jew has the capacity to grow to the level of Eliezer Ze’ira, to devote ourselves to Gd with such intensity that we feel pained by what the Temple’s destruction has wrought.

This is the Tisha B’Av challenge – to become worthy of genuinely mourning for the Mikdash. It requires us to reassess our priorities, our lives and ourselves until we sincerely grieve over the loss of the Temple, over our limited access to religious inspiration, and over the widespread denial of Gd’s presence in the world. And the more we feel the loss of the Mikdash, the quicker Gd will return it to us, and once again allow us to draw from its endless wellsprings of spiritual power, which will infuse us and all mankind with the sincere desire to grow, to learn, and to connect with our Creator in the rebuilt Temple.

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