As Chatzot, midday, on Tisha b’Av arrives, the level of mourning drops. We no longer sit on the floor, Teffilin can now be worn (though we wait for Mincha to do so).
Why is this so? The answer given is even more intriguing that the original question. The answer is that at Chatzot the Temple started burning. Until then the Babylonians and Romans were fighting to get into the Temple, and then looting it. Finally, at Chatzot, they managed to set it alight (with Heavenly assistance).
Wait a minute, at Chatzot the Temple started burning! If so, the mourning should increase at Chatzot. The mourning has been built up gradually, from the 17th of Tammuz when the walls of Jerusalem were breached, until the 9th of Av when the Temple was destroyed. How is it then, that as we hit the climax, the Temple being destroyed, we relax our mourning. Is this not the time to mourn even more? What is going on here?
The Midrash (Lamentations 4:14) speaks about a chapter in Psalms (79) written by Assaf. This chapter begins with ‘A song of Assaf’s, G-d, the nations came into your inheritance (Israel), they defiled your holy Temple and turned Jerusalem into rubble…’ The Midrash asks what is meant by ‘A song of Assaf’s’, surely it would be more correct to begin with ‘A lamentation of Assaf’s’ or ‘A heartrending cry of Assaf’s’. How could this possibly be a song?
The Midrash answers that there was certainly a joy, a joy that G-d vented His anger on sticks and stones, by destroying the Temple, rather than on us, the Jewish people. There is therefore great joy in the fact that we were saved and the Temple was destroyed. This is why, although we are still mourning, although we are still fasting, at Chatzot, the time that the Temple started burning, we relax our mourning a little. We show that there was a silver lining inside this very dark cloud which still hangs over us. Although we have been in exile for almost two thousand years, at least we are still here to be in exile.
If this makes sense to you, very good, you can stop reading now! However, if this sounds a bit strange, please read on…
My personal feeling when I really thought about this explanation was one of total bewilderment. If we were talking about a person getting angry and needing to vent, then I can understand the feeling of relief when that person vents their anger on a punch bag and not on another person. However, here we are talking about G-d. He does not get angry like a human. He has no need to vent His anger. What can it possibly mean that He vented His anger on the Temple and not on us, the Jewish people?
To understand this, let’s look at a story where a great philosopher (possibly Plato) found the prophet Jeremiah crying over the destruction of the Temple. The philosopher asked Jeremiah why he was crying over something that happened in the past, as we say in English, there’s no use crying over spilt milk. Jeremiah responded by asking the philosopher if he had any hard questions he’d never managed to answer. The philosopher answered that yes, he did, but he was quite sure that no human could answer these questions. Jeremiah successfully answered all the questions. The philosopher was dumbfounded. Jeremiah explained that all this wisdom that he had, was attained from these very sticks and stones of the Temple that he was crying over. However that is not why he was crying over the Temple. The reason why he was crying, he explained, was too deep for a philosopher to understand.
When we look at this story, two thoughts cross our minds, firstly why is this not enough of a reason to cry over the loss of the Temple. Surely the loss of all future information that could be attained through the Temple is reason enough to cry. Secondly (or perhaps firstly) what was the reason that Jeremiah was crying, could we understand it?
The answer is, that the real reason he was crying was so important, that the loss of information that would result from the destruction of the Temple paled in comparison. So let’s try to understand the real reason Jeremiah cried.
There are certain things that must work together. For example, a container and its content must have some sort of correlation. One would not keep a strong acid in their china teacup. Nor would one serve tea in a container made for storing acid. Imagine what would happen if one had a strong acid, stored correctly in a container lined for that acid. One day the lining begins to disintegrate. There is now a danger of the acid seeping through the container. Therefore, the acid must be removed from the container, as if the acid is not removed, the container will dissolve in its contents.
Here is what Jeremiah understood and the philosopher could not. The Jewish people and the Temple are like a container and content. The Temple is the content of the Jewish people. It is from the Temple that we derived all our material, spiritual and mental wealth. The Temple provided for us, as long as we were a worthy container. When we slipt in our spirituality, we no longer deserved to be a container for the Temple. There was therefore only two ways that events could transpire, either the Temple would, like an acid, dissolve the container, and the Jewish people would be destroyed, or the Temple needed to be removed immediately, so that we could survive.
Jeremiah was not crying so much about the loss of the Temple, as about the loss of spirituality amongst the Jewish people. He was crying for what happened to us. He was crying for the catalyst of the Temple’s destruction, as opposed to the destruction itself.
Now we can understand the ‘anger’ that G-d poured onto the Temple. This was not anger as we understand it, rather it is a way of describing the reaction of the Temple and the Jewish people as a non-conforming container and content. It is not that He found a punch bag to let out on, rather like the fury of a storm or a chemical reaction, one of us, the Temple or the Jewish people, couldn’t survive. This was what G-d directed on the Temple. He plucked the Temple from within us, leaving us bereft, but able to survive, as we were no longer a malfunctioning container, as we had no content.
Let us hope that this is what Napoleon understood in the famous story where he heard many people crying. He sent a messenger to find out what was going on. When he heard that it was the Jews crying, he wanted to know what they were crying about. After hearing that it was for the destruction of the Temple, some 1,500 year beforehand, he exclaimed that if they are still crying, they will certainly get it back one day. We have not forgotten that we were once on a level where we deserved to be a container for the Temple. We also have not given up getting back this level. We are constantly hoping and wishing that we will get there again, and let’s hope that we do, very soon… Amen!