I recently visited an apartment that was under construction. Tools were strewn about, nails were poking out from the floorboards, and doors were missing. It was a total mess. Despite the obvious rawness of the environment, I could not help but think about the potential this apartment had. In my mind’s eye, I placed the china closet against one wall, chose my favorite color to paint the dining-room walls and imagined how much more spacious it would look if one of the walls were moved over just a little bit.
I have seen mansions and castles, none of which fascinated me to this extent. It was a total messI wondered what it was about this construction site that drew me so. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was the potential of its incompleteness that allowed me to use my creativity. The bareness was looking for a designer, and that designer could be me.
The three weeks between the 17th of Tammuz and the ninth of Av are a time when the Jewish people mourn the destruction of the Temple. The first nine days of the month of Av are an even more intense time, as we draw closer to the day when the devastating event took place. We abstain from listening to music, holding weddings and buying new clothes. We avoid things that will make us happy, so that we can truly absorb and integrate the loss of the Temple into our modern-day psyche.
Interestingly, the Lubavitcher Rebbe also encouraged the learning of the laws of the service in the Temple during this period. While in exile, we pray instead of offering sacrifices. Wouldn’t it be more relevant to study laws that pertain to our present-day service?
The prophet Ezekiel felt similarly when G‑d appeared to him during the Babylonian exile, following the destruction of the First Temple. G‑d instructed him to tell the Jews about the building of the Second Temple. Ezekiel said to G‑d: “Your children are in exile; they cannot build the Temple.” G‑d responded: “Just because they are in exile, should the Temple not be built?”
G‑d was communicating to Ezekiel that the destruction of the First Temple happened only in order to be followed by the building of the Second Temple, which was to be even more special than the first. G‑d did not want the Jewish people to be living with the reality of exile, but rather to be preparing for—and yearning for—the future redemption.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe expressed this vision in many of his interactions. Once, when visiting Camp Gan Israel, he was taken on a tour. The campgrounds looked generally impressive. As they were passing a storage room, the Rebbe asked for it to be opened. It was strewn with tables and chairs, and covered in graffiti. To cover up his embarrassment, the tour guide said that the graffiti is “zecher l’churban” (to commemorate the destruction of the Temple). The Rebbe responded with “zecher l’mikdash” (to commemorate the Temple itself).
The Rebbe was pointing out a fundamental concept—not only regarding this storage room, but about our outlook on destruction and life in general. The churban, the destruction of the Temple, was a temporary event. The Temple, however, is eternal. It is expressed in every single one of our thoughts, deeds and actions. It is constantly being built on a spiritual level, and although it was once destroyed, in essence it still exists on this level.
During this time of year, especially through studying the details of the Temple, we have the opportunity to manifest the potential of the “construction site” of exile and imagine its ultimate expression. This period may appear to be one of sadness and mourning, yet in truth, it is a time of preparation for the true reality of redemption.How can we envision such a reality?
How can we envision such a reality while living in exile and being faced with the day-to-day challenges it presents?
Rabbi Akiva, a sage who lived during the time of the Second Temple, was able to see the destruction for what it really was, even while living in an intensely challenging time. He was once walking in Jerusalem with a group of fellow sages soon after the Temple was destroyed. They passed the Temple Mount and saw foxes roaming freely there. All the sages cried at the site of the desecration, but Rabbi Akiva laughed.
When confronted about his seemingly inappropriate reaction, he said: “Now that the prophecy of the destruction of the Temple has come true, surely the prophecies regarding the rebuilding of the Temple will come true, too.” He saw the destruction as an event in a sequence, allowing something even greater and more eternal to happen. He was able to celebrate destruction since he could envision a truer and even more beautiful reality. In his mind’s eye, the Temple was already being rebuilt.
Exile may seem to be our reality. We live in a construction site strewn with tools and nails. In this setting, however, there is both exile and redemption. In exile, we both mourn the destruction of the first two Temples and build the Third Temple.
As we mourn the destruction, we acknowledge the beauty that has been lost—yet here we stand, on the threshold of a new reality. Let us celebrate destruction so that we can embrace our ability to build a greater future.