Today is a day of fasting for religious Jews around the world – the 9th day of the month of Av (Jewish calendar) is the day when both the first and second Temples were destroyed, the first by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E.; the second by the Romans in 70 C.E.
The destruction of the Jewish Temple meant the destruction of the most holy, pivotal location to the Jewish religion, culture and people. Destruction of the Temple was an attempt to destroy the Jewish nation – take out the cultural linchpin, the one element that ties everyone together and everything will fall apart.
It is written:
As the navel is set in the centre of the human body,
so is the land of Israel the navel of the world…
situated in the centre of the world,
and Jerusalem in the centre of the land of Israel,
and the sanctuary in the centre of Jerusalem,
and the holy place in the centre of the sanctuary,
and the ark in the centre of the holy place,
and the Foundation Stone before the holy place,
because from it the world was founded.
(Roman-Era Midrash Tanchuma)
It is believed that the Foundation Stone is the foundation God used to create the world. Around this stone the Temple was built and within the Temple, on the Foundation Stone, the Ark of the Covenant was placed. This is the source of the holiness of the Temple and its importance to Judaism.
The image people around the world today have of the Temple Mount is that of the golden domed mosque which was built on the ruins of the Temple in 691 C.E. Since that time the Dome of the Rock has been a holy place for the Moslem people – although not central to their religion. Considered the third holiest location in Islam, it is not mentioned a single time in the Koran.
It was once common practice for a conquering people to build holy sites on top of existing holy places. Historically this was a successful way to both show domination of the location as well as a way to incorporate the local population in the new religion.
The Temple was been central to the Jewish people since the construction of the first Temple (957 B.C.E.). To this day Jews around the world pray facing the direction of the site of the Temple Mount.
The Kotel is the Western Wall of the Temple compound which remains standing. Millions of Jews come to the Kotel every year, it is always open and people can be found there, every day, 24/7, around the clock. The Kotel is never empty and it is in fact one of the most frequented locations in the world, seeing approximately 11 million guests each year.
Jews in exile in Babylon are described in Psalm 137 as stubbornly remembering the full glory of Jerusalem, explaining to their captors that they would always look towards the holy city: “May my tongue cleave to my mouth, if I ever think not of thee, if I ever prize not Jerusalem above all joys!” To this day, in Jewish weddings, before the couple is formally married, the groom proclaims this statement before the guests and breaks a cup with his foot to symbolize sorrow for the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. In other words, on what is supposed to be the happiest day in the life of the couple, they stop, putting sorrow and longing for the Temple first. This is a powerful statement.
Thinking about the meaning of Tisha B’Av, this day of mourning, I am beginning to see, (or maybe feel is a better word) that this is symbolic of all our problems – Israel’s and those of the world.
The Foundation Stone of the world, the site of the Temple mount, is dominated by a mosque. It is known that active destruction of antiquities has been occurring since the Waqf was given control of the Temple Mount. Dr. Mordechai Kedar, (Department of Arabic, Bar-Ilan University) explains: “These actions are being carried out in the context of a practice known in Arabic as Tams al-ma’alem, an expression that means ‘erasing the signs’ in the sense of destroying the relics of all cultures that preceded Islam.”
Jews are allowed to enter the site of the Temple but ironically are not allowed to pray there. In fear of Moslem rioting, to avoid violence, Jews who enter the Temple Mount must not be heard praying or show any signs of prayer. If they bow to the Holy of Holies, they are escorted out of the site.
Imagine having other people in your home who, because they had been there for so long, you do not attempt to evict, but only request to share the space with them. Imagine being told that you are allowed to stand outside the back door, outside the cellar, that you can watch while others enter and leave, doing as they please in your home…
Secular Jews do not fast on Tisha B’Av and though most Israelis have visited the Kotel, only a minority has ascended the Temple Mount. The drifting away from putting Jerusalem above all other joys has significance that surpasses religion, encompasses history and has direct influence on our future.
The spiritual explanation says that ramifications of being disconnected or even barred from the source of the holiness of the world deeply impacts not only on the Jewish people but the entire planet as well.
History says that the cultural significance of Jerusalem and yearning for the Temple was a key factor in keeping the Jewish people intact over the centuries. When other nations rose and fell, the Nation of Israel remained, stubborn in their focus, insisting on returning to Israel and to Jerusalem – no matter how long it took or how much suffering was experienced along the way.
The Temple is what ties us to Jerusalem and Jerusalem is what ties us to Israel. Without either of these, we risk losing all.
This is an issue of priorities, of belonging, respect and freedom. These are magnified to extreme intensity here, at the navel of the world, but they have direct impact on the lives of all people, everywhere.