Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Tisha B'av Letter 5769

Last year, I posted the Tisha B'av message that I sent to my community on my blog. This year, I am posting a different message - this is the response I sent to an email that was distributed by one of the respected administrators of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington:

Dear XXX,
I generally appreciate your thoughtful messages and I am glad to receive them. Thank you for the time and effort that you invest in crafting these missives for the benefit of our communities. I hope you accept this response in that same spirit.
I must say that I take exception to your characterization of Tisha B’av as an “ancient fast day” and your description of the Destruction of our Temples as a positive step in the evolution of Jewish religious practice, moving us to a religion that “relies more on builders than on buildings”.
Although the observance of Tisha B’av was indeed established in “ancient” times, its message is profound and highly relevant to the modern era. And the loss of the Temple, which may appear like progress to the uninitiated, was an unspeakable tragedy for the Jewish people.
If you read the prayer of King Solomon at the dedication of the First Temple, which appears in the Book of Kings, you will see that the Bet Hamiqdash was not merely a physical structure in which certain arcane religious services were carried out. In fact, the sacrificial service was not the ultimate purpose of the existence of the Sanctuary – it was a minor facet of its operation.
The Temple was a symbol of Jewish national unity and the abiding relationship between Israel and the Creator of the Universe. It was a reflection of the fact that, while we may disagree on many things, we share a fundamental set of values and priorities that inspire and guide us all. It was a place that all the nations of the world would visit for instruction and education on matters of intellectual, moral and ethical import.
Nowadays, our people is quite literally lost. We no longer have great Sages to provide us with an understanding of our Torah that is decisive and compelling, so our sons and daughters exempt themselves from “Jewish studies” as quickly as possible and pursue other intellectual disciplines that are perceived as more rigorous, relevant and financially rewarding.
We no longer have a Sanctuary to visit and reaffirm our identities as Jews – a unique nation with a unique conception of God and a unique way of life that reflects our commitment to Him. The proliferation of multiple “movements” in Judaism has subdivided our nation in every possible way, leaving the definition of Judaism itself unclear and confusing.
We are busy competing with the nations of the world for material prosperity and physical pleasures, admiring – indeed, practically worshiping - the celebrities in Hollywood and the power brokers in Washington, meanwhile all but turning a deaf ear and a blind eye to the injustices that abound in our society. Instead of crowding into the Temple to observe the High Priest and the scholars of Torah in worship – an inspiring vision of holiness that would perhaps motivate us to better our lives and enrich our souls – we crowd into football stadiums and auditoriums to have our superficiality reinforced by individuals who profit off of our cluelessness.
Your concern with ethical lapses is valid and praiseworthy, but ethical lapses do not appear in a vacuum. They emerge from a materialistic orientation to the world that is alienated from any transcendent purpose. One who is occupied with the pursuit of wisdom and is disinterested in accumulating wealth, honor and status will not behave unethically. Only a person attached to such things will compromise his or her principles to acquire them.
Take, for example, the fact that our own JCC is open on Shabbat. What values and priorities does this policy reflect? What sense of Jewish identity, history or destiny does it manifest? It is a tragic instance of the subordination of the spiritual to the pragmatic, and of the transcendent to the mundane. Perhaps closing the JCC on Shabbat would be a positive step in the right direction for our community. I know many non-observant Jews who would nevertheless be happy to see such a sanctification of God’s name take place. Maybe it would inspire more acts of sacrifice, more setting aside of immediate and expedient gratification for the sake of noble and eternal ends.
The return to Zion and rebuilding of the Temple that we pray for is not the product of a nationalistic vision. It is a yearning for a different kind of society, a global civilization free from the chains of self-indulgence, materialism and treachery that are imposed upon us by movies, television, and, yes, our very own schools and synagogues!
These institutions unfortunately instill in us an insatiable desire for “success”, a distaste for the wisdom of tradition and a craving for the respect of our fellow citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish. Our attachment to the petty “goods” of this society is the fuel that feeds the flame of self-absorption and injustice. Our role models and leaders promote the wrong values and we are not protesting. They are stealing our souls and we are not mourning the loss, because we barely even feel it; and, if we do, we don’t care that much anyway, since a soul cannot buy us a Venti Skim Latte at Starbucks or a Mercedes Benz.
The need for a Temple is as real today as it ever was. One day, we firmly believe that it will once again stand as a symbol of the transcendent goal toward which all of humanity should be striving and as a witness to the pettiness and frivolity of materialistic pursuits. It will assign prominence to men and women of true knowledge and fine character rather than to sports figures and influence peddlers. It will provide us with a venue to teach our children, and the world, that the search for truth for its own sake is the noblest occupation for a human being, that money, titles and honor are meaningless, and that the cost of allowing human beings to suffer in this world is too great to allow us the luxuries with which we are currently all too happy to distract ourselves.
I hope that this Tisha B’av is a meaningful one for all, and that it is the first step toward the redemption of a world that surely needs it.
All the best to you and your entire family.
Rabbi Joshua Maroof
Magen David Sephardic Congregation
Rockville, MD


Anonymous said...

The worst part of it all is that this letter will probably be ignored, brushed aside. We as mankind,Jews included,are so stooped in our way of life that truth no longer has any effect on us.

Dan said...


Great letter. It is truly inspiring to read going into Tisha B'av.

I feel the need for a Temple everyday when I go out into the work world...and even when I come home. The values and ideals of the other nations is absolutely pervasive in our minds and that makes it extremely difficult to think about life in any other way. I was recently listening to R. Chait's parenting classes and he said that basically everything we think about parenting is from goyim. I think the same can be said about life itself. As you said "The need for a Temple is as real today as it ever was."

Thank you for posting this.

david said...

WADR, Rabbi, do you believe that should we ever rebuilt the Temple, that we will actually sacrifice animals again (to the horror of the rest of the world).

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...


First of all, the "horror" of the rest of the world is hypocritical in this instance, since they have no problem with the annual sacrifice of millions of animals on the altar of human appetite, i.e., the meat industry. There is no shortage of barbecues out there, and nobody seems particularly concerned.

Yet, when it comes to sacrifices for the sake of a transcendent, intellectual purpose, to inspire or enrich the soul of a human being rather than his body, the world protests.

Of course, this is a reflection of the fact that for the "world", the transient bodily desires of mankind are more real, significant and worthy of attention than the intellectual and moral strivings of mankind. Thus, killing animals for the former reason is perfectly acceptable but killing animals for the latter reason is a "horror."

Moreover, I would assume that by the time the Bet Hamiqdash is rebuilt, humanity will have acquired a far more extensive understanding of Hashem, the Torah and its laws, so that they will appreciate - rather than being opposed to - the concept of sacrifices.

Chaim B. said...

Isn't there a line from R' Kook somewhere suggesting that the future of "v'arvah laHashem minchas Yehudah v'Yerushalayim" focuses on the korban mincha precisely because it is a non-animal sacrifice?

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

R. Chaim,

The problem is that R Kook's position stands in contradiction to the explicit nevuot of Yehezqel regarding Bayit Shelishi.

And the term minha, while it is used in the specific sense of a flour offering in some contexts, is also used to denote the more general category of gifts or presents, as in the minha that Yaaqov sends to Esav, or the one that the brothers bring to Yosef.